The Knowledge Age

The late 20th century was a period of major social, economic and political changes. It was also a time in which there were big changes in knowledge – in how people see knowledge and how they use it. This period is now widely known as the beginning of the Knowledge Age – to distinguish it from the Industrial Age.

The Knowledge Age is a new, advanced form of capitalism in which knowledge and ideas are the main source of economic growth (more important than land, labour, money, or other ‘tangible resources). New patterns of work and new business practices have developed, and, as a result, new kinds of workers, with new and different skills, are required.

As well as this (and this is very important for education), knowledge’s meaning is changing. Knowledge is no longer being thought of as ‘stuff’ that is developed (and stored) in the minds of experts, represented in books, and classified into disciplines. Instead, it is now thought of as being like a form of energy, as a system of networks and flows – something that does things, or makes things happen. Knowledge Age knowledge is defined—and valued—not for what it is, but for what it can do. It is produced, not by individual experts, but by ‘collectivising intelligence’ – that is, groups of people with complementary expertise who collaborate for specific purposes. These changes have major implications for our education system.

How did all this come about? Why does it matter?

Very briefly: in agrarian or pre-industrial times, most people mainly needed ‘know-how’ kinds of knowledge. They learned this knowledge by participating in the everyday life and work of their community. Most people had no formal education.

In Industrial Age (20th century) societies, on the other hand, people needed different, more abstract – or ‘know what’ – kinds of knowledge. Schools were set up to deliver this kind of knowledge to the young, and mass education began. In Industrial Age schools, trained professionals package “know what’ knowledge into a logical, controlled, cumulative sequence. Students are organized into age-related cohorts who receive this knowledge all together, in the same order, at the same pace. Industrial Age schools also teach social and citizenship skills. Students are disciplined to follow the rules and respect the authority of certain bodies of knowledge, and to follow the rules and respect authority in the society they live in. The schooling system is managed by a bureaucracy, set up to ensure the efficient and standardized functioning of all parts of the system. The efficiency of the system takes precedence over the needs of individual students. This one-size-fits-all system works reasonably well as a way of sorting people into the different kinds of worker-citizens needed by Industrial Age societies: however, it produces a great deal of ‘wastage’.

Post-Industrial – or Knowledge – Age (21st century) people also need ‘know what’ kinds of knowledge. However they need more than this. They need to be able to do things with this knowledge, to use it to create new knowledge. The ‘know-what’ kind of knowledge is still important, but not as an end in itself. Rather, it is a resource, something to learn (or think) with. In the Knowledge Age, change, not stability, is a given.

Knowledge Age worker-citizens need to be able to locate, assess, and represent new information quickly. They need to be able to communicate this to others, and to be able to work productively in collaborations with others. They need to be adaptable, creative and innovative, and to be able to understand things at a ‘systems’ or big picture’ level. Most importantly, they need to be to think and learn for themselves, sometimes with the help of external authorities and/or systems of rules, but, more often, without this help.

Because ‘know what’ and ‘know how’ kinds of knowledge have only a short shelf life, it is no longer viable to ask schools to ‘fill up’ students with all the knowledge they need beyond school. Nor is it viable to teach students any particular ‘one best way’ of knowing – or doing – things. Instead they need to teach students how to work out for themselves what to do.

Today’s schools are organized to produce Industrial Age worker-citizens. If schools are to prepare young people for successful lives in the 21st century, they need to do things differently. 21st century schools need to develop different skills and dispositions from those that were required in the 20th century.

This can’t be done simply by adding these ‘new’ skills and dispositions to the existing curriculum. Doing this would just add more to the already impossible workload of teachers, and it would not work to build a 21st century system. A new mindset is required, one that can take account of the new meaning of knowledge and the new contexts and purposes for learning this knowledge.

‘21st century learning’ is a shorthand term that draws together some of the ingredients of this new mindset. Read more about 21st century learning.

Click here for other sources/more information on all this. (Link to PowerPoint with commentary, and NZCER Press description of the Catching the Knowledge Wave book)

The changes outlined on this page are primarily economic and work-related. Education is, of course, about much more than simply preparing people for work. It has other important goals: for example, developing social and citizenship skills, providing equal opportunity, and building social cohesion. Expressed this way, these are 20th century goals. What might these goals look like in the 21st century context?

The shift to 21st century society involves much more than the economic changes outlined on this page – major social and political changes are also happening.

Click on the link to read more about some of the theories behind the shift to 21st century learning, or click one of the specific theories below.