Within the education sphere and beyond a new global conversation is emerging. In a year which has dramatically exposed the fragility of our world – of our human, societal, and planetary systems – questions recur that cut to the core of our common humanity and interdependence. What does it mean to thrive, to flourish, and to lead a good life? What does it mean to live and work with dignity, to be well and do well? What does it mean to be a citizen in the 21st Century, with responsibility for the wellbeing of current and future generations as well as our planetary regeneration and sustainability? And how can we thrive and flourish in a world characterized by existential emergencies, social injustice, and deepening inequalities which threaten our societal and ecological foundations?
We develop our capacity to thrive in the places within which we live. Our families, friends, and peers, our communities and neighborhoods, and our educational experiences are all major influences on how we learn to think about ourselves, our societies, and our planet. It is through our lived experience that we develop our foundational knowledge and capacities; our values, aspirations, and worldviews; and our sense of agency to shape our world.
Growth through learning is a lifelong process, and the notion of thriving is increasingly understood in relation to the social and experiential opportunities that we have to discover ourselves, find our passions and talents, develop new knowledge, skills, and capabilities, to build social capital and meaningful relationships with others. Our wellbeing across the life-course can be seen through five critical dimensions – physical, emotional, cognitive, relational, spiritual – all of which need to be nurtured for human, societal, and planetary wellbeing.
Talent is evenly distributed, opportunity is not
The unequal distribution of such learning opportunities is one of the most acute and pervasive injustices of our time. Current systems of achievement, particularly within formal education, often serve as a barrier to accessing opportunities, and chances for progression and growth. Our societies are driven by individualized notions of success characterized by high stakes competition, ranking and sorting, where your postcode still proves to be the most likely determinant of success and wellbeing in life.
As noted by Andreas Schleicher in his book World Class: How to build a 21st Century School System: “How a society develops and uses the knowledge and skills of its people is among the chief determinants of its prosperity. We must distribute the core asset of our times, human potential, far more equitably.”
If we are to move to an equity-minded society built on the prosperity of all, we need to:
1) shift towards a new paradigm for accessing opportunities and experiences which recognizes learning in new ways and unlocks doors across the life-course, and equips us with the knowledge, skills, and capacities needed to thrive together.
2) develop new forms of public administration and systems leadership that enable this transition.
Connected Learning Ecosystems
The concept of learning ecosystems has arisen in response to this dual need. It’s based on the idea that learning experiences and opportunities – inside and outside of formal education, in the home, community, and the workplace – should be connected in a way that enables learners to discover their interests, progress their learning, gain recognition, and grow through previously invisible or inaccessible pathways. As noted in this recent ILO report, visualizing potential pathways to goals and aspirations is an essential motivator for self-development. These pathways expand horizons and recognize different potentials, build learners’ networks, and create places where more people feel that their future matters.
Learning Ecosystems as New Public Leadership
This kind of paradigm shift requires significant change at a systemic level, and the idea of learning ecosystems is also emerging as a methodology for multi-sectoral partnership working and collaboration. As a new model for public leadership and administration, it creates coherence across often highly fragmented localized systems of provision at a city or regional level by changing the way that actors interact and cultivate civic infrastructure.
In a recent podcast on innovation and inclusive growth, Singaporean Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam discusses the importance of eco-systemic ways of working that require coordination across different governmental portfolios, new leadership capabilities, and new funding strategies and translational vehicles, which in turn drive continuous learning and innovation. This more advanced form of systems leadership can unleash and direct existing, latent, and new assets and resources across a system.
Learning ecosystems have a distinctive set of organizing principles:
- Social. Including new leadership behaviors and mindsets; relationships and practices between people, organizations and networks; cultures built on deep trust, shared purpose, openness and experimentation.
- Technical. Including platforms, data and information exchange; advocacy and communication; new tools and learning innovations.
- Operational. Including new modes of orchestration based on anchor stewardship, distributed governance and co-ownership; goal setting and mobilization for the long term; new funding and investment vehicles, and approaches to impact evaluation.
These new systems capacities seem critical if we are to design policies and processes which foster greater social and economic resilience, adaptability, and flourishing – of both people and places – in the face of immense change and uncertainty. Something that the current pandemic has very much crystalized our attention on.