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The Black Swan Thinking Project: Harnessing the Future by Framing the Past

Ruben R. Puentedura, Ph.D.

— October 8, 2020

“One of the major problems encountered in time travel is not that of accidentally becoming your own father or mother. [...] The major problem is quite simply one of grammar, and the main work to consult in this matter is Dr. Dan Streetmentioner’s Time Traveler’s Handbook of 1001 Tense Formations. It will tell you, for instance, how to describe something that was about to happen to you in the past before you avoided it by time-jumping forward two days in order to avoid it.”

Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Many of the events that shape the world of learning and academe are not slow, gradual changes. Rather, they belong to the category of Black Swans, events that:

  • cannot be predicted ahead of time;
  • have an extreme impact;
  • can be rationalized or understood retrospectively, but not prospectively.

The lack of predictability of Black Swans might lead someone to write them off as “just one of those things” that you “just have to bear” - and nothing could be more wrong or more destructive. It is possible to design institutions and plans for action that, without predicting the unpredictable, are either resilient in the face of Black Swans, or - even better - antifragile, a term coined by Nassim Taleb to describe entities that actively benefit from unexpected shocks.

Black Swan thinking and antifragile design require a toolkit that is very different from traditional planning approaches. In order to address this need, I will be leading a 6-month project, sponsored by the ShapingEDU group at ASU, to develop such a toolkit for K-20 institutions. It comprises three stages:

Stage 1: The End of Fairytales
  • A multisession course, focusing on entities at three key levels of analysis and planning - systems, agents, and networks - required to identify the nesting grounds of Black Swans, and develop habits of mind and sets of responses to the unknown.
Stage 2: Painting Antifragile Learning (Not) by Numbers
  • A design studio, reframing SAMR as a tool not just for identifying and implementing optimal uses of technology in teaching and learning, but also as a guiding scaffold underpinning learning experiences that do much more than just stand up to rapid change.
Stage 3: The Great Swan Game
  • A day-long scenario game, inviting teams from a diverse range of academic institutions to leverage and apply the knowledge gained in the first two stages. Their goal: to design organizations and learning frameworks that can thrive amid flocks of particularly ill-tempered Black Swans.

It’s an honor to have been selected by ASU and ShapingEDU as an Innovator In Residence and to develop this project. I welcome everyone to the virtual pond - kits for building your own pith helmet and binoculars will be provided.

Ruben R. Puentedura, Ph.D.