By all probability, you have probably heard of the film Don’t Look Up, if you are a movie lover, a late entrant on social media or someone living under a rock.
Equally loved and loathed in some measure by the audience and critics, the movie depicts the story of two scientists who discover a super-sized comet on a direct tussle with the Earth and struggle to make themselves heard by politicians and the media.
Future-proofing education by looking forward
Such a comet is coming. The twin factors of globalisation and digitalisation have connected people, cities, countries, and continents in ways that vastly increase our individual and collective potential. At the same time, none can deny that these forces have also made the world more volatile, complex, uncertain, and ambiguous. It is apparent that the world has seen a growing disconnect between the infinite growth imperative and the finite resources of our planet; between the financial economy and the real economy; between the wealthy and the poor; between the concept of our gross domestic product and the wellbeing of people; between technology and social needs; and between governance and the perceived voicelessness of people.
You can’t hold education responsible for all these factors. No one should underestimate the role that knowledge, skills, attitudes, and values play in driving social and economic development and shaping our cultural context. Digital technologies and globalisation have disruptive implications for our economic and social structure, but those implications are not predetermined. It is the nature of our collective responses to these disruptions that determines their outcomes—the continuous interplay between the technological frontier and the cultural, social, institutional, and economic agents that we mobilise in response.
For a long time, the OECD has stressed the need for future-thinking in policymaking to prepare for shocks and surprises, be they climate change, digitalisation, or pandemics. This is important because the future will always surprise and shock us. The intangibles are the driver of today’s economy and that makes education so central. An example of their power is the growth of tech companies compared to the declining revenue of the traditional companies that dominated the Fortune 500 decades ago. Unlike tangible assets, knowledge can be used repeatedly and in multiple places at the same time, and that’s what explains the rapid growth of companies focused on intangibles. In education, we should ask ourselves what knowledge and skills are needed for participating in an increasingly intangible economy where the kinds of things that are easy to teach and test have also become easy to digitise and automate. What knowledge, skills, attitudes, and values do we need for generating new ideas and products? What do we need for organising and governing new ways of working and producing? And what is the role of new technologies in facilitating learning?
Over time, we have also seen a shift in the way we use our time towards leisure, family, and political life. We work less, even if it sometimes doesn’t quite look so. Can education help individuals, young and old, develop the knowledge and skills needed to engage meaningfully across all aspects of life?
Statistics show temporary employment accounted for 24% of dependent employment for youths, compared to 11% for the general population in 2020. This corresponds to a 7% increase compared to 1980. Part-time contracts have been on the rise over the last two decades, particularly among young workers. What are the consequences of on-the-job learning and training if increasing numbers of workers have no permanent employer to sponsor such education? What does this shift mean for education systems, formal or non-formal, and education professionals? What is the potential of new training opportunities emerging from the gig economy, such as peer networks and crowd-curated resources, to fill this gap?
The digital world is going to bring challenges. While in the past, our location and physical bodies anchored our identity and relationships, we can now create virtual profiles to suit any purpose and share these with anyone, anywhere. Social media and interest-based platforms have expanded exponentially, offering people an opportunity to grow their networks and find support, express themselves, experiment with desired identities, and selectively self-present. However, these opportunities also raise questions about safety, transparency, and the boundaries between exploration and manipulation. Teachers must learn to better leverage these new opportunities, while also helping individuals learn to ethically and responsibly participate in the digital environment.
Knowledge is power. Whereas only an elite few produced traditional encyclopaedias or the mass media of the 20th century, today’s social media and internet sites like Wikipaedia are fed by the mass which creates content. The number of pages in all wikis grew from about 10 000 to over 250 million in just 20 years. But are people ready for this? PISA shows that Korea, Singapore, and parts of China are the only jurisdictions where more than half of the 15-year-olds are fit for the digital world, like figuring out fake news. The picture is different for some other countries. In most countries with comparable data, the majority of students have still limited digital navigation skills or do not even have the basics. So how can we better support all individuals to access and use knowledge effectively? What types of education are needed to enable students, teachers, and education leaders to do that effectively? And what (digital) skills and attitudes are needed to effectively evaluate the quality and trustworthiness of information? How can we support teachers to validate the knowledge they use in their practice? Our social circles also influence our access to knowledge. Should educational institutions work more actively to strengthen (digital) social ties? If so, what should be the modus operandi?
Education must prepare for environmental shocks
Meeting the global goal of net zero emissions by 2050 needs bold action. In the energy sector energy, as demand for renewables has risen and their technology has improved, the costs of renewables have fallen. However, while the availability and affordability of renewables have increased, we continue to burn fossil fuels like coal, oil, and natural gas at an unsustainable rate and our carbon footprint keeps growing.
We need to walk the talk to reach climate goals and education has a pivotal role to play. Education is key to providing all citizens not only an understanding of the science behind the climate crisis but also its socio-demographic, political, and moral implications. Moreover, education can make learners the space to take direct action in their communities while fostering pro-environmental attitudes and behaviours.
Adequate training systems must be put in place to support people to continuously learn, unlearn and relearn as we transit towards “greener” economies and societies. In parallel, our research systems must count on appropriate policies and resources to engage in the kind of long-term, risk-taking research that we need to innovate our way out of our current unsustainable growth model while still ensuring shared prosperity.
Furthermore, as large employers and consumers, education systems must “green up” their infrastructure and operations. It must enhance environmental performance while preparing for the challenges already underway, such as the increased likelihood and severity of extreme events like floods and droughts. These are not issues from a distant future; they are happening now.
We shouldn’t ignore the trends shaping education
Doesn’t matter if you’re a film buff or not. Don’t Look Up gives an important message, reminding us that, in our global and interconnected world, incremental threats like climate change as well as abrupt systemic disruptions such as Covid-19 will continue to challenge our ways of living, working, and learning. Most importantly, the film offers us a lesson. We cannot and should not look away from these trends.