DAMARISCOTTA — Our middle son recently completed his first of what will likely be two SAT sittings. Each sitting takes four hours, with only two five-minute breaks.

As he emerged from the testing center, his physical and emotional exhaustion was evident, as was his utter relief at being released from the pressure of test preparation – at least for a short while.

Accompanying our son through this marathon cycle of preparation and testing reinforced questions I have been contending with for some time.

Are students learning the right kind of knowledge for this century? Do we as a country have even a reasonable grasp of the knowledge needs of this century? Are we capable of integrating those knowledge needs into schools, colleges and universities?

Do we know how to situate learning experiences in school and non-school environments in coordinated ways to support students of all ages in a 21st-century world? Do we know how to assess student preparedness to engage in the workforce of this century? Do we know how to prepare teachers for a 21st-century world?

Many of us have difficulty answering “yes” to any of these questions, and this is troubling.

We are now situated in a new era, defined by rapid knowledge generation, innovative applications of knowledge and an increasing reliance on powerful digital communications formats. Information and knowledge defines this particular century in particular ways.

A growing percentage of the workforce is engaged in some aspect of global and interdisciplinary problem-solving.

They’re chipping away at complex issues ranging from human diseases to aging infrastructure, from climate to food production, from advancing human rights around the globe to solving issues of poverty and inequality in local contexts.

We are in an era that is producing marvelous new products that enrich and even extend our lives, while flooding us with information on all imaginable topics and challenging us to figure out the local-to-global interface. This, in a nutshell, is our reality.

Our current conundrum about what and how we learn in the midst of enormous societal shifts is not unfamiliar. The Industrial Revolution included accelerated societal, economic and technological shifts, resulting in transformative changes.

Education took on new forms in response to new knowledge and skill needs, bringing about unparalleled recognition of the close coupling of education, the economy and civic literacy. Public schools, colleges and universities were the result.

So how do we get our collective arms around the shift from the Industrial Revolution to a Knowledge Age? What are the types of knowledge best suited to the intellectual, workforce and civic demands of this still-young, but rapidly evolving century?

What may need to change across learning environments – public, independent and charter schools, colleges and universities – as well as museums, science and technology centers, online environments, workforce training centers and post-retirement learning options? What are the common threads?

Here are several anchoring points to consider:

• Textbook knowledge has lost utility. The process of figuring stuff out through repeated practice in different contexts is needed. Adaptable knowledge is on par with academic knowledge.

• Think recycling. In this new age, existing ideas and existing knowledge are merged into a product, a solution or a process that is entirely new.

• Rethink time and setting. Contrary to our current factory model of schooling parsed by timed instructional units, it takes really extended periods of time to become practiced and self-directed at using knowledge to figure out ideas, tasks and potential solutions.

• Learning and working, education and the workforce should be aligned in mutually reinforcing ways. We will be participating in both for the long haul.

• The “soft skills” are ascending in importance. Learning and working in the climate of innovation require leadership, humility, collaboration, adaptability and purposefulness. The ability to work in groups is as necessary as the ability to work as a self-directed individual.

Yes, these anchoring points are incomplete, yet they’re instructive in glimpsing this new normal. Learning in a 21st-century world is a ubiquitous force.

While we are making some gains in identifying the appropriate knowledge, tools, wisdom, diversity of learning contexts and specific skills to advance our state and our world, we are woefully behind in knowing how to integrate these elements into early learning, K-12, post-secondary or continuing education.

The enactment of new designs for learning the knowledge and skills needed for this century awaits the absolute best thinking we can muster.

— Special to the Press Herald