Preparing the next generation for their future, not our past

Europe's World

Citizens' Europe

Picture of Andreas Schleicher
Andreas Schleicher

Director for Education and Skills, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)

For those with the right knowledge and skills, digitalisation and globalisation have served as liberating and exciting forces. But for those who are insufficiently prepared, these are harbingers of vulnerability, job insecurity and a life with few 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 this is intimately tied to the distribution of educational opportunities.

While digital technologies may have disruptive implications for our economic and social structure, there is nothing preordained in their impact. On the contrary, we have agency: it is the nature of our collective and systemic responses to these challenges that will determine their influence.

The next generation of young citizens will create jobs, not seek them. That will require imagination, empathy, resilience and entrepreneurship. In other words, it calls for the ability to ‘fail forward’. In a world that requires constant adaptation, we will need to build both capacity and motivation for lifelong learning. While we used to learn to do the work, now learning has become the work. This will require a post-industrial way of learning, coaching, mentoring, teaching and evaluating. Technology, such as artificial intelligence, can be a powerful ally in that endeavour, giving people ownership over what they learn, how they learn, where they learn and when they learn.

Early on, learners need to be able to appreciate the value of learning well beyond school. They need to take responsibility for their learning and bring energy to the process. Lifelong learning does not just require people to constantly learn new things but also to un-learn and re-learn when contexts and paradigms change.

In a world that requires constant adaptation, we will need to build both capacity and motivation for lifelong learning

There is a lot that governments, employers and societies can do to help learners adapt. The easiest strategy consists of placing more emphasis on the relevance of learning to the world of work when teaching young students. Moreover, Europe’s educational institutions need to shift away from marketing study fields simply because they are easy to provide. Keeping the status quo will result in a struggle for certain university graduates to find a good job and employers to find people with the skills they need.

The shift from a qualifications-based certification system to a more skills-based certification system will be an equally important step. That means moving away 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.

It is now true that the kinds of things that are easy to teach have become easy to digitise and automate. The industrial age taught Europe how to educate second-class robots, making people compliant with the norms of the industrial society. In the age of artificial intelligence (AI), we will need to think harder about how to educate first-class humans. The future will rely on pairing AI with the cognitive, social and emotional skills and values of human beings. Whether AI will destroy or create more jobs will very much depend on our success with this.

Technology and AI are not magic entities. Rather, they act as extraordinary accelerators that add speed and accuracy. AI is ethically neutral: it will amplify good ideas and good practice in the same way it amplifies bad ideas and bad practice.  It is up to people to operate it responsibly.

Today, learners typically learn individually and at the end of the school year, we certify their individual achievements. However, the more interdependent the world becomes, the more we need great collaborators and orchestrators. Nowadays, innovation is rarely the product of individuals working in isolation. More generally, the demand for social and emotional skills has grown. Employers increasingly seek to attract learners who easily adapt to new contexts. This requires young people to understand the complex dynamics of globalisation, and be open to people from different cultural backgrounds.

Keeping the status quo will result in a struggle for certain university graduates to find a good job and employers to find people with the skills they need

The algorithms behind social media are sorting us into groups of like-minded individuals. They create virtual bubbles that echo our views and leave us insulated from divergent perspectives; they homogenise opinion and polarise our societies. Tomorrow’s citizens will need to think for themselves and join others with empathy in work and citizenship. They will need a strong sense of ethics and a firm grasp on the limits of individual and collective action. Europe has always been at its best when it was able to harness the power of its diversity. Digitalisation can enrich this capacity but also put it at risk.

Instruction in the past has been subject-based. In the future, it will need to be more project-based. Education systems need to embrace diversity with differentiated approaches to learning. Traditional practices included standardisation and compliance, with learners educated in age cohorts, following the same standard curriculum, all assessed at the same time. While the past was hierarchical, the future will be collaborative.

In the past, educational institutions were technological islands, with technology often limited to supporting roles. Learners outpaced institutions in their adoption and consumption of technology. Now education needs to use the potential of technology to liberate learning from old conventions and connect learners in new and powerful ways.

The challenge is that such systemic transformation cannot be mandated by government. Their role is to articulate a guiding vision for 21st century learning and act as platform and broker, as stimulator and enabler. Government can focus resources, set a facilitative policy climate and use accountability to encourage new practices.

Not least, Europe needs to better identify the key agents of change, champion them, and find more effective approaches to encouraging innovation. That is also about finding better ways to recognise and reward ingenuity and do whatever is possible to encourage innovators to take risks with their ideas. The past was about public versus private. The future will be about public with private.

If Europe has success with this, it can deliver a future for millions of learners who currently do not have one. That is not about making the impossible possible, but about making the possible attainable.

Andreas Schleicher was a discussant at Friends of Europe’s 2019 State of Europe, Vision Innovation for Europe

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