There is a story of the lost driver asking for directions. A passer-by shrugs, “If I were you, I wouldn’t start from here.”
So where exactly is “here” when it comes to global learning? Over the last two years, our Towards Global Learning Goals team, based at NYU Abu Dhabi, has learnt about learning. We asked hundreds of experts, educators, and pioneers three big questions. Are people learning the right things? Are they learning them in the right way? And if not, why not?
The answers are sobering.
We are seeing the impact on politics and society of three striking trends: a rapid rise of mistrust in traditional institutions; growing economic inequality; and a more existential uncertainty about the future created by technology and globalisation.
Technology will bring new threats. States, ideas, and industries will go out of business. Two thirds of young people will work in jobs that do not yet exist. Over five million jobs will disappear by 2020. With previous paradigm shifts we had decades or even centuries to adapt. We won’t have that luxury this time. Managing this is the greatest challenge of our era. Yet we are in danger of being overwhelmed. We have the tools, but we are not using them to their potential.
Most young people learn the wrong things in the wrong way. Too often we fail to spark the delight and magic of learning. What is taught is not connected to the demands of the future economy and society. We force feed kids what we ourselves learnt, without recognising how different their lives will be. Content and assessment persistently focus on classic academic knowledge rather than character and skills. Most children in the world are taught in ‘factory schools’, churning out pupils.
Some staggering statistics:
- 75 million children are not receiving any formal education at all.
- Six out of ten young people can’t read or add up.
- Migrants in Europe are twice as likely to drop out of school, and a Syrian refugee can go through five different education systems in a year.
- Half of all students in higher education drop out before they graduate.
- Half of the subject knowledge acquired during the first year of a tech degree is outdated by graduation.
On the current trajectory a generation on the move will therefore not be equipped with the skills they need. Polarisation, extremism, inequality, drift, intolerance, and distrust will increase.
The good news is that the digital economy will bring extraordinary opportunities to learn, innovate, and create together. Global citizens will gain greater control of their own lives, including their education. Learning will be more collaborative, digital and human. The internet can liberate humanity’s ability to reason together.
So we need a revolution in how and what humans learn. And the foundation for this should be new global learning goals based around three areas.
The head: passing on the essential wisdom of centuries and providing perspective. How have humans developed, from cave paintings to driverless cars? How have we learnt to live together? And what do we need to understand about the planet we inhabit?
The hand: developing the skills needed to thrive in the 21st century. How can we learn, and keep on learning? How can we adapt to a world in which industries will disappear, and where we will need to work more closely together across cultures and societies? How can we manage our mental and physical health, and organise our lives?
And the heart: how can we ensure that future generations are kinder, more curious, and braver than us?
Only then can we meet the challenge of the 21st century: how to create more winners from globalisation and technological change, while better protecting those left behind.
At its core, this is a challenge of politics not education. You only have to look at how the average classroom has changed over 200 years compared to the average hospital surgery to see how hard educational reform is. The interests of stakeholders – governments, schools, colleges and universities, employers, teachers, parents and learners themselves – are not aligned. Too often, education is designed and delivered to reinforce national identity and interests, and as a driver for human capital and labour. The result is that it reproduces social and economic inequality.
Meaningful change will not be top down. Instead it requires a connecting of the dots. The Oxford professor battling to create space on the curriculum for a global view of history can take heart from the art teacher battling to show that mastering creativity is not just an after school painting club. The head teacher convincing teachers and parents that mindfulness helps academic success can take heart from the tech entrepreneur testing how play develops brainpower. The business leader frustrated that his employees aren’t equipped with the right problem-solving skills can take heart from the YouTube campaigner making popular videos on why education isn’t working. The UN official exhausted by trying to make it easier for refugees to pass through multiple education systems can take heart from the students demanding they be taught global competencies rather than the list of wars their country won.
In order to connect those dots, you need some defining principles, around which to coalesce, debate, organise, and build a coalition for greater equality of opportunity. So our report includes a new Declaration of Principles on Global Education Reform.
We are on the cusp of a great leap forward in not just what we learn, but how and why we learn. If we get this right, the next Muhammad Al-Khwarizmi, Marie Curie, Albert Einstein, or Bill Gates can move humanity forward. We all need more humans to learn the right things in the right way.
Humanity faces technological and environmental change at a pace we cannot comprehend or control. We will have to be brave enough to master technology rather than be mastered by it. To be kind enough to reduce inequality rather than widen it. To be curious enough to invent new ways of living and organising ourselves.
We will need the knowledge that humankind has built over millennia. And the skills and character to thrive, adapt, learn, create, and coexist as global citizens.
Change is coming … even if we wouldn’t have started from here.