Surfing the Third Wave

by | May 1, 2017

To surf the third wave, the internet of everything, begin with these four, required skill sets.

Words by Beth R. Holland

In the 1980s, futurist Alvin Toffler spoke of the advent of a third wave. He argued that the first wave occurred at the end of the stone age and ushered in the Agricultural revolution. As humans discovered ways to farm the land and increase their production of food, it led to new “wealth” in terms of larger food supplies and created the demand for new tools and shifted society from nomadic tribes to aggregated communities.

However, with the drive to produce more food and resources to support an agricultural economy, humans ultimately developed machines. Toffler explains that the second wave brought the industrial revolution complete with the rise of assembly lines, mass transportation, and an influx of consumer goods. Where the first wave focused on building community and the tools to support it, the second addressed the mass content being produced and consumed. From this, a new need emerged: to train workers for an industrial society.

It should not be a surprise that mass education emerged as a result of the mass economy from the second wave. Age-based tracking, standardized practices, compartmentalized curriculum, and an accountability system to “process” students via standardized assessments continue to influence the ways in which schools are run today. Mass education supported the need to create more mass consumers and mass producers.

Toffler described the third wave as an Information Age where computerization would change the ways in which we live, work, and communicate.  However, he crafted his vision in the 1980s when the Internet was in its infancy and computers had just transformed from mainframes to desktops. In 2016, America Online (AOL) founder Steve Case extended Toffler’s work describing the third wave as the internet of everything – an era where everything and everyone would possess the ability to be connected via the Internet. So how do we educate a society destined to improve the world in the third wave within a system created for the second?

What will it take to successfully surf the third wave? As educators, I think that we need to instill four key skill sets in our students to help them stay afloat.


The exponential rate of change with technology means that our students require an entirely new set of literacies and fluencies. In their paper, Dancing with Robots, economists Levy and Murnane define the critical skills of the knowledge economy: analyzing and synthesizing new information, seeking out and solving unstructured problems, as well as communicating and collaborating across distance and time. They argue that technology skills far surpass the mechanics of using a device or the ability to code an app, and should address the capacity to “harness the routine capabilities of computers to perform non-routine tasks” (Autor, Levy, & Murnane, 2003).

Technology discussions in schools often focus on devices (iPad or Chromebook?), scope-and-sequence (in what order should students learn “tech skills”?), and classroom management with devices (what if they are off task?). To surf the third wave, students will need literacy and fluency skills. They need to understand how to choose the best tool to seek out and solve a problem. Instead of coding something to perform a discrete task, they need to comprehend the connotations of coding language so that they can design new tools and apps that previously could not have been conceivable. Much like we teach children to speak, read, and write such that they can communicate both orally and in text, we need our students to have the literacy and fluency of technology so that they can design new products, communicate in new ways, and make sense of the abundance of information now available through the internet of everything.

2.Creativity and Critical Thinking

At the turn of the century, the Partnership for 21st Century Skills defined the critical skills of the 21st Century as the 4C’s: Creativity, Critical Thinking, Communication, and Collaboration. Many schools and districts have focused on the latter two Cs – communication and collaboration – as they are easier to implement in practice.

However, the former remain elusive within the existing system of school. In a 2005 Scientific American article, Ulrich Kraft defined creativity and creative problem solving as a voyage of discovery where “Fresh solutions result from disassembling and reassembling the building blocks in an infinite number of ways.” Some education skeptics may argue that these skills cannot be taught absent a uniform body of content. This comment hearkens back to comments from Steve Case, that the second wave (which created the education system) focused on content instead of context and community. However, Kraft explains that creativity not only includes dexterity with the blocks but also a profound understanding of the blocks themselves. In other words, divergent thinking and creativity require a domain of knowledge and the routine expertise to implement it.

3.Knowledge Building

In 1994, Scardamalia and Bereiter created Knowledge Forum – a computer supported intentional learning environment (CSILE). They viewed technology as a means to construct new knowledge. By creating a digital platform that facilitated dialog within classrooms and across buildings, they hoped to support intentional learning to reorganize schools from silos based on grade-levels or content areas to knowledge-building communities that included a range of experts and learners.

In much the same way as farming tools and the need to support the community served as cornerstones of the first wave, deeper understanding and knowledge construction exist as the nucleus for the global communities in the third. Harvard professor David Weinberger echoes these sentiments on a more global scale. He argues that as knowledge becomes networked, intelligence lies in the connections between the physical, the digital, and the individuals within it. Collective wisdom becomes inseparable from the network that created it and the goal then becomes how to create smarter, more knowledgeable spaces. Students need to recognize their role in collaborating and constructing new knowledge; and even more important, teachers need to recognize that their role is in cultivating the expertise of their learning community.


With this knowledge, creativity, and technology comes the ethical imperative to use it for the betterment of community and society. Too often, we compartmentalize conversations about ethics and speak of them either with regards to the digital or physical worlds. Schools describe their “digital citizenship” programs and “technology acceptable use policies.” However, the third wave will blur the lines between these two spheres of influence and require a new set of conversations that span beyond just discussion of devices.

New ethical questions that students may need to tackle could include:

  • Are you using machines or are they using you?
  • What is the definition of privacy given the ubiquity of data now publicly available?
  • Should we allow computers to become “smarter” than humans?

These larger questions transcend discussion of digital citizenship and use of cellphones in class. Will students be able to creatively and critically think through these challenges and then build new knowledge and understanding within their communities?

According to educational researchers Collins and Halverson (2010), few systems have impacted the structures of schools as much digital technologies. They challenge existing norms such as age-grading and curriculum sequencing, directly contradicting many of the elements on which schools base their identities. Further, the immediacy and ubiquity of access to information allows anyone to become a learner from any place, at any time, and from anyone. This flies in the face of the current school system built on the notion of a fixed amount of knowledge disseminated by a single teacher acting as the sole expert in the room. While the education system of the second wave served us well for the first hundred years, the third wave is cresting and our students now need to surf a new kind of wave.

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