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Preparing Students for a Lifelong Disruptive Future: The 60-Year Curriculum

The EvoLLLution | Preparing Students for a Lifelong Disruptive Future: The 60-Year Curriculum
Students may find that their “new normal” resembles what they experienced in quarantine: a curriculum oriented towards flexibility that supports not only day-to-day life disruptions but a majorly unstable and unknowable future.

The future will be quite different than the immediate past. We can anticipate a world-wide interdependent civilization shaped by economic turbulence from artificial intelligence and globalization, climate change, and advanced social and immersive media (Dede, 2018): what we are calling “the synergistic digital economy.” Although written before the pandemic, a just-published book, The 60-Year Curriculum: New Models for Lifelong Learning in the Digital Economy (Dede and Richards, 2020), describes the looming challenge/opportunity of a coming, epic half-century whose intensity of disruption will rival the historic period civilization faced from 1910-1960: two world wars, a global pandemic, a long-lasting economic depression and unceasing conflicts between capitalism and communism.

To fulfill their responsibilities in preparing students for a turbulent, disruptive future, educators at every level are now faced with developing young people’s capacity for ceaseless self-reinvention in an uncertain and changing workplace, and for inventing and mastering occupations that do not yet exist. Students must develop personal dispositions for “thriving on chaos”: creating new value, reconciling tensions and dilemmas, and assuming moral/ethical agency on equity and respect for diversity (OECD, 2018). To accomplish this, educators will need to impart and sustain knowledge and skills that are underemphasized in current curriculum standards, compartmentalized by institutions and omitted from today’s high-stakes summative tests: fluency of ideas, social perceptiveness, systems thinking, originality and conflict resolution (Bakhshi, Downing, Osborne, and Schneider, 2017).

After decades of delay, higher education finally has been spurred by necessity to enter the 21st century. However, we worry that the forced tactical migration to online education will end up as a waste of a crisis unless the response becomes strategic and embraces the forces of change and adaptation that have produced the synergistic digital economy in which education henceforth will take place. People believe they need additional resources to transform standard practices, but—when people have extra assets—they use these to do more of the same: old wine in new bottles.

Transformation comes primarily when people have no choice–when the current model cannot be sustained–and they must do something radically different. In our tactical responses to moving teaching online because of the pandemic, we have the strategic opportunity to develop a new model that blends higher and continuing education and realizes the potential of next-generation methods of instruction and assessment (National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, 2018) to focus on lifelong learning.

Dr. Gary Matkin at UC-Irvine coined the term “60-Year Curriculum” for this new perspective on instruction, oriented toward continuous education and centered on a lifetime of learning in the context of repeated occupational change and transition (Branon, 2018). This new model of learning, teaching, and “curriculum” overarches all the elements of educational experience–not only andragogy and educational content, but also services that sustain instructors and learners at multiple stages of lives and careers.

A new metaphor is needed for this novel model of learning and teaching that serves a lifelong need. Education previously adopted first factory and then office models of education, but these no longer apply (if they ever did). The metaphor for the 21st-century workplace of education is a global network, in which participants with multiple careers or “gigs” within each career reflect the shift from a centralized to a distributed workplace and from a role-based job to a consultant model of agency. The metaphor highlights a corresponding shift from centralized to distributed organizations and from pre-defined to ad hoc work. Students’ capacity to cope with rapid, unpredictable change in such a workplace and society throughout six decades of working life depends on instructors helping them to build and exercise 21st century skills across multiple domains of competency–not only during the university experience but in pre-K–12 and post-university experiences as well.

The student/worker functions as an entrepreneurial consultant who works simultaneously on multiple ad hoc teams with changing collaborators. The student consults in a variety of roles on multiple projects of the moment in a distributed environment. The model of the student’s mind is an agile network of data and processes. Learning takes place just in time, depends on underlying transferable skills, and relies on relevant content and processing tools being readily available.

The instructor/collaborator functions as a coach, providing continuity, perspective and methods. Performance assessment focuses on project deliverables. Preparation for a lifetime of such work requires developing the ability to learn continually and the capability to adapt to new and unpredictable situations. Consequently, education in the network era requires a 60-year curriculum that employs an andragogy combining collaborative tactical problem-solving with the strategic objective of developing transferable competencies—interpersonal, intrapersonal, and cognitive.

Moving existing face-to-face classes to Zoom Meetings was merely a tactical response to crisis. The pandemic is simply accelerating an already existing trend of moving to online learning that removes artificial, residential and temporal constraints on courses and utilizes instructional platforms that achieve immersion and enable open agency. The resulting hybrid 60-year curriculum makes it possible for learners, instructors, and institutions to establish and sustain six-decade-long relationships. To realize this vision, our book describes models from higher and continuing education that address how conventional courses and degrees will adapt to serve the “new normal,” a world in which life-long interactions between students and educational providers evolve to a lifelong relationship centered on upskilling and capacity building.



Bakhshi, Hasan, Downing, Jonathan, Osborne, Michael, and Schneider, Philippe. 2017. The future of skills: Employment in 2030. London, England: Pearson and Nesta. 

Branon, Rovy. 2018. Learning for a lifetime. Inside Higher Ed. November 16, 2018. 

Dede, Chris. 2018. The 60 Year curriculum: Developing new educational models to support the agile labor market. The EvoLLLution. October 19, 2018.

Dede, Chris and Richards, John (Eds.). 2020. The 60-Year curriculum: New models for lifelong learning in the digital economy. New York, NY: Routledge.

National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2018. How people learn II: Learners, contexts, and cultures. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. 2018. The future of education and skills: Education 2030