The Future of Education in a Post-Pandemic World

By Jay Chambers, GLOBUS Correspondent

The UN’s 4th Sustainable Development Goal covers the aim of ensuring an ‘inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all’. Yet in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic wiped out 20 years of educational gains, 9% of children grades 1 through 8 fell below the UN’s ‘minimum reading proficiency levels’, and with slow progress in school completion predicted to get worse throughout the 20’s decade, it is becoming clear that our current approach to schooling is failing students’ current and future livelihoods. Governments and their educational systems and services are challenged in novel ways in the 21st century, such as by creating a strong focus on communities and engagement, as well as integrating 21st century technology and the immense collaboration and exposure that different sectors have through these channels. There has even been a surge in popularity of the worrying belief that ‘EdTech’ might do to the institution of education what Amazon has done to shopping, and SDG4 may not be enough to deal with it. 

Post-pandemic, much of the research concerning education and its role in sustainable development highlights two strands of issues: equitable accessibility and the meaning and purpose of education. Education, sometimes overlooked, is actually integral to the sustainable development agenda. Firstly, education is an integral factor in shaping a healthy population. In the ‘western knowledge economy’, a candidate with a higher level of education (to HE level) is more likely to be employed in a job role which includes health insurance, paid sick leave and retirement support. Also, these jobs typically pay a ‘higher’, more stable income, and allow the individual to access healthy foods, pay for health services and exercise regularly, which naturally lead to a greater psychological and physiological quality of life. Schools and Universities as physical institutions also provide some of these services, serving food, providing welfare support and space for social and cultural exchange. More directly, there is also the benefit of ‘sustainability education’ itself, informing individuals of the social and environmental problems associated with the ‘sustainability agenda’. Education is a vital ingredient in the UN’s commitment to create a world of ‘holistic flourishing’, but, in a world still recovering from a COVID-19 death toll of over 6 million, how do we ensure that education remains an integral focus for the world’s policy- and decision-makers? 

The future of schooling has never looked more volatile. Following 2020, there has been an informal consensus that change is necessary for education to thrive in the so-called ‘Decade of Action‘. The institution of Education need a fresh outlook, and Valerie Hannon suggests that a redesign of the institution is necessary for the social ‘institution’ of schooling—that which fosters wellbeing and enables communities to thrive—to continue existing. A ‘global thought leader’, and co-founder of the Global Education Leaders’ Partnership, Hannon’s collaborative, post-pandemic research project scanned through 23 so-called ‘future-focused’ and diverse organisations with the aim of distilling design principles for the global future of schooling. Hannon’s findings have great depth and value, identifying three broad ‘clusters’ of principles: key values, operational philosophy and the learner experience, each with its own distilled set of actionable principles. As ingredients, or co-ordinates, of a new model for education delivery, one may be concerned that these simply represent yet another neo-colonial, western-developmental framework — something Hannon (arguably) reflexively addresses, in emphasising that the schools analysed in the research represent a broad and diverse landscape of delivery, each combining and adhering to principles differently, as well as social, economic and geographical contexts, ranging from California, to Delhi, to New Zealand, and to Spain. Among all of these contexts, ethical, expert-led leadership emerged as a key area for the future school, enriching the pool of ideas and innovation and abandoning the ‘bureaucratic mindset’ that has plagued the discipline far too long. 

Although, he principles informing the ‘future school’, as positive as they are presented, fail to confidently address a great challenge underpinning the sustainable development agenda: the climate emergency. Neatly packaged by the UN, under ‘Goal 13: Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts’, the climate emergency is often overlooked as the underpinning key of development — and continued life on Earth. Hannon’s call for an ’unbureaucratic mindset’ recognises a vital need for new, unrestricted thinking to emerge. But without climate action, these adaptations to education will be useless, as major, damaging climatic events continue to increase in intensity and frequency, as political leaders demonstrate their profound ignorance in planning to produce more than twice the amount of the fossil fuels in 2030 than would be required to limit global warming to the 1.5 degree level, despite climate expert Professor Sir David King demand of governments across the world to act—within “the next three to four years”, in other words, before 2025. These hard-hitting, almost unbearable facts, represent the truth of our current predicament. If education is to thrive in the ‘post-COVID’ future, it has to focus in the present, underpinned by the truth about the climate crisis, that is, if we hope to ever produce those ‘future-focused leaders’ we desperately need to take real, meaningful climate action. 

Header image by UNclimatechange via Flickr

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