Future-proofing is an inexact science. When I was growing up, I was intrigued by my grandfather’s ancient radio console that had a gaping hole in the middle, ready for if and when television was ever invented.
Of course, by the time TV came along it wasn’t a thing you attached to the wires of a radio. So future-proofing—preparing for a change you believe lies ahead—doesn’t always get it right. (Though Dick Tracy got close.)
But trying to prepare is at least better than ignoring the truth, which is that whatever seems shiny and new today, or at least normal and practical, will be laughably old-fashioned at some future date. That’s why if we want to future-proof young people, we have to re-evaluate what we consider a “solid education,” and think about the enduring skills that will serve them well even if communication, transportation, litigation, and all the other things that rhyme with “ation” turn out to be as different as an AppleWatch from a grandfather clock (or my grandfather’s radio).
So let’s mash-up what actual engineers have learned about future-proofing the physical world with what the world of childhood should be doing to prepare kids for a bright future.
What Is the Professional Definition of Future-Proofing?
“Future-proofing,” according to the Cambridge English Dictionary, is “to design software, a computer, etc., so that it can still be used in the future, even when technology changes.” The idea is that if you’re going to spend a lot of time and money on a new structure or machine, you don’t want to have to junk it like an eight-track tape player in a year.
Future-proofing kids requires a shift away from the current model of molding kids into good rule-followers, authority-seekers, and test-takers. Kids need opportunities to become resourceful and resilient. They can “re-purpose” their education if it teaches them not dates and formulas, but how to deal with disappointment, solve some problems, get group buy-in, and even cut loose. (“You’ll find the future where people are having the most fun,” said historian Steven Johnson.) An ideal education would also help kids learn to change their minds and ignore some discomfort.
A society that expects schools to send home a note every time a kid falls on the playground—as my kids’ public school did—should not be the direction we’re going. Treating today’s children as physically and emotionally fragile (not to mention always in danger of falling behind academically) is the opposite of future-proofing.
For example: kids who climb trees “dose” themselves with a bit more fear each time. They climb a little higher each time. They are acclimating to risk. Ground those kids and they’re safer from falling. But they’re less safe from a future that’s going to be, at times, scarier than any tree top.
Trying to prevent all childhood disappointment and discomfort doesn’t work; nor does trying to fill every waking moment with classes, homework, and adult-led activities. So here’s how engineers approach future-proofing, and how we can apply the same concepts to kids.
Learn to Adapt
In construction terms, this means using durable materials that can handle the elements. In human terms, it means kids learning to adapt to changing—even challenging—circumstances. This is something kids do all day long in play. When one kid says, “You guys are hogging the ball. I quit!” the others have to adapt to this disruption to keep the fun going. Eventually they do (you may hear some yelling) and the play goes on. Lesson? Kids need more time to play, argue, and work things out, without adult interference.
And since you will interfere when the yelling gets intense, make sure you are not even in earshot a lot of the time when they’re playing.
When confronted by an insult or hurt feelings, future-proofed kids may flinch, but they don’t fall apart. If we bring up kids telling them they are so fragile they could be permanently hurt by an unkind word or deed, we do them no favors. Future-proofing kids means letting them have some sub-optimal (not Dickensian!) experiences and discover that they are “rubber, not glue.”
By the way, the new practice of teaching that “sticks and stones may break my bones but words can break my heart” or “hurt forever” or even “kill” is about the least empowering chant ever. The old one—“Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me”—wasn’t actually about names not hurting. Gosh, have people gotten literal! It was about giving kids a way to reframe and reduce psychological pain so they could go forward—bent, not broken. That’s flexibility.
When we only focus kids on building their “college resume” skills and test scores they don’t have time to grow all the other interests that might serve them well. The hours a kid spends drawing, tinkering, or exploring might be more useful in the long run than four years of chess or test prep.
Another diversification point: with the professionalization of kids’ sports—now a $15 billion business—many kids are doing the same drills twelve months a year. They aren’t diversifying; they’re wearing themselves out. A website devoted to childhood injury prevention tells parents to have their kids take at least one day off a week from the sport they’re pursuing (https://healthychildren.org/English/health-issues/injuries-emergencies/sports-injuries/Pages/Sports-Injuries-Treatment.aspx). Just one day? That’s still insanely undiversified. By concentrating on a single sport, injuries once seen only in adult athletes are becoming common in kids (see https://www.mercurynews.com/2014/09/15/tommy-john-surgery-for-kids-youth-athletes-suffering-severe-adult-sports-injuries-at-alarming-rates/). The body needs to diversify its actions, too.
Every fall, you’ll see articles on the “summer slide”—the lament that whatever kids learned in school the previous year has evaporated like a popsicle on the sidewalk. But if so much of it disappeared—decayed—was it ever truly learned? Or was it simply stashed in the short-term memory until the day after the test?
The solution is to have lessons that stick, and as you can probably recall from your own childhood, what sticks is what matters to you. When information isn’t meaningful (phone numbers, for instance, now that we have smartphones), our brains don’t bother with it. To prevent decay, start to recognize the real learning that goes on when kids are self-directed. A few oddballs may practice quadratic equations all summer. Cool! But a lot more kids study batting averages, or how much lemonade mix makes how many gallons, without realizing this is math.
Start realizing this is math. Start realizing comic books = reading. Lawn mowing = maturity. Practicing free throws = perseverance. Kids are always learning when they’re engaged; and the converse is also true. Give them time for real-world engagement and what they learn won’t decay.
Nothing endures but change. Simply memorizing things that can be Googled is already obsolete. Learning how to come up with a new idea, create consensus, even banter—these are “non-robot skills” that won’t become obsolete, because the robots can’t do them. (Yet!) Kids need lots of non-lesson time. Let me beat this dead horse one more time (Neigghhhh!): kids need time to develop into humans, not into slightly less-efficient smartphones.
No one is going to sail through life without some setbacks. Kids are fortified when they are allowed to experience hundreds of scrapes, falls, and even betrayals, each one building another tiny layer of resilience. Giving kids trophies as if they’ve won when they’ve lost, or intervening in all arguments as if they can’t handle a spat—this takes away the opportunity to survive a minor setback, see that it’s not the end, and be fortified for the next.
Consider Life Cycle Benefits
To engineers, this means to consider what already exists in the built environment, rather than just tearing everything down and starting anew. When it comes to kids, consider what already exists when they are born: curiosity, sociability, resilience. Our kids come pre-equipped to take some risks and deal with some disappointments.
Our job, then, is to step back a bit and let our kids leap—and stumble—into the future.