If you’re finding it challenging to keep up with all the changes going on around us, you’re not alone. We are experiencing an unprecedented amount and rate of change stimulated by technological development and globalization.

Learning is Mandatory

In his 2017 book, The Inevitable: 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future, Kevin Kelly observes that in this era, regardless of age or experience, we will all be “endless newbies.” You just finally figured out how to use your software, and it’s made obsolete or requires a significant upgrade with the introduction of a new operating system, product, or some other “improvement.”

Kelly goes on to say, “When we imagine a better future, we should factor in this constant discomfort.” So if you thought you were done with learning when you got your diploma or consider “lifelong learning” to be just a trendy aspiration, think again. It looks like futurist Alvin Toffler was right on track when he predicted, “The illiterate of the twenty-first century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”

Constant learning is now mandatory. Get used to it. And get good at.

What Human Learning Looks Like in the 21st Century

Not only is constant learning necessary in this era, we need to update our concept of learning. In earlier times, formal learning largely entailed taking in (and often, memorizing) new information. Now, machines are able to gather and process unfathomable amounts of information almost instantaneously. Trying to literally keep up with the machine will be futile and pointless.

Can you just not bother, then, with traditional knowledge-gathering and memorization? Not exactly. “Hmmm. If memorization is irrelevant to complex problem solving, don’t tell your neurosurgeon.,” learning experts Brown, Roediger, and MacDaniel suggest in their 2017 book, Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. And you will still need to know the rules of the road to pass your driver’s test—at least for as long as humans drive cars.

Higher-Level Human Learning

We’ll continue to need to be able to assimilate information and master complex skills. In fact, we’ll have to do it more skillfully and swiftly to parallel the speed of change. But as technology continues to evolve, much of the learning we’ll need will involve higher-level thinking and uniquely human skills. Here are 7 types of learning that will become essential:

Learning to Partner with Technology

With developments in robotics, artificial intelligence, and other technologies, we are just beginning to see a whole new range of possibilities of how technology might increase our capacities and productivity. For tech specialists, this will present both vast opportunity and the endless requirement to keep updating and upgrading their technical skills. For all of us, it will entail developing enough technical savvy to be able to access and combine technical capabilities with the best of human skills and thinking. We’ll also need to be able to address new types of legal, ethical, and policy issues that will certainly arise alongside technological progress.

Learning to Discover

Information is and will be plentiful. The more consequential factor will be learning to ask good questions—questions that matter, questions that lead to discovery and solutions.

Learning to Adapt

As technology evolves, we will continue to experience sweeping change in many aspects of our lives, work, markets, institutions, and society. Human evolution will favor those who learn to watch the trends, adapt, and leverage new opportunities.

Learning to Cultivate Human Talent

As much physical and routine work continues to be taken over by robots and software, we will be free to explore and exercise more of our human capacities. Futurist John Naisbitt’s prediction is likely to transpire: “The most exciting breakthrough of the twenty-first century will not occur because of technology, but of an expanding concept of what it means to be human.” We will have new impetus to learn how to most effectively use our human “operating system.”

Learning to Create

In his 2002 book, The Rise of the Creative Class, Richard Florida first identified an emerging influential class of workers, the “Creative Class”—those who “think for a living.” This growing class includes not only artists and others we immediately think of as “creative,” but also engineers, scientists, educators, businesspeople, managers and specialists whose roles involve complex problem-solving and communication. In this era, we’ll be faced with increasing opportunity and need to create systems, processes, services, products, and organizations in response to massive change. This requires a different type of thinking and a different set of skills than most of us have been taught and encouraged to use in traditional education and business.

Learning to Access Resources

Technology and globalization have made it possible to access new realms of information and resources. Learners all over the globe can now access courses from the world’s top universities through MOOC (massive open online course) sites such as Coursera. Sites such as LinkedIn make it possible to locate and connect with worldwide talent. Open source software and projects open the field for collaborators. Crowdfunding sites lower the barriers for entrepreneurs. Faced with these kinds of opportunities, we’ll need to learn to identify, choose, access, use, evaluate, and cull appropriate resources.

Learning to Connect and Collaborate

As information explodes, fields overlap, new specialties emerge, workplaces and markets become more diverse, and the complexity of many problems we face increases, we’ll need to upgrade our collaboration skills. (Yes, in many fields it’s likely we’ll have to learn to collaborate with robot colleagues as well.) We’ll need to continue to update and upgrade communication skills to parallel new communication methods and reach wider, more diverse audiences. We’ll need to learn to connect and access the best from a greater range of specialists, colleagues, and customers.

Implications for Learners

For learners (that is, all of us), it all adds up to this:

  • We’ll need to be learning continually—updating, upgrading, and acquiring new skills.
  • We’ll need to be cultivating higher-level thinking skills and uniquely human skills, as well as developing additional technological competence.
  • We’ll have easier access to learning resources and opportunities.

To set yourself up to thrive in 21st century, what will you need to learn?


©New Century Leadership LLC 2017