Future-Ready: A Conversation with Scott Looney, Part I

Preparing Students to Thrive in the Fourth Industrial Revolution

By Mark Greenlaw

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to interview Scott Looney, Head of School at Hawken School and Founder and Board Chair of the Mastery Transcript Consortium. The interview was for research we are conducting on the implications of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) and what schools should be doing to help students thrive in a future that will be shaped by the 4IR.

When I was seeking schools to interview for the piece, my colleague Ross Peters, EXPLO Elevate Vice President of School Strategy, said that I had to interview Scott for the report. Ross worked for Scott as Head of the Upper School at Hawken and knew of many of the innovative things Scott was doing at Hawken to help their students be future-ready. And Ross was right, Hawken is doing many incredible things, and we found the interview to be fascinating.

Below is Part I of the lightly edited transcript of our interview.


So my first question is, are you aware of the term Fourth Industrial Revolution and if so, please tell me in your own words your understanding of it?


It’s funny; I don’t know that I buy into the premise, but I like to think of it as the death of the true Industrial Revolution. And I tend to think of it more as the migration to the Information Age. This is my 15th year at Hawken, and I’ll probably be there till I retire, or my diet kills me. The first thing we did was rewrite the mission, and the first sentence of our mission is “forward-focused preparation for the real world.” That’s the guiding principle of the school now.

That means we are constantly scanning for what is coming and trying to adjust our game to prepare the kids for that, knowing that we’re preparing them for the world they’re supposed to be a part of, not the one that we have mastered. There are common elements that we can probably make a safe bet on, but there are things that were not part of our history that will be part of their future, and we have to educate to that.

Along the way, I, and most of my community, fell in love with the idea that actually the best forms of learning are the oldest and that the Industrial Revolution was actually the problem, not the solution. So I don’t like the term “fourth industrial revolution” because I think the Industrial Revolution did more harm to human learning and growth than anything in the history of humanity.

The beginning of the standardization model for education was when Cambridge University created the Latin grammar school model, which was really meant to transcribe the Bible literally and exactly.

Up until then, all humans learned the same way–the same way all mammals learned–which is the natural way through applied work in the real world under the supervision of a more experienced mammal that touches and guides.

In fact, that’s the only way that we’re biologically designed to learn. There haven’t been enough centuries for the evolution of our brain to catch up with the way we’re actually designed to learn, which is through doing, through trial and error. The key element of this whole model is a trusting relationship between a more knowledgeable mammal and a less knowledgeable mammal, and everything that gets in the way of that, and does not enhance that, is a problem. And I truly believe that.

One of the biggest problems that came out of the Industrial Revolution is cohorting people to learn — putting them in groups to learn the same thing at the same time.

That’s generally a terrible idea. And that’s still the model that almost all schools in the world are organized around. And it makes sense economically since it’s a very efficient model.

And the second efficiency that came with the industrial production model is organizing all the systems around the convenience of the adults who serve kids, not organizing around the needs of kids.

And so, as I think about the fourth industrial revolution or the information age, what excites me is that here’s an opportunity to reconnect kids to real-world, authentic learning for an authentic audience and to use Edtech as a way to spackle the cracks of knowledge necessary to do that work.

[Scott then shared a story of how he and his son built a recording studio by watching YouTube videos.]

So that [YouTube] demonstrates Ed Tech’s role: it’s real-time delivery of knowledge and various discrete skills for the application of applied work, towards a concrete goal of production of something. The difference between absorption and production is the fundamental organizing principle of education. Are you creating something? Are you producing something? And what is the utility of that something that you’re producing? And what’s your contribution to it? When you start reconnecting learning to those kinds of central questions, you take it right back to the pre-15th century way everybody learned everything.

And it also starts to argue for differentiation. Why does everybody have to learn everything?

Some people are particularly interested in and good at certain things, why can’t they spend a lot more time doing that. There are minimal competencies, so you aren’t an enfeebled citizen or an enfeebled member of society–there is a floor.

But shouldn’t we have structured the journey so that the way you spend your time in school and the way I spend my time in school is relatively different, because you might be a math, science, data analytics quant, and I might be a humanist?

And why do I have to spend time in calculus and physics? I’m never going to use them again. Ever. So instead of maximizing what could be my great gifts to the world, I spend a lot of time teaching myself I’m really stupid. At a kind of quantitative reasoning that isn’t interesting to me and isn’t ever going to be interesting. Why?

Nature differentiates mammals – actually, nature differentiates organisms – for a reason. The principles of evolution are really hard to argue with. And, you know, millions of years of trial and error is pretty effective. Things like ADD and OCD are considered in modern society as deficits. In a community of humans, they are absolutely not a deficit.

I have a wicked case of ADD, but it’s why I have extraordinary vision. My mind has more thoughts faster than most people’s. Now they’re not always what I want them to be, and they’re not linear. So, I’m a nonlinear thinker, but if you want me to predict the future for you, I’m way better at it than most people. Because I have thought about every possible future because that’s just what my head does, and should I take medicine for it so I can concentrate on something that I’m never going to use, that I’m really not very interested in, or, should I be in an environment where that kind of thinking, having extraordinary capacities for lateral thinking, is useful, and develop that into a superpower?

I tell kids all the time who are struggling in school, “let’s not worry about it.” What are you really good at when your brain is doing stuff that you’re proud of? What does it feel like, and what does it look like? There’s always something. Let’s use that to get you the other stuff you need.

I remember talking to this kid once who struggled with ADD, and I said, “can I ask you a couple of questions? Are you less surprised by your future than most of the people you know?”

“What do you mean?” he asked.

“When things happen, and everyone else is shocked, do you find yourself saying, ‘Yeah, I knew that was gonna happen?’” He says, “yes.”

I said, “Do you also have the capacity to see whole systems, to see how the things that seemed completely disconnected from each other are actually connected?”

He said, “yeah, but everybody can do that.”

“No [they can’t].”

That’s the upside of this problem: because they see things from multiple perspectives in great rapidity, people with ADD tend to be really strong systems thinkers.

They tend to be terrible project managers, complete disasters. I tell people, if you need me to sequence your work for you, you’re coming to the wrong guy. If you want me to tell you what it ought to look like when it’s done, I’m the right guy.

So that’s a long way of saying I think the future of education needs to be the modern tools applied to the oldest form of education that works everywhere in the world, which is applied learning towards a concrete, tangible product goal. Producing things in the world.

That’s why I think the Maker Movement has had such resonance with kids – they can learn physics, they can learn mathematics, they can learn teamwork, they can work collaboratively, they can learn how to power through frustration and failure, they can deal with ambiguity and uncertainty, the kinds of things that make them really useful because, frankly, there’s something they produce and they have something at stake. [Author’s note: I also interviewed Dale Dougherty, recognized as the father of the Maker Movement, for the research report.]

It’s the reason kids like performing arts; it’s the reason kids like athletics. They have to work hard to produce something that has an uncertain outcome. And when the outcome is positive, they get internal rewards. When it’s negative, they have to deal with that and hopefully use that as motivation to keep going. We do very little of that in traditional education. The place we do it most is in extracurriculars. We know that kids spend enormous hours learning at great depth, with no rewards, with no teacher feedback, other than the ones that they solicit. [Author’s note: Scott’s claim that the deepest learning often happens in extracurriculars is backed up by Jal Mehta and Sarah Fine in their book, In Search of Deeper Learning: The Quest to Remake the American High School.]

All these structures that we’ve created during the first industrial revolution were all for two reasons that have nothing to do with human growth: the convenience for adults and efficiency. When the world decided that we were going to take mass education up to the 12th grade level in most of the industrial world, where there are a lot more people, it was really, really expensive.

So we took the efficiencies built into industrial production methodology, and we applied it to these organic, uniquely-formed, differentiated species and treated them all the same for the next three centuries. And what we’re seeing now is we’ve created people who are completely replaceable by machines. We tried to turn them into machines back before the machines could do the stuff and now they’re completely replaceable. If it’s a repetitive task, the machine will be better at it, and probably already is.

That’s the messaging I’m giving: If it doesn’t require human emotion, human relations or complex, interconnected strategies that involve motivating other humans, a machine will be better at it than humans — it’s just a matter of time.


That’s aligned with our thinking. AI, machine learning, and other technologies are essentially making any task that requires simple low-level physical or cognitive skills, can be done by machines in the future. And with the extremely rapid pace of change, we don’t want to tell students to go learn a particular technology today. We don’t need them to become Machine Learning experts since in 10 years, there could be something new and different from Machine Learning that will be more important.

The main thing we are trying to focus on in this report is how you prepare for an extremely uncertain future. Futurists such as Yuval Noel Harari are writing about the incredible pace of change and the fact that we are very poor at predicting the future. So rather than focusing on developing specific hard skills, the report focuses on higher-level habits of mind or capabilities, such as developing a passion for lifelong learning, metacognition, learning how you learn best, and so on.


I think every time that the externalities around any species, including ours, have hit the exponential part of that curve, it’s created both extinction events and rapid evolution. I think we are in one of those moments. I’m old enough to remember typing papers, and not having access to the internet for information, and having to go to an expert or a library to learn things that were content-oriented.

So in my lifetime, there is a completely different relationship to knowledge and to other human understandings. One of the topics I’m really interested in right now is neuroplasticity in relation to technologies because there are some short-term ways our brain evolved without it being passed through genes. I do think there is something true and demonstrable in the way kids’ brains operate with repeated exposure to screen time and the way technology is used to judge themselves, to judge their understanding of the world, to find information.

It’s created a generation of kids who have no patience for knowledge search. None.

If it’s not easy to find, it must not be worth finding. That’s terrifying. You will have to “train the Google out of them” in order to get them to pursue deep knowledge and to realize that deep knowledge isn’t going to live in the first six pages of search results. We’re a forward-focus school, so this topic of What’s Next and what does that mean for learning has been a driving mechanism for change in our school. And we do a number of really atypical things compared to most schools, and that has been the framing justification for it.


Stay tuned for more of my fascinating conversation with Scott.