Wandering around the Global Education and Skills Forum in Dubai, you can’t help but feel you’re at the Glastonbury of global education. Amid the thousands of delegates from hundreds of countries, teachers with roving microphones provide lessons on creativity, international artists celebrate the contributions of the world’s top teachers with concert performances, tech start-ups pitch their innovative education tools to frantically scribbling ministers, while a ten-year-old student lectures assembled education leaders on their moral duty to ensure his generation is equipped for the challenges and opportunities of the future.
Everyone at the forum, which brought together world leaders from the public, private and social sectors from 23 to 24 March, was united by a profound conviction about the power of education to effect transformative social change. And while access to schooling was presented as an inalienable right for young people, the content and manner of this teaching were undoubtedly the burning questions for this global community of educators.
Navigating the Complexities of Globalisation
The phrase “21st-century skills” was at the heart of many of the discussions, and there was an overriding sense that almost two decades into that century, education systems had so far failed to keep up with the demands of rapidly changing societies and economies.
From Singapore to Brazil, shared questions resounded. What skills are needed to navigate the complexities of globalisation and be resilient to the dramatic changes that are characterising our world? And with 10 million people reaching working age each month, how do policymakers bridge the skills gap required for a new global workforce? Whether preparing the future workforce for the inevitable impact of automation on the labour market, or shaping a generation of young people at ease with complex identities in a rapidly globalising world, neither teachers nor policymakers were naive about the scale of the challenge.
The weight of this responsibility was particularly evident in the winner of this year’s Global Teacher Prize, Kenya’s Peter Tabichi. A science teacher in a remote region of Kenya’s Rift Valley region, Tabichi has transformed his school into a hub for quality education. While driving a revolution in academic achievement in science and technology in the school, he also champions equality of education for girls. He has built a successful extra-curricular programme for confronting narratives of division between the school’s diverse ethnic and religious communities.
This issue of schools as places of increasing diversity recurred across the forum. As the United Arab Emirates celebrates its Year of Tolerance, there was a major focus on how education could be used as a tool for building co-existence between people of different backgrounds and beliefs. Meeting the challenge of reaching refugees, migrants and displaced populations with education was a major international priority. But I also came across some remarkable case studies of innovative educational approaches to building more resilient societies, including in South Africa, where history lessons are being used to navigate fraught narratives about apartheid.
From Singapore to Brazil, shared questions resounded. What skills are needed to navigate the complexities of globalisation and be resilient to the dramatic changes that are characterising our world?”
Tackling Extremism Through Education
Despite its potential for fostering cohesion, there were also signs of education becoming increasingly politicised, and concerns were raised over a growing populist backlash against education. With education level a much more salient predictor of values and politics than any other demographic measure, there were worries about growing societal divides along educational lines. These divides are exploited by populists who decry expertise and thrive off disinformation and a lack of understanding.
At a time when more young people than ever identify as global citizens, there are growing questions about how to square global identities with a resurgent nationalism that is sweeping many societies. In an increasingly interconnected world, there is an urgent need for greater digital literacy in young people. Social media can underpin everything from a global student climate-change march to the perverted transnational far-right narratives that radicalised the March 2019 Christchurch terrorist attacker. It is crucial to encourage the use of social media for good and help build the resilience of young people to extreme and violent narratives.
As part of the forum, a round table hosted by the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change brought together education leaders to discuss the burning need for political leadership and international collaboration on advancing pluralism and tackling extremism through education systems. Over the coming months, our Institute will be working with global partners to develop an international architecture that helps to build consensus and momentum on the education reforms required to build open-mindedness in young people. We will then take this to world leaders to call for political action at the highest levels to achieve the change the world urgently needs.
At an event like the Global Education and Skills Forum, the centrality of effective education policy to many pressing international challenges is self-evident. But there is also an acknowledgement that these common global challenges will not be properly addressed unless there is a commitment to effective implementation and smart collaboration, rather than just well-intentioned ideals. Fortunately, my time in Dubai demonstrated that a remarkable global cohort of education professionals stands willing to address these emerging challenges and take creative solutions to scale.