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Reimagining our futures together: a new social contract for education

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What you need to know about UNESCO’s Futures of Education report

Let’s reflect on education as we look to 2050: What should we continue doing? What should we abandon? What needs to be creatively invented afresh? UNESCO is proposing answers to these three essential questions in its new global report on the Futures of Education entitled Reimagining our futures together: A new social contract for education.

Over a million people have taken part in the global consultation process that informed this long-awaited flagship publication which calls for a major transformation in education to repair past injustices and enhance our capacity to act together for a more sustainable and just future. Two years in the making, the Report was prepared by an International Commission with the aim of catalysing a global debate and movement to forge a new social contract for education. What does that look like? Here’s what you need to know.

Why is this report relevant now?

Our world is at a turning point. We already know that knowledge and learning are the basis for renewal and transformation. But global disparities – and a pressing need to reimagine why, how, what, where, and when we learn – mean that education is not yet fulfilling its promise to help us shape peaceful, just, and sustainable futures. In our quest for growth and development, we have overwhelmed our natural environment, threatening our own existence. Today, high living standards coexist with gaping inequalities. More and more people are engaged in public life, but the fabric of civil society and democracy is fraying in many places around the world. Rapid technological changes are transforming many aspects of our lives. Yet, these innovations are not adequately directed at equity, inclusion and democratic participation. That’s why we must reimagine education.

What is a ‘social contract’ and why do we need a new one for education?

Education can be seen in terms of a social contract – an implicit agreement among members of a society to cooperate for shared benefit. A social contract is more than a transaction as it reflects norms, commitments and principles that are formally legislated as well as culturally embedded. The starting point is a shared vision of the public purposes of education. During the twentieth century, public education was essentially aimed at supporting national citizenship and development efforts through the form of compulsory schooling for children and youth. Today, however, as we face grave risks to the future of humanity and our planet, we must urgently reinvent education to help address these common challenges. The new social contract for education must unite us around collective endeavours and provide the knowledge and innovation needed to shape sustainable and peaceful futures for all anchored in social, economic, and environmental justice. It must, as this report does, champion the role played by teachers.

What are the key principles of this new social contract?

A new social contract must build on the broad principles that underpin human rights – inclusion and equity, cooperation, and solidarity, as well as collective responsibility and interconnectedness – and be governed by the following two foundational principles:

  • Assuring the right to quality education throughout life. It must also encompass the right to information, culture and science – as well as the right to access and contribute to the knowledge commons, the collective knowledge resources of humanity that have been accumulated over generations and are continuously transforming.
  • Strengthening education as a public common good. As a shared societal endeavour, education builds common purposes and enables individuals and communities to flourish together. A new social contract for education must not only ensure public funding for education, but also include a society-wide commitment to include everyone in public discussions about education.

These foundational principles build on what education has allowed humanity to accomplish to this point and help to ensure that, as we move to 2050 and beyond, education empowers future generations to reimagine their futures and renew their worlds.

What are some of the main challenges we face and how are they linked to education?

Widening social and economic inequality, climate change, biodiversity loss, resource use that exceeds planetary boundaries, democratic backsliding and disruptive technological automation are the hallmarks of our current historical juncture. These multiple overlapping crises and challenges constrain our individual and collective human rights and have resulted in damage to much of life on Earth. While the expansion of education systems has created opportunities for many, vast numbers have been left with low-quality learning.

Multiple alternative futures are possible, and disruptive transformations can be discerned in several key areas:

  • The planet is in peril but decarbonization and the greening of economies are underway. Here children and youth already lead the way, calling for meaningful action and delivering a harsh rebuke to those who refuse to face the urgency of the situation.
  • Over the past decade the world has seen a backsliding in democratic governance and a rise in identity-driven populist sentiment. At the same time, there has been a flourishing of increasingly active citizen participation and activism that is challenging discrimination and injustice worldwide.
  • There is tremendous transformative potential in digital technologies, but we have not yet figured out how to deliver on these many promises.
  • The challenge of creating decent human-centred work is about to get much harder as Artificial Intelligence (AI), automation and structural transformations remake employment landscapes around the globe. At the same time, more people and communities are recognizing the value of care work and the multiple ways that economic security needs to be provisioned.

These emerging disruptions have significant implications for education. The ways we currently organize education across the world do not do enough to ensure just and peaceful societies, a healthy planet, and shared progress that benefits all. In fact, some of our difficulties stem from how we educate. A new social contract for education needs to allow us to think differently about learning and the relationships between students, teachers, knowledge, and the world.

What are the proposals for renewing education?

  • Pedagogy needs to move from a focus on teacher-driven lessons centred on individual accomplishment to instead emphasize cooperation, collaboration and solidarity.
  • Curricula are often organized as a grid of subjects and need to shift to emphasize ecological, intercultural and interdisciplinary learning.
  • Teaching needs to move from being considered an individual practice to becoming further professionalized as a collaborative endeavour.
  • Schools are necessary global institutions that need to be safeguarded. However, we should move from the imposition of universal models and reimagine schools, including architectures, spaces, times, timetables, and student groupings in diverse ways.
  • In all times and spaces of learning we should move from thinking of education as mostly occurring in schools and at certain ages, and instead welcome and expand educational opportunities everywhere for everyone.

How can we trigger a new social contract for education?

Large-scale change and innovation are possible. We will build a new social contract for education through millions of individual and collective acts – acts of courage, leadership, resistance, creativity, and care. A new social contract needs to overcome discrimination, marginalization, and exclusion. We must dedicate ourselves to ensuring gender equality and the rights of all regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, disability, sexual orientation, age, or citizenship status. A massive commitment to social dialogue, to thinking and acting together, is needed.

  • A call for research and innovation. A new social contract requires a worldwide, collaborative research programme that focuses on the right to education throughout life. This programme must centre on the right to education and be inclusive of different kinds of evidence and ways of knowing including horizontal learning and the exchange of knowledge across borders. Contributions should be welcomed from everyone – from teachers to students, from academics and research centres to governments and civil society organizations.

  • A call for global solidarity and international cooperation. A new social contract for education requires renewed commitment to global collaboration in support of education as a common good, premised on more just and equitable cooperation among state and non-state actors. The international community has a key role to play in helping states and non-state actors to align around the shared purposes, norms and standards needed to realize a new social contract for education. The educational needs of asylum seekers, refugees, stateless persons and migrants, in particular, need to be supported through international cooperation and the work of global institutions.

  • Universities and other higher education institutions must be active in every aspect of building a new social contract for education. From supporting research and the advancement of science to being a contributing partner to other educational institutions and programmes in their communities and across the globe, universities that are creative, innovative and committed to strengthening education as a common good have a key role to play in the futures of education.

  • It is essential that everyone be able to participate in building the futures of education – children, youth, parents, teachers, researchers, activists, employers, cultural and religious leaders. We have deep, rich, and diverse cultural traditions to build upon. Humans have great collective agency, intelligence, and creativity. And we now face a serious choice: continue on an unsustainable path or radically change course.

This Report is more an invitation to think and imagine than a blueprint. The questions that arise need to be taken up and answered in communities, in countries, in schools, in educational programmes and systems of all sorts – all over the world. Forging a new social contract for education is a critical step towards reimagining our futures together.