Equipping young people with a 21st century skillset will safeguard society. But can education systems deliver?
Education is no longer just about teaching students the school curriculum. It is about helping them develop a reliable compass and the tools to navigate with confidence through an increasingly complex, volatile and uncertain world. Success in education is about identity. It is about agency and purpose. It is about building curiosity–opening minds. It is about compassion–opening hearts. And it is about courage–
mobilising our cognitive, social and emotional resources to take action. These are also our best weapons against the biggest threats of our times: the closed mind– ignorance; the closed heart–indifference, hate and extremism; and fear–the enemy of agency.
We live in a world in which the kind of things that are easy to teach and test have also become easy to digitise and automate. The future is about pairing artificial intelligence with human skills and values. It will be our imagination, awareness and sense of responsibility that will help us harness technology to better shape our world.
Today’s schools need to help students think for themselves and join others, with empathy, in work and citizenship. They will need to help them develop a strong sense of right and wrong, a sensitivity to the views and ways of thinking of others, and a grasp of the limits on individual and collective action. At work, at home and in the community, people will need a deep understanding of how others live, in different cultures and traditions, and how others think, whether as scientists or artists.
And whatever tasks machines may take over from humans at work, the demands on us to contribute meaningfully to social and civic life will continue.
At work, at home and in the community, people will need a deep understanding of how others live, in different cultures and traditions, and how others think, whether as scientists or artists.
The growing complexity of modern living means that the solutions to our problems will also be complex.
In a structurally imbalanced world, the imperative of reconciling diverse perspectives and interests, in local settings but with often global implications, means we need to become good at handling tensions and dilemmas. Striking a balance between competing demands–equity and freedom, autonomy and community, innovation and continuity, efficiency and democratic process–will rarely lead to an either/or choice or even a single solution. We need to think in a more integrated way that recognises interconnections. Our capacity to navigate ambiguity has become key.
The willingness and capacity to see the world through different lenses and to appreciate different ways of thinking and different cultures is key in the 21st century, and education can play a central role in fostering this. It can help young people analyse global and intercultural issues critically and from multiple perspectives; to understand how differences affect perceptions, judgements and ideas of self and others; and to engage in open, appropriate and effective interactions with others from different backgrounds. In turn, failure to do so can fuel radicalism.
Of course, whoever has a hammer sees every problem as a nail. Those in the security business tend to see the answer to radicalism and terrorism in military power, and those in the financial business, in cutting flows of money. It is only natural for educators to view the struggle against extremism as a battle for hearts and minds. True, the terrorist attacks in Europe, in particular, have brought home that it is far too simplistic to depict extremists and terrorists as victims of poverty or poor education. More research on the background and biographies of extremists and terrorists is badly needed, and it is clear that these people often do not come from the most impoverished parts of societies.
But radicals are also commonly found among young people from middle-class families who have completed their formal education. Ironically, those terrorists seem to be well-equipped with the entrepreneurial, creative and collaborative skills that have become the bedrock of a 21st century education.
But that is no reason to give up on education as the most powerful tool for building a fairer, more humane and inclusive world. We know that extremism flourishes in splintered societies. Young people become receptive to extremist ideas when their self-image, self-confidence and trust in others are threatened by conflicting world views.
It is also clear that some countries do so much better than others, not just in equipping disadvantaged and immigrant children with strong academic skills, but also in helping them integrate fully into society. In the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), nine out of ten Norwegian 15-year-old students with an immigrant background said they felt a sense of belonging at school, compared with fewer than four out of ten immigrant students in France. The well-being of immigrant students is affected not just by cultural differences between the country of origin and the host country, but also by how schools and communities in the host country help immigrant students handle the daily problems of living, learning and communicating.
Those in the security business tend to see the answer to radicalism and terrorism in military power, and those in the financial business, in cutting flows of money. It is only natural for educators to view the struggle against extremism as a battle for hearts and minds.
Still, having good academic and social skills does not seem to prevent people from using those skills to destroy, rather than advance, their societies. So how can education combat extremism? It comes down to the heart of education: how we incorporate values into education. Values have always been central to education, but it is time that they move from implicit aspirations to explicit education goals and practices. In this way they would help communities shift to sustainable values that generate trust, social bonds and hope.
Of course, that is treacherous territory. To make one’s way through it, one has to strike a balance between strengthening common values in societies, such as respect and tolerance, and appreciating the
diversity in our societies and the plurality of values that diversity engenders. Leaning too far in either direction is risky. Enforcing an artificial uniformity of values is detrimental to people’s capacity to acknowledge different perspectives; and over-emphasising diversity can lead to cultural relativism that questions the legitimacy of any core value. But avoiding this issue in discussions about the curriculum just means it becomes another problem put on the shoulders of classroom teachers without adequate support.
As difficult as it is to get that balance right, educators need to prepare students for the culturally diverse and digitally connected communities in which they will work and socialise. It is important to begin reflecting on how well education systems deliver on that broader notion of citizenship in the 21st century.
Governments asked PISA to explore the possibility of developing metrics on this in its international assessments. First results will be published in 2020.
For the first time, an international assessment will not just show countries how well their students do in key school subjects, but also whether they can combine knowledge about the world with critical reasoning about global issues; whether they understand and appreciate the perspectives and world views of others and are aware that their own perspectives are shaped by their knowledge about other cultures’ histories, values, communication styles, beliefs and practices; whether they are capable of engaging in open, appropriate and effective interactions across cultures. This will give policymakers a mirror to learn to what extent their education systems deliver on the foundations for today’s world, and at the same time highlight what is achieved elsewhere by the world’s educational leaders.
It is hard to improve what we cannot see and, without much better data in this field, we should not expect much progress towards stronger foundations in education. And if education does not build foundations under people, many will try to build walls, no matter how self-defeating that will become.