9 Principles to Design the Future of Learning

This article was originally published by Canay Atalay on  on the Human Works website.

A technological tsunami will revolutionise our next 20 years at an exponential rate. The concept of a “100-year life” will become the norm. With the majority of that spent studying and working, learning will be a lot more important in an accelerating way. Most people will have at least six different careers, requiring fundamental reeducating, whilst the relentless speed of innovation will constantly demand new skills and knowledge to keep pace. A report by the World Economic Forum reveals that almost 65 per cent of the jobs elementary school students will be doing in the future do not even exist yet.

‘How can we prepare ourselves and our children for such a future?

We need a radical shift and a complete redesign. Many concepts and practices of learning systems based on industrial age values are not only useless but also destructive i.e. ‘Lecturing’ concept. As Sal Khan, founder of Khan Academy states in his Ted Talk, it is ‘A fundamentally dehumanising experience – 30 kids with their fingers on their lips, not allowed to interact with each other’, which takes five hours on average for children at school. Sir Ken Robinson’s video from 2010, is unfortunately even more relevant today, laying out the link between three troubling trends: rising drop-out rates, schools’ dwindling stake in the arts, and ADHD.

We are getting more addicted to technology and screens on a massive scale, and research shows that it has a fundamental impact on how we learn, from deprivation of deep thinking, empathy and imagination to increased obesity and depression.

‘How can we organise learning to create meaningful futures?’

With $100-million startups like Kernel planning to put chips into our brains to enhance intelligence, the rise of brain-machine interface companies like Elon Musk’s Neuralink, and Stephen Hawking’s warning to humanity about AI, we know that learning and understanding about new technology is essential for all of us, maybe with a life or death significance. How we can expand our understanding about learning and design technologies to enhance them? Or, as Douglas C. Engelbart himself preferred the notion of augmented intelligence in 1962, how can we use technology to advance our distinctly human capabilities?

Learning is not only a tool but also a permanent value in our personal, business and societal lives. As John Dewey said ― “Education is a social process; education is growth; education is not preparation for life but is life itself.” It is crucial to develop new mindsets, systems and tools according to these drastically different perspectives.

Nine Design principles for Humanist Future of Learning

In Human Works Design, we use ‘Design Principles for Humanist Future of Learning’ to move from a centuries-old Industrial-age structural-model towards a more human, sustainable, dynamic, open and networked-model:


Photo by Alice Achterhof on Unsplash

1. Meaning & Passion

The endless possibilities of technology have the promise of the New Renaissance: the human designing herself. The goal of our life will be to reach ever-deeper levels of wisdom and knowledge. The most important to know is why you need something, knowledge or skill. As Human Works Design’s co-founder, Futurist Rudy de Waele and philosopher, Socratic Design model creator Humberto Schwab stated in their ‘Learning to Live (on the Future of Learning) article; “Learning to live meaningfully” will become the deepest goals of all. We will want to “improve” ourselves, not to function as machines (they’ll do better anyway) but as aesthetic and ethical creative artists of life.

Valuable learnings from each company can form guidelines for other companies and communities to do greater good, like Patagonia Tools for Grassroots Activists, Unicef and Lego’s Partnership for ‘Play’. These learnings can help to apply best cases in our businesses too, such as Zappos Culture Camp, Google’s Employee to Employee Learning program re:Work.

Learning can also be a recruitment model for training new applicants to learn about the culture of the company, like Zappos Hiring for Culture process. It can also be a social impact model like the Samasource Digital Basics learning program, which aims to equip marginalised women and youth with the skills, confidence, and support they need to secure a living-wage job.

What to Do? Enable your communities to discover their passions and learn how to live meaningful lives with the impact we might be creating in their lives and environment. Companies and schools should take full responsibility for how they are shaping the lives of their communities, and forming ideas. Some example scenarios;

  • A social media company providing a learning program about conscious posting (unlike Facebook, act before it becomes a crisis!)
  • A bank enabling clients to redefine what is wealth beyond just money and grow themselves in areas such as physical health, quality time with loved ones, contribution.
  • A tourism agency/ flight company, creating awareness and educating about carbon emissions, giving a chance to travel consciously with an online service like MyClimate.

Once you have your vision, design ways to use technology to make our impact more open, efficient, faster, cheaper and scalable.

2. Exponential Learning

We need to switch from ‘I know it all’ to ‘I can learn it all’ attitude. Human innovation starts with disrupting our own assumptions, moving to virginal thinking not individually but collectively. We need to break free from old assumptions and thought addictions in schools and organisations. It is essential to realise and understand about our human coding, to recode ourselves for desired futures before we start coding AI. This requires a re-design of our way of thinking and self-awareness within both our interactions and our organisations.

We use Socratic Designa practical philosophical method – to innovate individual and collective thinking as an embodied experience, which leads to ‘collective emerging wisdom’ where the real human exponentiality occurs.

Photo by SpaceX on Unsplash

What to Do? Think of ways to remove the barriers in the way of learning. They can be a wide set of things from company/school procedures, rituals to key performance indicators, even the language used. For example, why do we still use ‘Human resources’ instead of naming them ‘Human Innovation’ departments, which emphasises humanity and deemphasises people as a resource?

3. Creative and Authentic Learning

Creativity will become one of the top three skills we need. As creativity is becoming the primary creator of economic value, we will jump from the paradigm of “knowledge transfer” to the makers’ paradigm of “creating knowledge in a new ecology of mind”.

Thanks to technology, we also no longer need to memorise most of the information we used to. Then why do we ask students to memorise, as Graham Brown-Martin suggests: why not to simply allow them to take exams with their connected devices and ask them to focus on the creative challenges?

Language apps like Babbel and Duolingo demonstrate creative new ways of learning new languages. iCivics is an online learning platform for children to learn civics with play: they can run for president, pass new laws and argue real cases!

What to Do? Focus on multi-disciplinary thinking and encourage learners to be involved in creative processes as active doers and problem solvers. To offset the familiarity of learning programs, try new environments and settings. Nature is always inspiring and even changing temperature or lighting in the room can make a big difference. Try new ecosystem partnerships with artists, students or entrepreneurs, and learn from nature (biomimicry). Apply methods like design thinking and gamification in designing your learning programs.

4. Personalised Learning

Autonomy and self-control are increasingly valued, especially for new generations. We want to learn according to our interest, on the channels and the resources we chose and at our own pace. Existing services like social media created the expectation of similar experiences in other areas of our lives and businesses. That’s why we see the role of teachers shifting from ‘lecturing’ to ‘guiding’, and ‘curation’ of content for personalised needs becoming an essential need for all of us, as the amount of content available online increases with more connectivity and users becoming content creators.

Fully-personalised learning requires a well-trained, large number of educators and a flexible, non-linear curriculum to be realised. Unlike today’s rigid solutions, new developments in design & technology generate promising new paths. Immersive education in conjunction with A.I. has the potential to supercharge education and pave the road for fully automated personalised learning. You can be taught by Socrates, Rumi, Marie Curie, Neil DeGrasse Tyson or Einstein himself— all while creating interactive lectures based on your personal profile. For now, we are experimenting blocks of personalisation with innovative projects like Newsela – which focuses on reading engagement – or Panopto, an all-in-one video platform.

What to Do? Understand the needs of your learners. Start designing blended programs with physical access to knowledge, existing online learning tools like Slack and Basecamp. Consider future technologies to evaluate and redirect learners’ personal progress and choice.

5. Communal Learning

Learning together and from each other. Peer to peer learning will dominate, teachers’ roles will be more as facilitators; of communities built around shared learning and aspiration. Each person has a chance to dialogue with other community members and to create knowledge. Most of all, one learns in a social and cultural context, it is about collective values in an empathetic sphere. Quick, Draw! is a great example of a simplified learning tool that can trigger not only users but also Google employees to learn together in their experimentation with AI.

What to Do? Design for learners to learn from each other, from different locations, expertise, interests and skillsets. Include your employees, users and other stakeholders in the learning processes. Provide new flexible roles to switch between being a learner and a facilitator. Bring in new experts, best cases and ways to share learning. Endorse communal learning in your culture with motivating factors and rituals.

6. Learning by Doing

We will be active in making our schools, businesses, societies and cities – not as comfort ends but as active playing fields for personal growth. Using the gifts of technology, following the example of startups like The Body VR, Medivis, Universe Sandbox or tech giants like Microsoft Hololens and Oculus Rift, we can create new experiential learning experiences.

What to Do? Engage learners to join to your processes to learn and grow themselves. Encourage experimentation, embrace curiosity. Turn mistakes into a natural part of the learning process, rather than grounds for punishment.

7. Assessment as Learning

Most data collected about learning is indirect, inauthentic, lacking demonstrable reliability or validity, and reflects unrealistic retention timelines. We need to move from ‘Assessment for/of Learning’ to ‘Assessment as Learning’. Assessment as Learning is the use of on-going self-assessment by learners in order to monitor their own learning. This is characterised by students reflecting on their own learning and making adjustments so that they achieve deeper understanding.

Do you assess your employees, students and communities with the aim of enabling learning? Or do you focus on eliminating unsuccessful people and practices based on your rigid set assumptions and KPIs for execution (not innovation)? If you start your assessment design with Why do we measure?’ and ‘How will this measurement help to learn better?’ it will not only make your process more effective and impactful, it will also increase the loyalty of your communities and attract new talents who want to set their own personal goals and advocate for their own learning.

Last year, I lectured two classes in Bilgi University’s MBA program about ‘Entrepreneurship’. At the year-end, I asked my students to evaluate themselves based on guidelines I designed for them and prepare a roadmap to further their own learning. Many students struggled to think for themselves without an authority figure telling them what to do. Most of the students experienced taking full responsibility in the class environment for the first time, as entrepreneurs should do! They gave their own marks and 10% failed themselves to repeat the course.

What to Do? Ask ‘What should ideal graduates know?’ ‘How should they be able to use what they know?’ ‘What will this knowledge do for them?’ Plan with the end in mind and design new assessments both for the learner’s performance and how effectively the learning community is allowing the learner to flourish. This assessment should be executed from the beginning and during the whole journey, to become more impactful. Keep it in mind that these are questions requiring human intelligence. AI can only provide answers to the questions we ask it and collect the information accordingly.

8. Empower

The future of learning is about empowering people, fostering autonomy and collaboration. Imagine a learning environment where ‘Learners chose what they want to learn and how, democratic self-management, without comparison to others, tests or grades.’ A good education is now priced as a luxury, operating a societal winner-takes-all market economy. Free services like Khan Academy (40 Million students, 2 Million teachers every month) and Duolingo (200 Million users, 25 Million monthly actives) bring the digital revolution to new heights. All the costs we face today slowly shift into the digital realm, where everything is cheap, knowledge is abundant and all learners can be universally and continuously connected in improved learning systems.

For highly-debated new technologies like AI, there has been rising concern questioning what Silicon Valley is planning for humanity. So maybe this new collaboration is good news for us: Onnx (Open Neural Network Exchange Format) is a new community project with the collaboration of Microsoft, Facebook, Amazon, AMD, Huawei, Intel and Arm. Onnx allows AI developers to easily move models between state-of-the-art tools and choose the combination that is best for them.

What to Do? Encourage (design, code, use, work for, buy, vote for, invest in) learning programs and platforms that empower people and aim for the sustainable wellbeing of humanity and the planet. Get involved in the experiments and learning of programs and technologies that matter to your business and communities.

9. ‘Child-Like’ Learning

The basic assumption of most of the learning systems we design is ‘People learn when they are forced.’ That’s why we reward learning with good marks and punish failure. The truth is just the opposite. We are all wired to enjoy learning naturally. Children are great role models for adults to save themselves from the following:

Photo by Austin Nicomedez on Unsplash

First, after years of toxication in poorly designed learning and performance systems, many adults forget the joy of learning, which costs us our creativity and the power of dreaming. Second, as we grow we have more beliefs that can turn into prejudices, clouding our observation and blocking our potential for innovation. We lose our curiosity. Third, most of us have a tendency to be too cautious to try new things, which is the real risk in an exponentially-changing world.

These are some of the reasons why children – as natural-born learners – can remind adults: Learning is actually a joyous experience, dreaming freely, connecting to our own flow and our environment, noticing small details matter, we can jump feet-first into unknown waters.

What to Do? Question the basic assumptions of your learning programs; remove the toxicity of forced or monitored learning and focus on the joy of learning. Practice learning with play, in your families and businesses. Gamify your programs. Model (and design with) children to come up with joyful learning experiences. Dream more, find your passion and hold on to it.

Final Word

Remember what Carl Sagan said: “Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.” Harness the brain and body’s joy of learning new things that will leave you with something of permanent value, in a way that neither drugs, money, social media nor video games ever could. Learning a lasting skill that is meaningful for you leaves you with a sense of fulfilment or Abraham Maslow’s self-actualisation.

This is not crucial only for our personal and business lives but also for our children. We are all responsible for passing on systems, services and products that will flourish the natural joy of learning in our children. It is time to create a new breeding ground so they may become true culture-makers, agents of change for technology and in human learning and design processes. As Ken Robinson puts it beautifully: ‘Every day, everywhere, our children are spreading their dreams beneath our feet. We should tread gently.’

This is the time to take significant steps in releasing old patterns that have blocked our progress, take a detour from our usual rational routes that disappointed us and our children. Let’s be more open to higher-level insights and synchronise with our true potential. With the unlimited richness of children’s dreams, we can use learning as a powerful tool to create sustainable human development and flourish. As conscious leaders in companies, schools, communities, governments and families, it’s our responsibility to design meaningful futures, for and together with children of this world, the game changers of tomorrow.

With love and gratitude,

Canay AtalayCo-Founder, Human Works Design


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