“It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change” – Charles Darwin

J. Rotmans (2017). Omwenteling, van mensen, organisaties en samenleving. Amsterdam: De Arbeiderspers.

A century ago people lived in a turbulent time, with many changes. The industrial revolution caused social shifts, resulting in many changes that we still reap the benefits from. This turbulent time created a society that was led top-down by the state. Society was organised on the basis of religious and philosophical principles. In 2018, this compartmentalisation and state-leadership have lost their legitimacy. There is a clearly defined need for an alternative arrangement. This is due to the changes that occurred in the meantime, including political upheavals in the West and the East, with Europe caught in the middle. At the same time, we are faced with changes in the field of energy and raw materials. It is clear that the transition from coal and oil to solar and wind power and biomass is in full swing. Also, we are seeing an increasing financial and social inequality, which affects the lower and middle classes in particular. Digitisation and robotisation are causing concerns about job security. The industrial revolution’s main evil is man-made climate change. Man plays a key role in shaping the earth and also is responsible for the damage that has been done to that earth during the past century. In Omwenteling (Transition), Rotmans poignantly describes the phase that we are in at the moment, as well as the consequences of the previous century’s developments for people, organisations and society. A wonderful, hopeful book.

The earlier shifts are currently leading to a major transition, that is taking place as we speak. There is a general need for something new, just like a century ago. People are becoming aware of the fact that we can no longer continue in the same way. New values and forms of solidarity are being created. Autonomy based on mutual support, trust, freedom, room for exploration, self-development and co-creation are becoming increasingly important, taking the place of power, individualism and a focus on high incomes The current controlling systems (e.g. the municipal system) no longer are able to cater for their critical citizens’ needs. There is a general distrust of large companies, banks and the public sector.

Fortunately, worldwide more and more groups are taking matters into their own hands, aiming to create a better society. Established organisations generally find this hard to deal with. Rotmans has coined a wonderful phrase to describe of the current changes: Ahead to the past.

He uses this phrase to indicate that many people sense that the end of this society is near. On the one hand, people are nostalgic for the past, the simplicity, calm and trust. On the other hand, they want progress, which is only natural. Going all the way back to the past is not an option, too much has changed in the meantime. But merely going forward is also impossible, the problems are too deep-seated for that. So: ahead to the past it is…. Don’t think of your own wellbeing, but consistently try to create a better society. This can be done by using smart technology to restore confidence, to heal our earth and to solve the problems we are facing right now.

It is characteristic for the current societal changes that they are bottom-up, starting locally. This is illustrated by a wide range of civil society initiatives. The transition originates at grass-root level, making its way up, but at the same time is restricted by current legislation and regulations. It is clear that there is a need for smart laws and regulations that suit our society as it is now. A striking example is the existing waste legislation, that makes it difficult for companies to use waste as raw material.

Gradually we are confronted with disruptions in all societal aspects. Take for instance WhatsApp or 3D printing technique. Disruptions are a method to create a better, more sustainable and fairer society, Rotmans argues.

How should organisations react to these turbulent times? They should have a structure that is no longer vertical, but horizontal, no longer hierarchical, but organic, no longer rigid but flexible. Flexible companies forego overhead costs, have a keen eye for people’s hidden needs, operate with diversity-based multidisciplinary teams and take confidence as their guiding principle. All these qualities are needed in order to be able to adjust to today’s flexible society. This means that transformation is essential for organisations and that they need transformative leaders.

Rotmans, a transformative leader himself, defines these leaders. They reflect on their own person, their way of thinking and their actions. They try to acknowledge their fear of radical change and to overcome this fear. Start at micro-level, inspired by an ideal and from there, develop a change strategy. In these turbulent times, leaders should display and create calm. Stimulate a form in which learning, searching and experimenting are essential factors and in which mistakes are permitted.

Education is lagging hopelessly behind in these changes. Today’s society as well as the future society make new demands, that much is clear. Education is the essential link in the shift in economy and society. “Many students are still being trained to be little automatons, they are not flexible and resilient”, Rotmans says. They are trained to work in professions that probably will have ceased to exist in twenty years’ time. This new economy requires knowledge and skills that differ from what our current education has to offer. Multi- and interdisciplinary training and development, thinking and working together are essential. Communication skills, critical thinking, being able to interpret the abundant knowledge: these are abilities that will really benefit students. The focus no longer is on accumulating knowledge, but rather on sharing knowledge. We should prepare our students for continuous change, not for stability. Learning-working-acting should be at the heart of every school. We fail to teach our students that it is fine to make mistakes, that you learn from your mistakes. As soon as schools start making this transition, their dynamics will change as well. The eyes of students and teachers will shine with hope and motivation. Rather than focusing on self-reliance, autonomy based on mutual support, focusing on both the personal and the collective aspect, should be prioritised. This is quite a list of essential qualities and I have promoted this list before. Here, I promote it once more. It is important that school management, school leaders and teachers should continue to strive for this transformation. Students who are not equipped with the afore-mentioned skills, will surely suffer the negative consequences later in life. There is a need for leaders who are able to implement this transformation, who do not only think in a new way, but who also act in a new way. Obviously, there are other sectors where a similar shift is required, but in the education sector is particularly rigid: here, change is crucial. Which disruptions does the education sector need in order to bring about a transformation?

Yes, ahead to the past it is, in education too. On the one hand education professionals are nostalgic for confidence, stability, calm and simplicity. On the other hand, there is a genuine desire for something new, and we cannot avoid digital developments and personalised learning. I would like to end this article with Rotmans’ apt description of this situation:

‘We treat all students unequally’. This is the motto of a school I visited. ‘For if all students are treated equally, this results in inequality.’ This convoluted logic hits the target: to treat all students unequally means that for each student an individual learning pathway is developed, aimed at bringing out the best in him or her. Personalised education is the future. Learning from one another and learning together will remain an important part of education; this means that the role of the group is essential.

Is your school working on a change towards a form of education that prepares students for this new type of society, and would assistance be appreciated? You can contact me at info@goedonderwijs.com