The imperative of lifelong learning
The next generation of young citizens will create jobs, not seek them, and collaborate to advance in an increasingly complex world. That will require curiosity, imagination, empathy, entrepreneurship and resilience, the ability to fail constructively, to learn from mistakes. The most obvious implication of a world that requires constant adaptation and growth from learners is the need to build the capacity and motivation for lifelong learning. We used to learn to do the work; now learning is the work – and that will require a post-industrial way of coaching, mentoring, teaching and evaluating that can build passion and capacity for learning.
Early on, learners need to be able to appreciate the value of learning well beyond school, beyond graduation; they need to take responsibility for their learning and bring energy to the process of learning. Lifelong learning does not just require people to constantly learn new things but, and this tends to be far more difficult, to un-learn and re-learn when contexts and paradigms change.
One might be tempted to conclude that lifelong learning means shifting resources from learning during childhood towards learning in adulthood. But OECD data show how learning throughout life is remarkably closely related to learning outcomes at school. Indeed, subsequent learning opportunities tend to reinforce early disparities in learning outcomes. Individuals who failed at school are unlikely to seek out subsequent learning opportunities, and employers are unlikely to invest in learners with weaker foundation skills. In short, lifelong learning as we currently know it does not mitigate, but rather tends to reinforce, initial differences in education. This just underlines both: how important it is to get the foundations right, and that we need to become much better in designing effective learning opportunities that meet the diverse interests of adults later in life.
There is a lot that governments and societies can do to help learners adapt. The easiest is telling young people more of the truth about the social and labour-market relevance of their learning, and to incentivise educational institutions to pay more attention to that too. When education systems help learners choose a field of study that resonates with their passions, in which they can excel, and that allows them to contribute to society, they will put learners on the path to success. But instead, many educational institutions still focus on marketing study fields that are easy and cheap to provide.
The most obvious implication of a world that requires constant adaptation and growth from learners is the need to build the capacity and motivation for lifelong learning
More difficult, but at least equally important, is to shift from qualifications-based certification systems to more knowledge- and skills-based certification systems. That means moving from documenting education pathways towards highlighting what individuals can actually do, regardless of how and where they have acquired their knowledge, skills and character qualities.
Knowledge and skills, the new global currency
How a society develops and uses the knowledge and skills of its people is among the chief determinants of its prosperity. The evidence from the Survey of Adult Skills, a product of the OECD Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) shows that individuals with poor skills are severely limited in their access to better-paying and more-rewarding jobs. Digitalisation is now amplifying this pattern; as new industries rise, others will fall. It is the education available to people that provides a buffer to weather these shocks. The only thing that can help people accept that their job may disappear is the confidence that they have the knowledge and skills to find or create a new one.
If there are large sections of the adult population with poor skills, it becomes more difficult to improve productivity and make better use of technology – and that becomes a barrier to raising living standards. But this is about far more than earnings and employment. The Survey of Adult Skills shows that people with low skills are not just more vulnerable in a changing job market, they are also more likely to feel excluded and see themselves as powerless in political processes. The Survey of Adult Skills also shows that hand-in-hand with poorer skills goes distrust of others and of institutions. While the roots of the relationship between education, identity and trust are complex, these links matter, because trust is the glue of modern societies. Without trust in people, public institutions and well-regulated markets, public support for innovative policies is difficult to mobilise, particularly when short-term sacrifices are involved and long-term benefits are not immediately evident.
For those with the right knowledge and skills, digitalisation and globalisation have been liberating and exciting; but for those who are insufficiently prepared, they can mean vulnerable and insecure work, and a life without prospects. Our economies are shifting towards regional hubs of production, linked together by global chains of information and goods, but concentrated where comparative advantage can be built and renewed. This makes the distribution of knowledge and wealth crucial, and that is intimately tied to the distribution of education opportunities.
Changing the model of learning
The kinds of things that are easy to teach have become easy to digitise and automate. The future is about pairing the artificial intelligence of computers with the cognitive, social and emotional skills and values of human beings. It will be our imagination, our awareness and our sense of responsibility that will enable us to harness digitalisation to shape the world for the better.
The conventional approach in education is often to break problems down into manageable bits and pieces and then to teach learners how to solve these bits and pieces. But modern societies create value by synthesising different fields of knowledge, making connections between ideas that previously seemed unrelated. That requires being familiar with and receptive to knowledge in other fields.
Today, learners typically learn individually and at the end of the school year, we certify their individual achievements. But the more interdependent the world becomes, the more we need great collaborators and orchestrators. Innovation is now rarely the product of individuals working in isolation, but rather an outcome of how we mobilise, share and integrate knowledge. More generally, changing skill demands have elevated the role of social and emotional skills. Employers increasingly seek to attract learners who easily adapt and are able to apply and transfer their skills and knowledge to new contexts. Work-readiness in an interconnected world requires young people to understand the complex dynamics of globalisation, and be open to people from different cultural backgrounds.
The algorithms behind social media are sorting us into groups of like-minded individuals. They create virtual bubbles that amplify our views and leave us insulated from divergent perspectives; they homogenise opinions while polarising our societies. Tomorrow’s citizens will need to think for themselves and join others, with empathy, in work and citizenship. They will need to develop a strong sense of right and wrong, a sensitivity to the claims that others make on us, 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. Whatever tasks machines may be taking over from humans at work, the demands on our knowledge and skills to contribute meaningfully to social and civic life will keep rising.
The future is about pairing the artificial intelligence of computers with the cognitive, social and emotional skills and values of human beings. It will be our imagination, our awareness and our sense of responsibility that will enable us to harness digitalisation to shape the world for the better
Harnessing the power of technology
Technology can enable learners to access specialised materials well beyond textbooks, in multiple formats and in ways that can bridge time and space. Technology can support new ways of teaching that focus on learners as active participants. There are good examples of technology enhancing experiential learning by supporting project- and enquiry-based teaching methods, facilitating hands-on activities and co-operative learning, and delivering formative real-time assessments. There are also interesting examples of technology supporting learning with interactive, non-linear courseware based on state-of-the-art instructional design, sophisticated software for experimentation and simulation, social media and educational games. These are precisely the learning tools that are needed to develop 21st-century knowledge and skills. Not least, one teacher can now educate and inspire millions of learners and communicate their ideas to the whole world.
Perhaps the most distinguishing feature of technology is that it not only serves individual learners and educators, but it can build an ecosystem around learning that is predicated on collaboration. Technology can build communities of learners that make learning more social and more fun, recognising that collaborative learning enhances goal orientation, motivation, persistence and the development of effective learning strategies.
Instruction in the past was subject-based; instruction in the future needs to be more project-based, building experiences that help learners think across the boundaries of subject-matter disciplines. The past was hierarchical; the future is collaborative, recognising both teachers and learners as resources and co-creators.
In the past, different learners were taught in similar ways. Now education systems need to embrace diversity with differentiated approaches to learning. The goals of the past were standardisation and compliance, with learners educated in age cohorts, following the same standard curriculum, all assessed at the same time. The future is about building instruction from learners’ passions and capacities, helping learners personalise their learning and assessments in ways that foster engagement and talent. It’s about encouraging learners to be ingenious.
Education systems need to better recognise that individuals learn differently, and in different ways at different stages of their lives. They need to create new ways of providing education that take learning to the learner and that are most conducive to learners’ progress. Learning is not a place, but an activity.
Governments cannot innovate in the classroom, but they can help build and communicate the case for change, and articulate a guiding vision for 21st-century learning
In the past, educational institutions were technological islands, with technology often limited to supporting existing practices, and learners outpacing education institutions in their adoption and consumption of technology. Now education needs to use the potential of technologies to liberate learning from past conventions and connect learners in new and powerful ways, with sources of knowledge, with innovative applications and with one another.
The challenge is that such system transformation cannot be mandated by government, which leads to surface compliance, nor can it be built solely from the ground up.
Governments cannot innovate in the classroom, but they can help build and communicate the case for change, and articulate a guiding vision for 21st-century learning. Government has a key role as platform and broker, as stimulator and enabler; it can focus resources, set a facilitative policy climate, and use accountability and reporting modifications to encourage new practice.
But education needs to better identify key agents of change, champion them, and find more effective approaches to scaling and disseminating innovations. That is also about finding better ways to recognise, reward and give exposure to success, to do whatever is possible to make it easier for innovators to take risks and encourage the emergence of new ideas. The past was about public versus private; the future is about public with private.
These challenges look daunting, but many countries are now well on their way towards finding innovative responses to them, not just in isolated, local examples, but systemically.
Image credit: Financial Times