adaptivity

I’m intrigued with Douglas Rushkoff’s new book called Present Shock. As a disclaimer, I’ve only just begun, but several of the points he makes early on about the perils and potential of technology’s exponentially escalating impact on us, resonate strongly. He posits that while during most of, and certainly the end of the 20th century, we were focused on the future, we are now equally obsessed with the now: “Our society has reoriented itself to the present moment. Everything is live, real-time and always on. It’s not a mere speeding up, however much our lifestyles and technologies have accelerated the rate at which we attempt to do things. It’s more a diminishment of anything that isn’t happening right now – and the onslaught of everything that supposedly is.” (p2)

At exalt, we are well aware of the disconnect between our students and history. I’ve been troubled by it for years – the disintegration of the tendrils between them and their/our collective past. I believe it’s a key part of what allows them to drift further and further away from the educational mainstream, often winding up in prison. They have a visceral sense of a history of oppression, but without knowledge about slavery, the Civil Rights movement, the birth of the War on Drugs, they lack the explanatory narrative that helps illuminate the underlying factors of why their families have been trapped in multi-generational poverty and disenfranchisement. They don’t see, let alone feel, the irony of their disdain for education – that the story of Frederick Douglass is not just a tired, distant tale from an era they would rather shun, but a mirror into which they are rarely asked to look into.

So while we don’t offer a traditional history course at exalt, we stress the importance of it, and strategically weave in examples of its relationship to students’ current status in the criminal justice system so its power speaks for itself. We know that didactic lectures, dry books with accumulations of facts, and standardized tests are precisely what drive our students away from school. We have to find a way to make history meaningful and relevant to their now.

The rate at which our students’ disconnect from history grows follows the pace at which everything is speeding up. Within just a year, we (exaltstaff) are no longer even shocked when students don’t know who Martin Luther King, Jr. is. Whether our reaction shift is a manifestation of pragmatic complacence, or nimble adapativity is what’s key. For exalt, it’s the latter. The importance of the ability to adapt our approach to how we work with our students – including adjusting both content and pedagogy - is paramount to any possibility of changing the trajectory of their lives, and is increasingly paramount to how we collectively address education for all our young people.

Back to Douglas Rushkoff for a moment. One of his points that’s been marinating in my mind is how we (are/will) confront and respond to the shift in how our minds function when they increasingly do not have to remember (history) and thus the entire framework of narratives as we’ve known them breaks down.

“Mid-twentieth century computing visionaries .. dreamed of developing machines that could do our remembering for us. Computers would free us from the tyranny of the past .. allowing us to forget everything and devote our minds to solving the problems of today. The information would still be there, it would simply be stored out of body, in a machine.

It’s a tribute to both their designs on the future and their devotion to the past that they succeeded in their quest to free up the present to the burdens of memory. We have, in a sense, been allowed to dedicate much more of our cognitive resources to active RAM than to maintaining our cerebral-storage hard drives.” (p5)

So here we sit in the midst of paradoxes:

• We know that we need to be able to adapt to meet the rapidly changing way our students’ see and experience the world, and how their brains even process information. (More than one of our students has summed up their chronic truancy by simply saying “why go when you can learn everything they teach on Google?”) Yet, despite Douglas’ poignant point above, we are still requiring students to pass Regents exams in NY to graduate high school – tests that largely require them to regurgitate memorized facts.

• We know that we need to be able to adapt to how students’ minds (attention spans, cognitive functioning, means of understanding the world and solving problems) change at increasingly rapid rates. Yet, we are obsessed with ensuring that all models for working with today’s young people are “evidence based” – i.e. based on information from a past that becomes more distant from the now each and every day.

We will always have to grapple with the messiness of determining (much less proving) how effective any intervention or attempt is at changing someone’s life. But it seems that we would serve ourselves well to recognize that like it or not, we’ve unleashed change from virtually any temporal restraints. This means even our beloved goal of “grow and scale” gets cast in a new light. Because the “it” that we want to grow and scale, will necessarily need to evolve as we’re scaling.

exalt may be relatively small and still pretty young and even at times seem stubborn for clinging to ideals that may externally seem immutable. But really, we’re quietly and steadily paying attention to all of these shifts, and are dedicated to continuously learning so that we can be adaptive enough to move with today’s and tomorrow’s young people. Successful adaptation, like anything, requires balance. Just like Rushkoff argues, we too believe that effectiveness (in business, education, life) necessitates drawing from old and new, slow and fast, past and present: adaptivity.

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Executive Director

Executive Director