Reframing Education for the Long Now (Part III) Leveraging pace layer strategies for system change in education

This article is Part Three of a four-part series, Reframing Education for the Long Now, based on insights from the Long Now Educators Workshop on August 1, 02017, hosted by the Long Now Foundation and KnowledgeWorks Foundation.

Long Now Educators Workshop, August 01, 02017.

As explored earlier in this series, the pace layer framework honors the messiness of society and provides a tool for revealing apparent contradictions across societal domains in ways that create opportunities to shift systemic interactions toward long-term health. As a tool for understanding such complexity, the pace layers offer a useful lens for identifying strategies for system change in education.

The total effect of the pace layers is that they provide a many-leveled corrective, stabilizing the negative feedback throughout the system. It is precisely in the apparent contradictions of pace that civilization finds its surest health.
— Stewart Brand, Long Now Foundation Founder

The various layers and their distinct paces of change reveal interests and interconnected relationships that emerge when different domains of civilization interact. Each pace layer offers a distinct perspective for developing strategies and interventions with the potential to trigger actions and responses across stakeholder groups. Brand suggests that, if we want long-term change, we need to engage the slow layers and pay attention to dynamics when layers intersect.

Source: The Clock of the Long Now: Time and Responsibility, Stewart Brand, 1999.

As we find ourselves with a very dominant commerce layer shaping the direction of change in education, how might the pace layers provide inspiration for creating an education system that is a robust intellectual infrastructure for our society?

A pace layer perspective offers a way to frame questions that help us focus on interactions across stakeholders and over time. For example, in education, we can ask:

  • How we might we leverage the distinct pace and job of each pace layer to contribute strategies for bringing positive transformation to education?
  • How might interventions at one layer engage the other layers in contributing toward positive system change in education?
  • Are there actions we could take that would lengthen the “now” in education and help us think in terms of generations and centuries, instead of months and years?

These general pace layer questions serve as a guide for more specific questions that help explore and uncover new stakeholder actions and relationships to drive systemic change.

What if teachers were supported as disruptors to drive the creative churn of new ideas and innovations in education?

What could it look like if teachers led and drove creative, disruptive education research and design? Online collaborative platforms such as The Teachers Guild provides one form of support for teachers as designers of collaborative solutions to education challenges. How might we harness the fashion-art layer to make educator-centered innovation the driver of education research? What strategies might leverage the attention-grabbing possibilities of this layer to grow the public image of teachers as designers and innovators of learning experiences?

Chance The Rapper attends XQ Super School Live, presented by EIF, at Barker Hangar on September 8, 02017 in Santa California.

The recent XQ Superschool red carpet launch of their reimagine high school initiative on primetime television is one example. Building upon that, what might an award show for educators look like? What are other ways that schools of education, districts, and communities might partner at the fashion-art layer to support and recognize teachers as drivers of innovation and design? How might such a partnership need to be supported at the infrastructure and governance layers to be sustainable?

What if educational technologies and resources were predominantly open source, with its development and testing done via collaborative, peer-production communities for feedback and improvement?

Commerce is about exchange among people to create value — it helps sort and filter the abundance from the fashion-art layer. What kinds of collaborative platforms could expand development and testing to broaden access to new educational technologies, ideas, and resources among educators? Open educational resource platforms, like OER Commons with its OpenAuthor tool, lets teachers develop and share curriculum, assessments, and other instructional materials. This type of platform and community of teacher “peer developers” could expand to become a platform for testing, feedback and iteration of new open source tools and applications.

A graph describing the evolution of OER.

Crowdsourced, collaborative design communities, like Open IDEO share data and ideas to generate feedback on innovations and on solutions to design challenges. How might these approaches expand to develop a more open source, peer development approach for innovating new school models, assessments, and education policy? How might new platforms for exchange bring education stakeholders together to revitalize education research and development and innovation to support a culture of change? What would it take to shift education to a culture of openness?

How might a responsive education infrastructure support dynamic teaching and learning ecosystems?

Infrastructure is intimately linked to governance and culture as these slower layers must justify the longer slower investment required to sustain infrastructures. What might education look like if it were modeled after the nature layer? How might ecological concepts such as resilience and adaptive cycles reframe our thinking about equity and shift our time frame to make metrics less punitive? How might the government pace layer support education in becoming more unbundled and more integrated within geographic communities? What might stewardship of a learning ecosystem look like? How might a diverse range of stakeholders manage a portfolio of public and private, in-school and out-of-school learning options that shared a common vision? How might a learning ecosystem respond and adapt to change?

How might we reinvigorate the conversation about the purpose of public education?

As explored earlier, commerce currently controls much of the narrative about the purpose of education. Driven by the uncertainty of future work, the purpose of education has shifted over the decades from its fundamental role of preserving and facilitating democracy to fueling the employment sector. As a result, the benefits of learning accrue to the individual and not necessarily to society. How might education change if we uncoupled notions of success from labor force participation? We’ve already seen GDP grow without an expansion of labor due to widespread application of digital automation and augmentation and other labor-saving or labor-replacing technologies in workplaces. What purpose might be served by education if the economy were to become much more automated? How might we “lengthen the now,” as Stewart Brand puts it, in our thinking about education to cultivate systemic goals and approaches that link individual gain to collective health? Looking even further down the pace layers, how might we link education to nature to create aspirations for education that serve both humanity and the planet?


Taking a pace layer perspective to examine and strategize about long-term transformation in education offers multiple ways to frame intention, outcomes, and metrics. In a sense, taking a pace layer perspective helps relieve the pressure on education decision-makers to solve everything immediately. Some interventions, such as a shift in pedagogy, learning space, or assessment strategy may take years, while changes to education structures, leadership and governance models and learning cultures may take decades.

Using the pace layers allows us to slow down and take the long view. Hopefully, this lengthening of perspective may calm some of the anxiety around education reform and transformation, help stakeholders operating at different layers empathize with one another and lead to sustainable solutions that support the ultimate success and wellbeing of all students.


The next, and final, blog post will reflect on the potential benefits of the pace layers as a tool for cultivating a long now mindset for education.

Reframing Education for the Long Now: Education as Intellectual Infrastructure


Long Now Educators Workshop, August 01, 02017.

This article was previously posted on Medium. It is Part Two of a four-part series, Reframing Education for the Long Now, based on insights from the Long Now Educators Workshop on August 1, 02017, hosted by the Long Now Foundation and KnowledgeWorks Foundation.

Looking at education through the lens of the pace layer framework provides several insights about the dynamic of education as intellectual infrastructure in the U.S., and where long-term transformation might emerge. In The Clock of the Long Now (01999), Stewart Brand describes education as intellectual infrastructure, situating it in the middle of the pace layers.

The Pace Layers diagram at Long Now Educators workshop, August 1, 02017.

There it is bracketed by the turbulent, questioning, and disruptive forces of fashion and commerce on one side, and by the stabilizing constraints and forces of constancy and preservation from governance, culture, and nature on the other. In this middle pace layer position, infrastructure is capable of moderately-paced change — which should be measured in decades. As a form of intellectual infrastructure, education is well-positioned to take advantage of both the rapid testing of new ideas and approaches from the fast layers and the ability of the slower layers to purposefully integrate selected, meaningful disruptions.

As intellectual infrastructure, education represents society’s approach to developing its future generations with the purpose of ensuring its sustainability. It is society’s platform for developing its people — its human creativity and acumen—which in turn feeds the faster layers of fashion and commerce and supports the stability of slower layers of governance, culture, and nature.

The challenge of education as society’s intellectual infrastructure is to provide reliability and effectiveness to its constituents. That means being receptive to the propositions from fashion-art and commerce layers, even sometimes encouraging disruption and shock, while also seeking continuity and holding to society’s deeper values and principles. Any form of infrastructure requires large investment to do its job well, producing high but delayed payout over future decades. As Brand reminds us, societies need to be able to span these delays of payout and reward:

Hasty societies that cannot span these delays will lose out over time to societies that can. On the other hand, cultures too hidebound to allow education to advance at an infrastructural pace also lose out.

— Stewart Brand, The Clock of the Long Now: Time and Responsibility (01999).

This is the delicate dance of education as intellectual infrastructure: to cultivate societal patience in order to set innovation free and to use deep purpose to filter and integrate disruptive propositions in ways that make education more relevant to new societal circumstances.

The Effectiveness of the Slow Layers for Education Transformation in Finland

Finland seems to be striking this balance well, with culture and governance acting in partnership with educators to guide and evaluate innovation in schools at a steady pace. Its current adaptive innovation is intended to enable more fluid, integrated learning. That approach combines open-space layouts for learning environments with multi-age learning cohorts and the elimination of rigid disciplinary boundaries between subjects.

A Finnish school. Source: Kuvatoimisto Kuvio Oy

The approach is built on trusting educators and students. It allows teachers to drive curriculum, rather than follow a standard set curriculum. The benefit is the ability to effectively create ways to integrate competency development freely across subject matter and collaborate across grade levels to create higher-level thinking and multidisciplinary learning experiences. Students navigate physical spaces and social groupings to support their own learning. To effectively implement and achieve the benefits of this innovation, Finnish educators have broader society’s trust.

The kind of freedom Finnish teachers enjoy comes from the underlying faith the culture puts in them from the start, and it’s the exact kind of faith American teachers lack.

—Chris Weller, Business Insider

Operating at the infrastructure pace layer, Finnish teachers drive change in the education system with the support of the culture layer and enabling structures established by the governance layer. In the U.S., the culture layer has become fragmented with competing narratives about the value and purpose of education creating churn at the infrastructure layer that the governance layer struggles to help manage.

Pace Layer Tensions in U.S. Public Education

Change in public education in the U.S. is strongly shaped by the dynamics of the commerce layer, with market values, business rationales, and global economic imperatives shaping education decision-making. Commerce is rapidly introducing new educational technologies and pedagogical approaches at a pace that outstrips the capacity of other layers to engage effectively and exert their influence. This dominance of the commerce layer has been recasting education with language, values, and purpose that serve commerce stakeholders — business interests — but not society at large. The result has been a shift form treating education as the public service it should be to treating it as a market good.

Exacerbating this imbalance, accelerating technological change has created flux at each pace layer and has heightened uncertainty about the future.

Long Now Educators Workshop, August 01, 02017.

Workshop discussion about the impact of an unchecked commerce layer on education included the following insights:

The market determines the value of education. Both hyperconnected global markets and increasing automation and digital augmentation are challenging established economic and business models, the structure of organizations, the notion of work, employment patterns, and even the nature of what it means to be human. The cultural narrative emerging from this context is that people are human capital — an asset whose value is determined by the market. Our societal definitions of success and how we determine student readiness to navigate society have become tightly tethered to the global market. Education critics have written about the link between the origins of compulsory education and the factory model school with the needs of early industrial society, so this link is not necessarily new. The challenge is whether the purpose of education continues to be narrowly evaluated in terms of serving the requirements of commerce rather than broader societal needs, such as the needs to support pluralistic society, democracy, and a sustainable planet.

“Solutionism” shortens the time frame and scope of reform. The education technology sector has grown rapidly, shaping the process, language and expectations of education reform. The ed tech rationale argues that the way to “fix” education is to configure the right suite of applications and devices without much concern or understanding for the root causes of education’s most pressing challenges such as achievement gaps, inequity, teacher support and professional development, and student engagement. The language and process common in Silicon Valley of “solutionism”—promising quick fixes, profitable return-on-investment, and scalability—has a stronger role in guiding decisions about education investment. Solutionism has permeated the education reform space in ways that has shifted mindsets and expectations about the timeframe and scope of change. Linking such activities to longer and slower processes of transformation in the governance and culture layers is lacking.

Mismatched metrics. The spillover effect of technological solutionism is that the expectation for change is measured in months and years rather than in decades. While it may be appropriate to measure reading and mathematics performance yearly (or more often), measuring social and behavioral practices and cultural shifts in meaningful ways takes longer and require metrics that span years and decades. Carol Dweck, the pioneer of the popular “growth vs fixed mindset” concept, has written articles and changed her book to warn against the “the false growth mindset” to counter simplified, shortcut, ineffective implementations of her concept. She reported that teachers were not able or willing to commit to the longer time frame to integrate fully and develop the growth mindset practice in their classrooms. The allure of quick solutions is that they make us think that there are immediate outcomes.

Implications for Long-Term Change

While the commerce layer seems to drive decision-making and innovation in education in inappropriate ways today, this pace layer does do well at absorbing disruptions and responding quickly to immediate needs. A challenge for education decision-makers today is to find ways to better harness commerce to provide a more equitable system and one whose purpose serves broader society. The venerable Peter Drucker reminds us about the link between the tension of short- and long-term interests:

“Building around mission and solutions is the only way to integrate shorter-term interest.” — Peter Drucker

Brand also warns that any meaningful long-term change will need to integrate the slow layers of culture and governance.

Source: NASA

In the current education narrative, nature is largely left out as a significant influence. However, this layer may provide inspiration for reframing education and designing interventions across the pace layers to shape a new purpose for education that speaks to our collective humanity, global interconnectedness, and shared responsibility to steward our delicate relationship with nature.

The earth photo from the moon showed that national solutions were not sufficient to solve global ecological challenges. Education solutions may also need to transcend national borders, taking their cues from a globally interconnected and planetary context.


The next blog post in this series will explore the possibilities for leveraging pace layer strategies to create system change in education.

Reframing Education for the Long Now: Balancing immediate needs with long-term transformation

This article also appears on Medium  as part of a series done in partnership with The KnowledgeWorks Foundation and The Long Now Foundation

“Now” is the period in which people feel they live and act and have responsibility. For most of us, “now” is about a week, sometimes a year. For some traditional tribes in the American northeast and Australia, “now” is seven generations back and forward (350 years). Just as the [first] Earth photographs [from space] gave us a sense of ‘the big here, we need things which give people a sense of ‘the long now.’

— Stewart Brand, Long Now Foundation founder

Education is inherently a long-term proposition. Just as species adapt by learning and thereby ensure their survival, so too societies educate their people to ensure longevity through the ingenuity of future generations. As a system, education straddles the pressures of individuals’ and society’s immediate needs and inequities on the one side with desires for long-term positive outcomes and sustainability on the other.

For many U.S. schools and districts, this bridging might translate into reconciling immediate goals such as ensuring that all children read at grade level in the elementary years and helping students with trauma learn to self-regulate with longer-term goals such as rethinking curriculum for a future employment landscape that will be automated and digitally augmented. Yet even when education stakeholders see the value of addressing both time horizons, it can be incredibly difficult to imagine and pursue true transformation.

As Stewart Brand describes in The Clock of the Long Now: Time and Responsibility, after the Apollo program began returning color photographs of the earth from space, the earth’s problems lived in a new context, “the big here”, and took on new dimensions, stakeholders, and rationales. Having planet-scale perspective on atmospheric health, ocean health, and climate stability made national approaches obsolete. What might a similar context shift for education be? When considering education as a long-term proposition, what might the “long now” in education look like? What forces and dynamics might shape it? How might we cultivate a “long now” mindset in order to reframe pressing education challenges in ways that reveal purposeful approaches and thoughtfully-scaled solutions?

Long Now Educators workshop, August 1, 02017.

This was the domain of discussion and collaboration at the Long Now Educators workshop on August 1, 02017, hosted by the Long Now Foundation and KnowledgeWorks Foundation at the Fort Mason Center for the Arts. Insights from the workshop will be presented in a four part series of blog posts over the next four months.

The Dynamic of the Pace Layers

The Pace Layer framework is a thinking tool developed by Stewart Brand that effectively stretches the “now” to make long-term thinking (decades, centuries, and millennia) more concrete, accessible, and relevant to the present. It shows how different parts of society (its pace layers) act and change at different speeds, with the fast ones at the top and the slow ones at the bottom.

Source: The Clock of the Long Now: Time and Responsibility, Stewart Brand, 1999.

The fastest layer, fashion-art, moves in minutes and months. It is irreverent, engaging, and self-preoccupied. At this layer, a society’s culture is set free to experiment, albeit sometimes irresponsibly, learning through creativity and failure. It’s where we find relatively trivial phenomena such as fidget spinners and Lady Gaga’s meat suit, but also more significant developments such as ride-sharing and the breakthrough neo-expressionist painting of graffiti artist Jean-Michel Basquiat.

The barrage of ideas and propositions generated from the fashion layer gets sorted out at the commerce layer. Whether at age-old bazaars or modern-day stock markets and digital crossroads such as Etsy and eBay, commerce brings people together to make sense of new ideas that capture our attention. Commerce tames and harnesses the creative energy of fashion so that society can benefit from it.

In turn, infrastructure changes more slowly than commerce. It is high-cost, high-yield, and delivers delayed payback to society. It provides foundations and platforms for society to operate—among them transportation, communication, energy, and education. It is refreshed and modernized through the innovations from lower layers while being protected and validated through governance and culture. For example, Elon Musk’s company, TESLA, captures our attention through the fashion and commerce layers with its innovative electric cars and batteries, but ultimately aims to transform the transportation infrastructure. Despite its allure at the fashion layer and its transactions in the commerce layer, TESLA is really an infrastructure play, using the various pace layers to support the transformation.

Moving down a layer, the job of governance is to serve the larger, slower good for society. It provides stability. It preserves what we hold to be necessary and true. As Brand points out, social and political revolutions want quick change, demanding that governance moves faster than it is capable of, frustrating society. The constraints of governance force reflection and pause, which can be paralyzing or empowering.

Even slower to change, culture is the essential work of people as they gather to make sense of and integrate the many facets of life together on earth. It includes religion, language, and the enduring behaviors and social norms that help to provide constancy across centuries and even millennia. Nature is the slowest-changing layer, with the earth and the human body changing slowly over millennia. Nature’s power is immense when unleashed, whether as the processing capacity of the human brain or as the magnitude of earthquakes and hurricanes.

In healthy societies, the pace layers exist in relationship, communicating with each other, pushing and checking, yet moving independently, each at its own pace. This “slippage” between layers allows each layer to do its respective job and creates dynamic interactions that drive a society’s adaptability. Fast layers propose, disrupt and learn. Slow layers preserve, constrain and integrate. The dance between fast and slow layers can create adaptive strategies and societal resilience.

Source: The Clock of the Long Now: Time and Responsibility, Stewart Brand, 1999.

Events occurring in one layer may force another layer to move faster or slower than its typical pace of change. The popular acceptance of same-sex partners put pressure on legal and infrastructural supports to change more quickly than is customary, helping to resolve tension and conflict in workplaces and hospitals regarding issues such as rights to marriage, benefits, and visitation. Conversely, regulators in the governance layer can slow the pace of releasing disruptive new drugs or genetic therapies to allow for more informed integration into society. The way these disruptions are resolved determines a society’s health and resilience.

Educators using the pace layer framework at the Long Now Educators workshop, August 1,02017.

Cultivating the Long Now: Pace Layers as a Guide to Education Transformation

For educators, the pace layer framework provides a powerful thinking tool that can help re-contextualize pressing issues and questions, such as equity, and achievement, and the purpose of school. Using them can help stakeholders take a broader, longer view of solutions and interventions. It can also put education’s transformation into the context of a civilization’s transformation. When viewed through the pace layers, solutions for the achievement gap or the dropout crisis may come from unexpected layers with varying time frames for outcomes. The pace layer framework enables such possibilities by providing perspectives from multiple layers of society with distinctive stakeholders, intentions, and time horizons. The pace layer framework can help tease apart the complexity of education, revealing actors and events across societal domains and across time. It helps us ask:

  • From which layer of society is this challenge originating, and what is does its pace and process of change look like?
  • At what layer might a solution emerge, and how might the other layers be enlisted to support it?
  • What outcomes should we look for at various layers?

The next blog post in this series explores education as intellectual infrastructure to aid in understanding possible origins and drivers for long-term transformation in education.