The world needs to radically transform its education systems, not just modernize them

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In September 2022, the United Nations organized the first-ever high-level Transforming Education Summit and invited stakeholders to make commitments and address the challenges we face. Once again we heard how overwhelming the need is: in low-income countries, 25% of young people and just over 55% of adults are still illiterate, while 250 million children are not in primary school.

The World Bank’s State of Global Learning Poverty report notes that disruptions such as the COVID-19 epidemic, the war in Ukraine and the Taliban’s ban on girls’ secondary education in Afghanistan have led to this

“greatly increased learning poverty, a measure of children unable to read and understand a simple passage by age 10”.

As the Brookings Institution points to the need for an urgent transformation of education systems:

“We are at a critical tipping point where hundreds of millions of children are likely to be missing out on a quality education at the very moment we are grappling with climate change, rising conflict and renewed pandemic risks.”

In addition to the climate crisis, humanity faces many urgent problems: biodiversity, food, water, energy, poverty, inequality, democracy … the list is long. All are intertwined and deeply difficult to resolve, and we face a global tragedy of the commons. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals were set to provide a comprehensive framework and to establish “a common blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and in the future”. But we are not on the way to reach them.

During the UN Education Summit, there was a clear indication that not all the parties needed to resolve these issues were around the same table. Funding and investment were absent, and while the IMF and World Bank – both of whom were invited – were absent. About half of the expected leaders also did not show up, and many chose to attend Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral instead.

How can we create a common blueprint for a critical education and climate reform without having all the important political and financial actors around the table? There is a gap, even an abyss, between the problems we face, the communities that face them, and those who are able to address them.

A week after the summit, the Global Futures Conference was held, organized by Arizona State University and the Earth League during New York Climate Week. Its mission was to “find solutions that are ambitious and achievable” and “destined to lead societies towards a future of opportunity rather than sacrifice”. The meeting identified education as one of the most important levers of transformation, but this time there was a gap between education and climate and sustainability actors, with the Learning Planet Institute being one of the few organizations to attend both events.

We know that education for climate action has the potential to reduce up to 20 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide by 2050, a better result than more than three quarters of the top climate solutions available today. Yet most education systems today do not prepare students and learners to adapt, let alone address, these challenges.

We need to introduce systematic solutions very quickly to engage learners (young people, graduates and lifelong learners) and help them understand how to tackle challenges together. It is no longer enough to try to upgrade the system – the gap is just too big. Instead, education itself must be radically transformed. In the words of UN Secretary-General António Guterres, “education must help people learn how to learn, with an emphasis on problem-solving and collaboration”.

Recent reports from Rewired and Brookings Institution agree that the various planetary crises require a reassessment of the purpose of education:

“Transformation means repositioning all components of the education system to coherently contribute to a new, common purpose.”

We know what skills are required: cooperation, empathy, self-knowledge, future competence, collective problem solving, critical thinking and the ability to learn how to learn and how to unlearn. Many frameworks are available, including UNESCO’s ‘Learning to transform the world’, but the majority of education systems still do not implement this knowledge.

Transformation framework, youth integration and radical change

In practice, we know that there is a great deal of experience around the world in implementing changes. Indeed, within the Learning Planet Institute – an initiative we launched with UNESCO to celebrate and bring to light the transformative solutions being developed around the world – we see remarkable examples of programs that provide autonomy, ability and motivation to learn, Action and leadership promote a better world. Catts Pressoir, Escuela Nueva, Dream a Dream, and Design for Change are just a few examples of K-12 programs in Haiti, Colombia, and India that show these teaching approaches are not limited to the Western world.

In higher education, many universities and government agencies have launched programs that go beyond sustainability literacy to prepare the new generation to lead the environmental, social and societal changes ahead. These include Arizona State University’s College of Global Futures, Cy Cergy Paris’ Bachelor ACT, Stellenbosch University’s Center for Sustainability Transitions, and the EU’s Open17 platform.

At the regional and national level, we also see examples of systemic transformation in action, adapted to the local context: In Sierra Leone, “Transforming Learning for All” is an ambitious, comprehensive and innovative plan to improve educational outcomes, especially for girls, students with Disabilities and children living in remote areas. Another inspiring example is the curriculum reforms in British Columbia. The Know-Do-Understand framework they use:

“Celebrates the way students think, learn and grow and prepares them for successful lifelong learning where constant change takes place”.

While Singapore regularly topped international PISA rankings, it was also known for systematic testing and ranking processes that generated high levels of anxiety and fear of failure. In 2019, they embarked on a major reform of their education system, realizing that learners should no longer compete with each other. Instead, they should be encouraged to learn how to learn, cooperate and develop their creativity. Her example speaks volumes that radical change is possible.

It is important that we also know how interested young people are in getting involved. The fact that the Youth Declaration on Transforming Education has received more than 450,000 contributions shows how much young people want to be meaningful partners in education policy and decision-making, not just beneficiaries. Building with youth and empowering young people is now recognized by Antonio Gutteres as a core principle for building tomorrow. Young people are literally the future, so they have to be part of the design.

We must stop preparing young people for a world that no longer exists. Instead, we should all be given the opportunity to learn about our common global problems, how to succeed, and how to participate in solving them. These ideas are not really new. In fact, the 1972 UNESCO report “Learning to be: the world of education today and tomorrow” already advocated the following:

“[People] no longer tediously acquiring knowledge once and for all, but learning to build up a constantly evolving body of knowledge throughout your life.”

How to close the gaps

Implementing these transformations has never been more urgent, but they cannot and will not happen without proper political attention and funding.

It is crucial that all stakeholders affected by these issues, in particular the public and private financial institutions with a focus on climate protection and solutions, come together. By combining educational expertise and investment in education, together we can bridge this critical gap between learning and the environment, and drive the radical systems transformation needed to serve the needs of youth and our planet.

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Citation: Mind the gaps: The world needs to radically transform, not just modernize, its education systems (2022, November 26), retrieved November 28, 2022 from – radical.html

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