Tim Holt’s 10 Questions: ‘Future Wise’ Author Dr. David Perkins

Everyone that reads this column knows that – on occasion – I like to interview authors of books that I think my readers should give consideration to. One such book is Future Wise: Educating Our Children for a Changing World by Dr. David Perkins

From the publisher:

How to teach big understandings and the ideas that matter most. Everyone has an opinion about education, and teachers face pressures from Common Core content standards, high-stakes testing, and countless other directions. But how do we know what today’s learners will really need to know in the future? Future Wise: Educating Our Children for a Changing World is a toolkit for approaching that question with new insight. There is no one answer to the question of what’s worth teaching, but with the tools in this book, you’ll be one step closer to constructing a curriculum that prepares students for whatever situations they might face in the future.

The idea of what we should teach vs. what we do teach really intrigues me, and I appreciate Dr. Perkins for giving up some of his valuable time to answer a few questions. Please enjoy the conversation below.

Give us the 5000 foot view of Future Wise. What was your inspiration to write it?

For decades, I’ve worried that much of what we teach K-12 contributes little to the lives of learners. I remember publishing a short article many years ago on the theme “Quadratic Education” with the general theme that the typical curriculum is overstuffed with canonical elements like the quadratic equation that most students never use for anything.

When talking to groups, I have a favorite activity: I ask people how many studied quadratic equations, and almost all hands go up. Then I ask how many have used quadratic equations in the last 10 years, and most of the hands go down. Then I ask how many have used quadratic equations in the last 10 years outside of an educational context, and maybe there’s one hand left.

Then I ask the same questions about basic statistics and probability. Far fewer people indicate studying basic statistics and probability during K-12, but almost everyone signals they have needed to make use of such knowledge in the last 10 years, knowledge which they acquired later.

So why do we teach quadratic equations much more than basic statistics and probability? Sometimes a math teacher gets mad at me about this, thinking I’m against math. Actually, my degrees are in mathematics and artificial intelligence from MIT. I believe that some areas of mathematics are tremendously important for most learners – like basic statistics and probability.

Personally, I greatly enjoyed quadratic equations, and I feel that schools should always feed students’ passions. However, Future Wise isn’t about individual talents and enthusiasms…it’s about what’s going to contribute to the lives of most learners.

Early on in the book, you make the connection between the famous “Why do we need to know this?” question to the much deeper “What is worth learning?” (I think you call it “Lifeworthy.”) Hasn’t education been asking that question, “What is worth learning” for a long time? We don’t seem to come up with a standard answer. Lifeworthy in Texas seems to be different than in Massachusetts. Should we even be trying to answer that?

Yes indeed, education has been asking the “What is worth learning” question for a long time…but not answering it very well! If you look at typical K-12 curricula, the “quadratic equation” problem shows up in any discipline.

A great deal of what’s usually taught doesn’t have anywhere to go in the lives of most learners. It’s just “there because it is there,” part of the traditional canon of learning and conventional expectations. So is there a single answer for what’s lifeworthy? No! Future Wise argues emphatically that curricula should differ somewhat according to context.

However, this can’t be a free-for-all, everything different everywhere! Strong literacy and numeracy skills are going to be significant for almost everyone in the contemporary world. Topics like elementary statistics and probability, aspects of biology and health science, features of basic economics, understandings of human nature from psychology and literature and art, and much more, are going to be important for almost everyone. Beyond such matters, there will be regional differences.

Choices about what’s taught need to be sensitive both to what has a general role in the lives most learners will live and what has regional significance reflecting local histories, cultures, economies, and so on. Choices also can reflect schools with special commitments. For instance, it makes much more sense for students in a science-oriented magnet school to study quadratic equations deeply than students in a general purpose secondary school.

You have an interesting quote in the Chapter “Learning Agendas” which states “Basic education should build expert amateurism more than expertise.”  What do you mean by that?

Secondary school curricula in particular, especially in elite schools, lead the more able students toward “junior expertise.” AP courses are one way of reaching for this – AP calculus, biology, history, and so on.

Future Wise argues that for many students this is a misplaced priority. For instance, a robust flexible applicable understanding of basic probability and statistics is much more important for the lives most people will lead than a “junior expert” understanding of more advanced aspects of probability and statistics. Someone might object, “Well, those who advance to junior expertise already have that robust flexible understanding of the basics.”

Research from the learning sciences says otherwise. Understanding of the basics as typically taught generally proves to be rather brittle, subject to misconceptions and not transferring very well to contexts of application beyond the problems at the end of the chapter. K-12 education needs to go deeper to foster expert amateurism rather than further to foster junior expertise. It’s a better investment for students and for society at large.

You make the strong argument, I think, for interdisciplinary curricula, and making connections between learning and the larger picture of a life well lived. Yet, when students matriculate to post secondary schools, they often find themselves in colleges of this or that which seem to go back to the idea that there is what I am getting my degree in and then there is everything else. Is it howling at the moon to expect only K12 to make these curriculum type changes?

I absolutely think that Future Wise applies at the college level, and many college programs lean that way. However, how far to go is a tricky question with room for different answers in different settings. In college, education for some kind of a career becomes a paramount concern for most students, however broad their interests.

Different colleges strike the balance in different ways, and different nations and cultures sustain different expectations. The precollege case for a more lifeworthy curriculum seems to me starkly clear. At the college level I’m still hopeful, but what balance to strike becomes more complicated.

Let’s pretend you are King of K12 Curricula. What would you outlaw? What would you make mandatory? Would you do the same in post secondary classes as well?

“Outlaw” and “mandatory” are strong words, and personally I tend to shun absolutes. Recall how my favorite bad-guy quadratic equations would have a good-guy place in a science magnet school. If I want to outlaw anything, it would be at the process level. I’d outlaw “business as usual.” I’d outlaw “We’ll teach that topic this year because we taught it last year and the year before.”

If I made anything mandatory, it would be a probing conversation among teachers and school leaders and other stakeholders about what’s lifeworthy for their setting and why. Those conversations are important at the post-secondary level as well, although even more complicated as noted.

Do you think the current movement towards Project Based and its sibling Problem Based learning in K12 is a step in the right direction towards teaching students to get the “big understanding” or do you see that as another educational fad?

Problem Based and Project Based learning are methodologies, not curricular choices. As methodologies, they have considerable value for fostering deep learning and motivating learners. Future Wise touches on this passingly and a previous book of mine, Making Learning Whole, more fully. Of course, we have to beware of magic bullets. As with all methodologies, Project Based and Problem Based learning have characteristic pitfalls we need to dodge.

However, in no way do Project Based and Problem-based learning as methodologies squarely address what’s worth learning. It’s perfectly possible to take topics with very little life-worthiness and dress them up in Project-Based or Problem-Based learning. The topics may be learned more deeply, to but to what end?

You talk about the “relevance gap,” which is the space between what students are learning and what they need to know. As educators, we often hear the phrase that we are “teaching students for jobs that do not yet exist.” How can educators make informed decisions about relevance when they hear that phrase over and over?

Just because we don’t know everything doesn’t mean we know nothing. We may not know what the jobs that “do not yet exist” will be, but we know that basic actionable understandings in areas like thinking skills, economics, human nature, and so on, are going to be important. We certainly know that navigating new technologies, understanding political tensions, engaging civic themes responsibly, and managing health and environment are going to be important. There’s plenty to teach that almost certainly is lifeworthy.

You are a professor at Harvard, one of the most prestigious universities in the world. How are your classes “lifeworthy?” 

Actually, I am emeritus at this point, although still very active on projects and writing. When I was teaching, I sought to cultivate understandings that students could map into the lives they lived. For instance, one of my principal courses, Cognition and the Art of Instruction, addressed how cognitive science informed learning designs. The course engaged students in personally chosen design projects where they translated course ideas into practical contexts meaningful to them. In some cases, students went on later to implement those ideas.

You are (one of several) Principal Investigator (and former Co-Director) in Project Zero, which originally was started to connect learning and the arts. What is the connection between Future Wise and Project Zero?

The ideas in Future Wise evolved through my work at Project Zero, especially work on thinking skills and on a model of teaching for understanding that emphasizes what is learned alongside how. Today, as it has for many years, Project Zero undertakes multiple projects cutting across the disciplines and also addressing other settings, such as learning in business, government, and museums.

The original focus on connecting learning and the arts remains a prominent strand. It’s what drew me to Project Zero and the first place. Although a math major, I also had strong interests in the arts. I feel that the arts have an important place in lifeworthy learning. A meaningful life in almost any culture has some pattern of significant artistic and aesthetic engagement, even if as only as an audience member, and the arts are channels of insight about culture, history, empathy, perspective, and more.

I always like to end with this question:  Who is listening and how do you know?

I get occasional fan mail about Future Wise from teachers and school leaders and even parents, often from beyond the United States. I’ve shared the ideas from Future Wise in many settings home and abroad, both before and after the publication of the book. People seem generally quite engaged, posing questions and reaching for follow-up discussions. I receive more invitations than I can accept. Also, multiple projects at Project Zero one way or another have intersected with the ideas in Future Wise and it’s always been easy to find educators to participate in these. All this is encouraging.

Really though, I like to ask not so much who is listening to me as what’s the larger conversation in education. I’m more hopeful today about the general direction of that conversation than I was 10 or 15 years ago. There is a general trend to stand back rethink curricula, include 21st century skills, foreground global rather than just local and regional themes, foster interdisciplinary studies, and more. Certainly Future Wise did not cause those trends, but Future Wise contributes to them, and I’m happy for that!

Future Wise is available on iTunes Bookstore  |  Amazon  |   Barnes and Noble  |  Project Zero website

About David Perkins:

David Perkins is the Carl H. Pforzheimer, Jr., Research Professor of Teaching and Learning at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, recently retired from the Senior Faculty. He has conducted long-term programs of research and development in the areas of teaching and learning for understanding, creativity, problem-solving and reasoning in the arts, sciences, and everyday life. He has also studied the role of educational technologies in teaching and learning, and has designed learning structures and strategies in organizations to facilitate personal and organizational understanding and intelligence.

David Perkins received his Ph.D. in mathematics and artificial intelligence from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1970. As a graduate student he also was a founding member of Harvard Project Zero at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He co-directed Project Zero for nearly 30 years, and now serves as senior co-director on its steering committee.

His most recent book, published by Jossey-Bass in Fall 2014, is Future Wise: Educating our Children for a Changing World. His Making Learning Whole (Jossey-Bass, 2008) shares an approach to organizing learning around full meaningful endeavors.

He is the author of The Mind’s Best Work on creativity (Harvard University Press, 1981), The Eureka Effect on creativity (Norton, 2001), Smart Schools on pedagogy and school development (The Free Press, 1992), Outsmarting IQ on intelligence and its cultivation (The Free Press, 1995), Knowledge as Design on teaching and learning for understanding (Erlbaum, 1986), The Intelligent Eye on learning to think through the arts (Getty, 1994), King Arthur’s Round Table: How Collaborative Conversations Create Smart Organizations (Wiley, 2003), and has co-authored and co-edited several other books, as well as publishing many articles.


Author: Tim Holt is an educator and writer, with over 33 years experience in education and opines on education-related topics here and on his own award-winning blog: HoltThink. He values your feedback.

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