Introduction: Reimagining Education

Special Focus : Reimagining Education for a Better Future
Learning Ecosystems and Leadership August 18, 2020

There is a fantastic quote from the German philosopher Hannah Arendt “Education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it, and by the same token save it from that ruin which except for renewal, except for the coming of the new and the young, would be inevitable.”

This seems particularly prescient at this moment. We are in a time with the potential for great ruin but also great renewal. At the beginning of August UN Secretary-General Antonio Gutteres described the pandemic as having led to the largest disruption of education in history. Over a billion children have been affected, with the most vulnerable—”learners with disabilities, those in minority or disadvantaged communities, displaced and refugee students and those in remote areas at the highest risk of being left behind.”

This is also a moment of convergent crises, the pandemic, the climate crisis, the learning crisis that predates the pandemic, the mental health crisis for young people, intergenerational conflict, and in many parts of the world an escalation of the struggle for racial justice, the realization that there was still so much to do to meet the Sustainable Development Goal targets. Both the causes of and at least part of the necessary responses to these crises interconnect around issues of sustainability, social justice, and inequality. In the same article Gutteres also says “We are at a defining moment for the world’s children and young people’ and that ‘we have a generational opportunity to reimagine education.”

This idea of a generational opportunity is compelling and a return to the status quo in education seems increasingly unlikely. Education is often characterized as a conservative sector, but we have seen many examples during the first phase of this pandemic of change happening quickly. Innovations around teacher communities sharing resources on messaging services, or online learning, or the use of radio and television have happened around the world.

“Build back better” resonates because our societies, our cities, our education systems could be so much better than they were before the great disruptions of this year. There are radical lessons to be learned from the recovery from the Great Recession of 2008, especially around sustainability, social justice, and addressing inequality. Pre-pandemic our school systems simply did not work for far too many young people—250 million school age children were out of school and only a quarter of secondary school children were leaving school with basic skills in developing countries. Many people would go further and argue that the vast majority of students’ school experiences were not right for the 21st century, the wrong things were still in the curriculum, the process of learning hadn’t caught up with the reality of 21st century life for many students. Curricula around the world were too crowded, which makes it impossible to introduce new ideas around (for example) social and emotional learning, or education for sustainable development—how can we introduce new things when there is already not enough time in the day? 

There is a momentum at the moment around curriculum reform and rethinking learning environments, the “what” and the “where” of school. This is evident in many of the essays that follow. The “how” of school is being addressed in a great many different experiments around the world at the moment. One of the purposes of the conference series that has led to this book was to share insights that come from these experiments as they are happening. 

Technology is central to a lot of this thinking and will undoubtedly play a major role in the future of education in many societies. There is real risk here of exacerbating existing inequalities or creating new ones, and new educational paradigms need to be very sensitive to these risks.

Virtual or online learning is not a long-term replacement for all of the different functions that school can play in young people’s lives. In her autobiography Malala Yousazfai wrote about how “we realize the importance of our voices only when we are silenced.” Something similar is true of many parents’ reaction to school shutdowns, that it was only when schools were taken away that their true importance became clear. The experience of school is unique and is not going to be replaced by online or remote learning, however necessary those may be at the moment. School, and teachers, play a vital role that transcends the transmission of knowledge from one generation to the next. In some cases this has been referred to as the “hidden curriculum” and one of the consistent themes in these reimaginings is how that can be made more visible and central to the purpose of school in the future. 

The experience of school and the contents of curricula will play a fundamental role in determining a lot of the character of our societies in the future—the extent to which these societies prioritize compassion, empathy, and open mindedness rather than their opposites. The reimagining of curricula creates the space to also think about all sorts of necessary changes that link the solutions to the convergent crises outlined at the beginning of this essay. How can we align what happens in school to the needs of more sustainable economies, post pandemic, but still dealing with the longer-term challenge of the climate crisis? How can curricula change to address issues of mental health, well-being, and happiness? What might a curriculum of hope look like?

In a great essay called “Hope in the Dark” the author and activist Rebecca Solnit points out that “inside the word ‘emergency’ is ‘emerge’; from an emergency, new things come forth.” If we believe that there is a way past or through these convergent crises and that better, fairer, more fit for purpose education systems are possible, then the process of reimagining becomes a powerful, optimistic, hopeful exercise. But, (as Solnit also writes) “hope just means another world might be possible, not promised, not guaranteed. Hope calls for action; action is impossible without hope.” There are some remarkable experiments in education taking place at the moment. In many cases, these are both born out of necessity and a desire for change. We need to act to change the status quo because it wasn’t working pre-pandemic, it can’t work during the pandemic, and learners around the world deserve something better post-pandemic. The urgency of responses to the COVID-19 pandemic has unexpectedly created a space for rethinking education. It is our responsibility to use this “generational opportunity” to change our education systems for the better.