Can education change the future of humanity and the planet?

Education itself cannot solve the challenges facing humanity, but it’s difficult to imagine we can address them without transforming education.

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With this in mind, UNESCO two years ago created the Futures of Education initiative, which has recently launched a major report with the title Reimagining our futures together: a new social contract for education?.

The report seeks to promote a global debate on how knowledge and learning can shape the future of humanity and the planet. It’s based on the conviction that education does more than respond to a changing world. It has the potential to transform the world, which is experiencing increasing levels of inequalities, social fragmentation, political extremism, and the devastating consequences of climate change and the COVID pandemic.

At the same time, advances in digital communication, artificial intelligence and biotechnology are raising serious ethical and governance concerns.

The relevance of the report shouldn’t be underestimated. UNESCO was created after World War II with the motto “Since wars begin in the minds of men and women, it is in the minds of men and women that the defences of peace must be constructed”.

Since then, it’s worked to promote peace and global understanding through education and culture. It’s previously released major reports aimed at setting the agenda for global discussions about the future of education, with the Faure Report in the 1970s, and the Delors Report in the 1990s.

Many ideas within these reports became part of the vocabulary educators continue to use on a daily basis in their work. For example, the notions of learning to be, learning to know, learning to do, and learning to live together that have become central in curricular design all over the globe were promoted by UNESCO’s Delors Report from the ’90s.

Global education policy is complex

UNESCO isn’t alone in trying to influence the global agenda in education. Global policy spaces in education have become a complex array of competition and collaboration between different institutions, such as international organisations, private for-profit corporations, global philanthropies, NGOs and others.

With the creation of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) in 2000, the OECD has become the main reference in global educational debates. The OECD promotes a market-oriented logic that places individuals as the focus of educational strategies and narratives about human progress and global understanding.

UNESCO has even been criticised for being absorbed into that logic. In that sense, this recent report by the UN agency is both an attempt to regain its leading position in global educational debates, and to reaffirm its own historical more humanistic perspective to balance the dominating market-driven logic.

The report makes a grim diagnosis of the state of the world, and how the challenges facing humanity are linked to education. The recognition of the climate crisis, and the interdependence of humans with other species and the environment, is followed by calls for an interdisciplinary and ecological education that can help students understand our collective responsibility to the future of the world.

The ways in which the report defines education as a public endeavour and a common good generates a feeling of hope in readers.

Meanwhile, the appeal for an education based on the principles of cooperation, collaboration and global solidarity instead of competition and individuality isn’t such a novelty in UNESCO’s discourse, but is still a welcome set of values if we want the kind of radical transformation of education that’s needed.

Furthermore, the report’s critique of standardised tests and rankings is probably its most firm counterpoint with the logic promoted by PISA.

Valuable ideas, vague recommendation

The report contains many valuable ideas. However, not surprisingly, when it moves on to make recommendations, these are made at a high level, and tend to be quite vague. This will likely attract some criticism, yet it’s also understandable. It’s within the intrinsic logic of an organisation such as UNESCO to put forward proposals that need to be acceptable in very different cultural, ideological, socioeconomic and political contexts.

What’s most important about the report is that it’s aimed at starting a global conversation about vitally important issues that need to be discussed by educators and political leaders.

Hopefully, it will stimulate fruitful debates, and contribute to strengthen a more humanistic perspective in discussions about how education can help in constructing a more sustainable, equitable and secure future.