Last week in London, education heads from all over the globe gathered at the Institute of Education, London at an event organised by the Asia Society Center for Global Education to discuss 21st century skills in a global context; and what that really means. Before the panel were consulted, the event started with an introduction about the state of our current global climate. Mass migration and it's implications was one of the key issues presented to the audience. The rapid ascension of digitization was also noted, which meant that education needed to look outside of key subjects such as maths, science and English.
It was clear the ability to understand and communicate on a global level struck both the panel and the audience, and was a key topic of conversation over the course of the evening. In our last blog post, we discussed how empathy has become one of the key trends in education and it was evident that the educational professionals who had gathered that evening had this skill set on their minds as well.
The Importance of Global Skills
Each member of the panel touched on the issue of people from different cultures and backgrounds living and working together and what this meant for the skills we should be teaching our school children. Andreas Schleicher, Director of PISA, discussed how telling it is for Europe to have faced so much disruption from the mass migration of people from other continents over the last few years. He suggested the breakdown of a once considered stable and democratic continent means that there is a call for an increase in the capacity to see the world through different lenses. In other words, the need for empathy.
It is not just migration that has triggered the importance of these skills, but the ability to communicate and do business globally. We now have to collaborate with people who are different from ourselves, cultural values need to be bridged, so it is clear we need to prepare the next generation to be able to do this.
Amy McIntosh, from the U.S. Department of Education, expanded on the issue of globalization from the perspective of an extremely diverse country. According to Amy, due to the vast diversity and landscape of America, it is vital for American citizens to be able to employ global skills. As she put it, 'Your workplace may not worship like you, your boss may not look like you, your customer may not speak the same language as you.'
This is an issue that the United States has been dealing with for a long time, considering the diverse nature of the country, so the issue of being able to bridge cultural gaps is vital for uniting the country, let alone foreign relations and business transactions. However this is not necessarily the view that education in the U.S. currently takes. According to McIntosh, education is not currently a main part of the discourse in America, but when the subject is broached it’s from the perspective that education needs to provide people with a ‘competitive advantage in the workforce.’
The main issue to be dealt with in American education is to make sure that people can get into college and employment, and McIntosh sees this as being the most important thing for happiness and healthiness. With high unemployment rates, it is evident that sometimes it is not possible to have the luxury of focusing education on well-being or empathetic tendencies, that what is important is the survival and prosperity of the country’s people. When your focus is on making sure people can get a job – a basic need of our societies throughout the world – it is hard to focus on other topics which seem in comparison a luxury.
The differences between large and small countries is paramount. Cindy Khoo, of the Singapore Ministry of Education, explained at the conference how the unique positioning of Singapore between China and Australia gives them an uncertain standing. Due to being a small country, they need to be able to compete otherwise they will be squashed and they ‘might not survive as a country’. However, it also provides them with a strategic positioning within Asia, with access to different cultural markets meaning they have been facing the concept of globalization for a long time already, putting them ahead of other larger countries.
Although they have to fight for their position, being a smaller country has its benefits for education that larger countries don’t always have. For instance, the focus of their education is much more personalized. Khoo informed the audience that education is about establishing life-long attitudes, and how their citizens can build a meaningful and fulfilling life. This is a much more idealised view on education that many larger countries would like to adopt but haven’t been able to implement yet. Being small, in this case, certainly seems to have its advantages.
Cultural Differences in Education
This may not just be a question of size however, but a question of culture. Minxuan Zhang, of the Research Institution for International and Comparative Education of Shanghai Normal University, discussed how education has changed in China. In Industrial Shanghai, Zhang explained how skills and knowledge were seen as power, and that this has now shifted with an increase in Chinese citizens from across the whole of the country studying and working abroad.
Global skills are key, along with learning English, which just wasn’t the case forty years ago. The focus, he said, was no longer just on having knowledge, but knowing how to use it. This was an interesting take on the purpose of education, as it’s a skill set which isn’t targeted to a specific work environment but allows pupils to learn skills which can adapt to any career landscape. This is a key idea, as digitization fails to slow down anytime soon, it seems pointless to educate children for the world we live in now, as we have no idea whether it will look like this in ten years time. In China they call these skills ‘core competencies’.
Andreas Schleicher summarised the difference between Western and Asian education succinctly, saying: ‘In the western world we study to get a job, in China you study to become an educated person.’ It’s hard to know which is best for the current climate, with jobs and the ability to provide for your family being an obvious intention of education. Though in a rapidly developing world it could be more useful in the long run for people to be educated to adapt to whichever environment they find themselves in. Cindy Khoo highlighted that this was the point of education in Singapore too, that students should have competencies that won’t change even as the world changes. This will get rid of the fear of instability and means that citizens will be ready and equipped no matter what.
Valerie Hannon, from the Innovation Unit, discussed how the educational system in the UK is outdated. The key metric in the UK is still in the form of GCSEs which was a system designed to fail people in a time when a large proportion of children left school at sixteen years old. This is no longer relevant in our current system which encourages the majority to go to university or college, and where the focus is on getting the edge and being career ready.
The focus of UK education is on power, similarly to America and in sharp contrast to Asian education, and could highlight where the educational system is failing. The emphasis on power could say something more about the position of the UK and the USA in the global workforce. For decades both of these countries have held a privileged position, with an ability to influence the rest of the world. To remain in top positions, of course they will need to focus on being able to compete (and beat) their neighbours, but could this be damaging the prospects of these countries citizens, rather than enhancing their opportunities?
Moving Socio-Emotional Learning to the Core of Education
One of the key things we need to decide is what do we want our educational system to do? Is it to prepare for careers, or is it for personal development? Valerie thought it should enable the world to thrive globally whilst empowering individuals. She suggested that there needs to be a shift in moving learning and socio-emotional learning to the core and bring real life opportunities to the centre of learning, rather than isolating schools from the real world.
Amy McIntosh informed the audience about an initiative in America that focused on doing just this. All the headteachers were gathered together and talked to about the importance of socio-emotional learning and then the next week all of the bus drivers were brought together and told about their role in this learning too. The theory was that bus drivers were the first person those kids would see on their way to school, and if they were having a bad day the bus driver should ask about it and try to help.
By starting this learning outside of the school, and in everyday occurrences, it brought the learning into the real world and empowered children. They were seen and heard, they were cared for, and these were social and emotional skills they could then use in their own friendships and relationships. This example gives just one small instance of how these changes can be implemented by those working in education so that learning doesn’t just happen in schools, and to encourage skills such as empathy and communication which are greatly needed in our globalized world.
Valerie Hannon continued on this point, explaining how schools have become one of the keystone institutions that hold our communities together and work as moral centres. Like the example provided by McIntosh, schools should be designed for their communities instead of copying other schools. The importance of building a community spirit in children, which increases empathy and understanding, will be something needed in the future as the term community stretches further to encompass the whole world, with all its different cultures and traditions. The concept of community is changing, it is not people who have lived in the same village their whole lives, but a convergence of different peoples from all kinds of backgrounds. We need to work on building community back in, to bind people together who otherwise may feel isolated from each other.
When looking at all the different perspectives shared, it is most telling to see what each person thought the purpose of education was. For McIntosh it was about getting jobs and into college, or Hannon it was to reinvent democracy, for Zhang it was to teach people how to use the knowledge they acquire, and Khoo thought it was to help people live fulfilling lives. Although these are all just individual opinions informed from different perspectives, and some are from the standpoint of what school should be rather than what it currently is; it is interesting to see what is important in different areas of the globe currently. It also shows just how difficult it is to design an educational system when there is no core purpose that is agreed upon. However, with the world becoming more interconnected, it is clear to see how education may remain a machine in which to fuel competition, as the playground keeps getting even bigger.
For more on these issues check out our other blog posts: