In September 2022, the United Nations organized the first-ever High-level Education Change Summit, calling on stakeholders to make commitments and address the challenges we face. We heard again how the needs are enormous: in low-income countries, 25% of youth and just over 55% of adults remain illiterate, while 250 million children are still out of primary school.
The World Bank’s State of Global Learning Poverty report notes that upheavals such as the COVID-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine, and the Taliban’s ban on secondary education for girls in Afghanistan
“A sharp increase in learning poverty, a measure of children unable to read and understand a simple syllable at the age of 10”.
As the Brookings Institution notes on the urgent need to change education systems:
“We are at a critical inflection point where hundreds of millions of children are likely to miss out on a quality education at the very moment when we have to confront climate change, increased conflict and the risks of renewed pandemics.”
In addition to the climate crisis, humanity faces many pressing issues: biodiversity, food, water, energy, poverty, inequality, democracy…the list is long. They are all intertwined and deeply difficult to untangle, and we face a global tragedy of the commons. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals were established to provide an overarching framework and set out a “shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and in the future.” But we are not on track to achieve it.
During the United Nations Education Summit, there was a clear indication that all parties that needed to address these issues were not at the table. Finance and investment were absent, and while the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank – both invited – were absent. Nearly half of the leaders who were also expected to attend, many chose to attend Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral instead.
Without all the major political and financial players at the table, how can we create a common blueprint for basic education and climate reform? There is a gap, indeed a gap, between the issues we face, the communities that confront them, and those in a position to address them.
A week after the summit, the Global Future Conference, organized by Arizona State University and the Earth League, took place during Climate Week in New York. Its mission was to identify “solutions that are ambitious and achievable” and “aimed to propel communities toward a future of opportunity rather than sacrifice.” The gathering identified education as one of the main drivers of transformation, but again there was a huge void, this time between education, climate and sustainability actors, with the Learning Planet Institute being one of the only organizations to attend both events.
We know that education for climate action has the potential to reduce up to 20 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide by 2050, an outcome better than more than three-quarters of the best climate solutions available today. However, most education systems today do not prepare students and learners to adapt, let alone face, these challenges.
We need to put systemic solutions in place very quickly to engage learners (young people, those in higher education, and lifelong learners) and help them understand how to collectively address challenges. It is no longer enough to try to upgrade the system – the gap is too big. Instead, education itself needs to be radically changed. In the words of United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, “Education should help people learn how to learn, with an emphasis on problem-solving and collaboration.”
Recent reports from the Rewired and Brookings Institution agree that various planetary crises require a reassessment of the purpose of education:
“Transformation means repositioning all components of the education system to contribute coherently to a new, common goal.”
We know the required competencies: collaboration, empathy, self-awareness, future literacy, team problem-solving, critical thinking, the ability to learn how to learn and how to unlearn. Several frameworks are available, including UNESCO’s Learning to Transform the World, but still the majority of education systems do not operate on this knowledge.
Frameworks for transformation, youth inclusion, and radical change
In practice, we know that there is vast experience in the world to implement change. Indeed, within the Planet Learning Institute – an initiative we launched with UNESCO to celebrate and highlight the transformative solutions being developed around the world – we see great examples of programs that promote independence, the ability and the motivation to learn, act and lead for a better world. Catts Pressoir, Escuela Nueva, Dream a Dream, and Design for Change are just a few examples of K-12 programs in Haiti, Colombia, and India that show that these teaching approaches are not limited to the Western world.
In higher education, many universities and government agencies have launched programs that go beyond sustainable literacy, to prepare the new generation to lead the next environmental, social and societal transformations. These include ASU’s Global Futures School, Cy Cergy Paris’ BA ACT, Stellenbosch University’s Sustainability Transitions Center, and EU Open17 platform.
At the regional and national levels, we are also seeing examples of systemic shift in action adapted to the local context: in Sierra Leone, Transforming Learning for All is an ambitious, comprehensive and innovative plan to improve education outcomes, particularly for girls, students with disabilities and children living in remote areas. Another inspiring example is British Columbia’s curriculum reforms. The Know-Do-Understand framework they use:
“It honors the ways in which students think, learn and grow, preparing them for a successful life of learning where constant change is constant.”
While Singapore regularly topped the international PISA rankings, it was also known for its systematic testing and rating procedures which caused high levels of anxiety and fear of failure. In 2019, they embarked on a deep reform of their education system, stating that learners should not compete with one another. Instead, they should be encouraged to learn how to learn, how to collaborate, and how to develop their creativity. Their example speaks volumes about the fact that radical change is possible.
And most importantly, we also know how excited young people are to get involved. The Youth Declaration on Transforming Education has received over 450,000 contributions demonstrating how young people want to participate meaningfully in education policy and decision-making as full partners, not just beneficiaries. Antonio Gutierrez now recognizes co-building with youth and youth empowerment as a fundamental principle for building tomorrow. Young people are literally the future, so they should be part of designing it.
We need to stop preparing young people for a world that no longer exists. Instead, we should all have the opportunity to learn about our shared global issues, and how to thrive and participate in addressing them. These ideas are not really new. Indeed, UNESCO’s 1972 report Learning to Be: The World of Education Today and Tomorrow was already calling for the following:
“[People] He must not earnestly acquire knowledge once and for all, but learn how to build an ever-evolving body of knowledge throughout life.”
How to bridge the gaps
Implementation of these shifts has never been more urgent, but it cannot and will not happen without the appropriate political attention and funding.
It is imperative that all stakeholders involved in these issues, particularly public and private financial bodies with a focus on climate change mitigation and solutions, come to the negotiating table. Together, by bringing together the knowledge of education experts with investments in education, we can bridge this critical gap between learning and the environment and drive the radical transformation of systems required to serve the needs of youth and our planet.
Introduction to the conversation
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