Feature                                                   Pages 17-20


Future-Focused Leadership

Massive trends that should move us out of the trenches and into conversations about what lies ahead 


An interesting thing happened on the way to achieving our plan. The world changed!

A true story: It’s 9 o’clock on a Monday morning. My first day on the job. The scene is the superintendent’s office. Before the coffee has a chance to cool, my new boss, the superintendent of a 10,000-student Midwestern school district, leans forward and says, “You’re really good at a lot of things, but don’t get so busy with them that you don’t have time to think. We need your observations and your thinking to help us stay in touch.”

My cabinet-level position was executive director for communication. However, my job was to interpret the education system for society. At the same time, I was expected to help interpret society for the education system. I’ve always thought of it as completing the circle and, to the extent possible, creating a genuine sense that we’re all in this together.

Present and Future Tense

We live in a world rife with complexity and constant change. This time, it won’t go away. We can’t j

Marx Feature

In his book 21 Trends for the 21st Century, author Gary Marx exhorts school leaders to take the offensive rather than holding on to the status quo.

ust wait it out. Yet there are some of us who consider the growing demands and clamor for higher expectations as nothing more than distracting noise. Rather than trying to understand the exponentially increasing needs of society and taking the offensive, we too often rush to the defense.

All of us have known someone who has become entrenched trying to defend the status quo or fend off new ideas. Granted, some of the most important work we do is in the trenches, but let’s not dig them so deep that we lose touch with forces that have profound implications for the whole of society. It’s a big world out there — the one our students will inherit. It’s where our communities and schools exist. Together, we need to provide leadership for the future. Getting entrenched should be among the very top items on an education leader’s not-to-do list.

Public Impressions

Without a doubt, we are expected to be masters of detail. At the same time, we’d better be firmly connected to the big picture. If we understand trends and issues, people likely will tell us we’re in touch. On the other hand, if we don’t understand trends and emerging issues, our publics likely will get the impression that we’re out of touch.

Every future-focused leader faces a never-ending challenge: We need to make sure we see things in context. Perspective is essential. Think of it this way: A 5-year-old who is starting kindergarten in 2014 will be 65 in 2074. An 18-year-old high school graduate in June 2015 will turn 65 in about 2062.

The world is speaking to us, and we need to be listening.

That’s why I’ve written a series of trends books. The latest, Twenty-One Trends for the 21st Century … Out of the Trenches and into the Future, asks people in many walks of life, worldwide, to consider implications of those trends for whatever they do, wherever they are. In fact, these massive trends are among the things we all have in common. Dealing with them actually can bring people together in common purpose.

Selected Challenges

Let’s cherry-pick some of the heavy-duty challenges school system leaders face. Think about their implications for how we operate schools and what students need to know and be able to do as they lead us into the future in a fast-changing world.

Get ready for a reset.

As the Great Recession got underway, Jeff Immelt, CEO of General Electric, declared, “The economic crisis doesn’t represent a cycle. It represents a reset. It’s an emotional, social and economic reset.” He’s right. During the past few centuries, as we have emerged from turbulent economic crises, we’ve generally realized that our lifestyles and technologies had outgrown our infrastructure. It’s like putting a size 12 foot in a size 8 shoe.

The esteemed American Society of Civil Engineers does periodic studies on the condition of our physical infrastructure. As we hurtled into the Great Recession, they gave the condition of roads, bridges and other parts of the built environment a solid D.

Let’s not forget about our social infrastructure — education, health care and our environment. They are also in line for a reset. No one gets a free pass. Think about it historically. We created an education system for an Agricultural Age. We recreated it for an Industrial Age. Now, we’re moving into a Global Knowledge/Information Age, even an Age of Knowledge Creation and Breakthrough Thinking. It’s not just a subtle change, and we won’t be able to simply wait it out or ride our way into the future. We’ll have to invent our way into the future.

Demographic realities.

In the U.S., non-Hispanic whites are expected to fall below 50 percent of the total population by about 2043. For those who are 18 to 29 years old, this will happen by 2027. For those 18 and under, by 2018. For those 5 and under, during 2014. For those who are 1 and under, the transformation began in 2011. In numerous communities and some states, traditional minorities already have become more than 50 percent of the population. Remember our motto: E Pluribus Unum … Of the Many, One.

In 2011, baby boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, started hitting 65 at the rate of 10,000 a day. That phenomenon will continue for about 30 years. Then, in 2012, as if by some demographic magic, the oldest of the Millennials, born between 1982 and 2003, started turning 30.

Veteran teachers, administrators and school board members will continue to retire in droves. In turn, Millennials and members of Generation X, born between 1965 and 1981, are bringing a whole new style of leadership to every institution, including education.

Personalization, creativity and ingenuity.

We want everything to be tailor-made for us, from the clothes we wear to the collection of apps on our smartphones. There is not much doubt that our school curriculum will be aligned with our goals. However, pressure is growing for our goals to be aligned with individual students’ strengths and the fast-evolving needs of society.

Parents insist we personalize education for their children. Look for policy concerns ahead, directly connected to the groundbreaking work being done in neuroscience. Some parents will present teachers with fMRI scans and accompanying suggestions for motivating their kids in school.

Intelligence enhancements are already with us, from dietary supplements to pharmaceuticals that can help us focus. How are intellectual enhancements different from physical enhancements?

Any time, anywhere, any pace, any way.

A distinguished, international, 26-member Futures Council 21 provided advice and counsel in developing Twenty-One Trends. In essence, something like this observation kept coming up: Lifelong learning will move forward any time, anywhere, any pace, and any way. Is that a threat? No. A reality? Yes. We need to consider how it fits into our education plans, our curriculum, our instruction, our assignments and how we assess progress. Terrific educators, sometimes against significant odds, have taken on this challenge since before the first laptop powered up.


Depictions of Future-Focused Leadership

Catalog of 21 Trends

Testing and assessment.

Yes, we need assessments that help us improve education for every student. Yes, education systems need to be accountable. What we don’t need is a scoreboard mentality that puts education scores in the same league as football, baseball and soccer results.

Unfortunately, we sometimes narrow our focus to a few things that are easily tested and sure to make the front page. We become captives of the cognitive, and our goals become numbers or scores rather than fully educated people. We have our work cut out for us. Let’s help our communities better understand the benefits and limitations of testing.

For the most part, we need to assess for clues, not solely for conclusions. Learning doesn’t have a finish line. Education should always be a work in progress.

Future-focused leadership.

We know that polarization is eating our lunch. Thomas Friedman, the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist at The New York Times, has suggested we are so divided that the best we can hope for is suboptimal decisions that represent the average of all interest groups. What are the implications for leadership and for education?

While we need some vertical decision making to provide a steady hand and a sense of direction, leadership is becoming more horizontal. Collaboration is in, and if we embrace it, we can benefit from the ideas, experience and the ownership of everyone around us, whether they are educators or not.

A Convening Point

What can we do to shape our future? We might start by getting familiar with the 21 trends. Conduct future-oriented professional development programs, and make the future universal, a part of every agenda. Hold community conversations and pull together “futures councils” to tap a range of ideas and create a sense of ownership.

Ask everyone involved to consider implications of far-reaching, persistent trends for how we run our education system or our individual schools. Get these diverse groups engaged and energized by brainstorming what they think our students will need to know and be able to do to be prepared for the future. Extend that intense thinking to implications for economic growth and development and quality of life in our communities.

If we lead that effort, it’s likely that our education system will be seen as the crossroads and central convening point for the community. That’s future-focused leadership aimed squarely at creating an even brighter tomorrow. After all, our schools are of this world, not separate from it. n

Gary Marx, a former senior executive for communication at AASA, is president of the Center for Public Outreach in Vienna, Va. He is the author of Twenty-One Trends for the 21st Century…Out of the Trenches and into the Future (Education Week Press, 2014). E-mail: gmarxcpo@aol.com


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