As the world becomes increasingly interconnected, so do the risks we face. The COVID-19 pandemic has not stopped at national borders, and affected people regardless of nationality, level of education, income or gender. But that has not been true for its consequences, which have affected the most vulnerable hardest.
Education has been no exception. Those from privileged backgrounds found their way around closed school doors to alternative learning opportunities, supported by their parents and eager to learn. Those from disadvantaged backgrounds remained shut out when schools shut down.
In a way, this crisis has exposed the many inadequacies and inequities in our education systems—from the broadband and computers needed for online education, through the supportive environments needed to focus on learning, up to our failure to attract the most talented teachers to the most challenging classrooms. But as these inequities are amplified in this time of crisis, this moment also holds the possibility that we won’t return to the status quo when things return to “normal”. It is the nature of our collective and systemic responses to the disruptions that will determine how we are affected by them.
Real change often takes place in deep crises. Where school closures are needed in the short term, we can mitigate their impact for learners, families and educators, particularly for those in the most marginalized groups. We can collaborate internationally to mutualize open online educational resources and digital learning platforms, and encourage technology companies to join this effort. We can rapidly enhance digital learning opportunities for teachers and encourage teacher collaboration beyond borders. Perhaps, most importantly, we can use the momentum to reshape curricula and learning environments to the needs of the 21st century.
We live in this world in which the kind of things that are easy to teach and test have also become easy to digitize and automate. The future is about pairing the artificial intelligence of computers with the cognitive, social and emotional skills and values of humans. It will be our imagination, our awareness and our sense of responsibility that will help us harness technology to shape the world for the better. Success in education nowadays is about identity, about agency and about purpose. It is about building curiosity—opening minds, it’s about compassion—opening hearts, and it’s about courage, mobilizing our cognitive, social and emotional resources to take action. And those will also be our best weapons against the biggest threats of our times—ignorance—the closed mind, hate—the closed heart, and fear—the enemy of agency.
These days, algorithms behind social media are sorting us into groups of like-minded individuals. They create virtual bubbles that often amplify our views but leave us insulated from divergent perspectives; they homogenize opinions and polarize our societies. So, tomorrow’s schools need to help students think for themselves and join others, with empathy, in work and citizenship. They will need to help them 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. And 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 growing complexity of modern living, for individuals, communities and societies, means that the solutions to our problems will also be complex: in a structurally imbalanced world, the imperative of reconciling diverse perspectives and interests, in local settings but with often global implications, means we need to become good in handling tensions and dilemmas. Striking a balance between competing demands—equity and freedom, autonomy and community, innovation and continuity, efficiency and democratic process—will rarely lead to an either/or choice or even a single solution. We need to think in a more integrated way that recognizes interconnections, our capacity to navigate ambiguity has become key.
Creativity in problem solving requires our capacity to consider the future consequences of our actions, with a sense of responsibility and with moral and intellectual maturity, so that we can reflect on our actions in the light of experiences and personal and societal goals. The perception and assessment of what is right or wrong, good or bad in a specific situation is about ethics.
That brings us to the toughest challenge in modern education: it’s about how we incorporate values into education. Values have always been central to education, but it is time that they move from implicit aspirations to explicit education goals and practices, so they help communities shift from situational values—meaning “I do whatever a situation allows me to do”— to sustainable values that generate trust, social bonds and hope. If education doesn’t build foundations under people, many will try to build walls, no matter how self-defeating that will become.
The bottom line is, if we want to stay ahead of technological developments, we have to find and refine the qualities that are unique to our humanity, and that complement, not compete with, capacities we have created in our computers. Schools need to develop first class humans, not second-class robots.
But to transform schooling at scale, we need not just a radical, alternative vision of what students need to learn, but also effective learning environments in which those knowledge, skills, attitudes and values are developed. This is not accomplished just by letting a thousand flowers bloom; it requires a carefully crafted enabling environment that can unleash teachers’ and schools’ ingenuity and build capacity for change. And it requires leaders who tackle institutional structures that too often are built around the interests and habits of educators and administrators rather than learners. We need leaders who are sincere about social change, imaginative in policy making, and capable of using the trust they earn to deliver effective reforms.
Technology will be an integral part of the future of learning. Technology can build communities of learners that make learning more social and more fun. Technology can build communities of teachers to share and enrich teaching resources and practices, and also to collaborate on professional growth and the institutionalization of professional practice. It can help system leaders and governments develop and share best practice around curriculum design, policy and pedagogy. Imagine a giant crowdsourcing platform where teachers, education researchers and policy experts collaborate to curate the most relevant content and pedagogical practice to achieve education goals, and where students anywhere in the world have access to the best and most innovative education experiences.