Influential global bodies are having their say on the future of education, and the outcome could shape the economy and environment for generations.
When it comes to education, humanity is heading in the wrong direction, a UNESCO report suggests. The UN commission into the Futures of Education has reignited debate about the need to reform global education policy. This has led to debates between UNESCO and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) about the nature of education.
Both organisations have their own vision about what it means to be an educated person, and how education practices should be organised, financed and evaluated. But those organisations do not represent the views of the whole world.
Underlying any decision about what to change requires a full understanding of what kind of individuals and societies we want to promote. The UNESCO report proposes that education should promote change on the basis of agreed common values. While simultaneously the OECD has proposed ways to make education systems more adaptable to disruptions and change by suggesting that education could be more dynamic, and that education systems should be reformed to better follow economic changes anticipated by policymakers.
The OECD has become the most powerful voice in global debates about education since launching the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) in 2000.
Every three years, PISA assesses 600,000 15-year-old students through a globally comparable exam that evaluates the extent to which young people are prepared to enter the workforce in the ‘knowledge economy’.
Based on the results, the OECD publishes rankings of the 79 participating economies. These rankings matter to the policymakers and hold sway in public opinion. It also creates a market-oriented, individualised view of education.
Even UNESCO has been absorbed into market logic, narrowing its concept of “lifelong learning” to a focus on workplace skills.
But influences do go both ways: the OECD has softened its strictly economic rationale, adding “global competencies“ in its PISA assessment, measuring traits such as children’s capacity to engage “with people from different cultures, and to act for collective well-being and sustainable development”. Even then, the focus on “global competencies” is mainly about preparing workers to operate successfully in multicultural teams, rather than developing a deeper contextual understanding of discrimination or non-Western approaches to knowledge.
The OECD has also started to measure the well-being of students, distinguishing between “happy” and “unhappy” schools. Latin American and Northern European countries were found to be the happiest, while countries such as Japan, Korea and China registered the lowest level of life satisfaction.
But the method used for recording happiness is based on an individualistic, Anglo-centric perspective. In some non-Western societies, happiness and satisfaction are dependent on the well-being of a collective community, rather than an individual. The results therefore don’t accurately compare student happiness but are skewed by the different ways students have interpreted the exam question.
UNESCO’s latest report reasserts the organisation’s humanistic values, based less on the market and more on concepts such as respect for life, social justice and shared responsibility for a common future.
The report explicitly criticises the use of rankings and standardised assessments of students that encourage competition, instead promoting teaching methods that emphasise solidarity and collaboration. The report also highlights the importance of opening up education systems to include indigenous knowledge.
With UNESCO suggesting humanity is heading in the wrong direction, a rethink of the way the world talks about education may be necessary to forge a more equitable and sustainable path forward.
This might be easier said than done. For example, introducing collaborative methods of learning is a huge challenge in education systems that were designed to classify and order students based on individual performance.
Including indigenous knowledge in institutions that have been historical guardians of Western knowledge may also be difficult. Conventional school systems were developed by mirroring developments in Western science, aimed at educating students in “rational thinking”, a Western tradition.
These debates highlight how education is more than just teaching and learning. Education has the ability to shape the future and our approaches to challenges such as climate change, growing inequalities and the pandemic. Whether young people face such challenges collectively or individually; in competition or through collaboration, will be influenced by how the world regards education.
Jason Beech is a senior lecturer in education policy in the Faculty of Education at Monash University. Prior to joining Monash he was associate professor in the School of Education at Universidad de San Andrés in Argentina. He is currently visiting professor at San Andrés, where he is also director of a Unesco Chair in Education for Global Citizenship and Sustainability. He is associate editor of the Education Policy Analysis Archives, and has taught in several universities in the Americas, Europe and Australia. He declares no conflict of interest.