Manifesting the Future of Education: Dr. Noah Sobe

Manifesting the Future of Education: Dr. Noah Sobe

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Dr. Noah Sobe is Senior Project Officer  on the Future of Learning and Innovation   team at UNESCO in Paris, where he recently  assisted with the research and drafting of   UNESCO's new flagship report on the Futures  of Education entitled, reimagining our futures   together: a new social contract for education.  And just as a side, that report actually has been   some of the inspiration for this convening today  since the report did a call for collaboration, so   this convening in a way is a response to that call  for collaboration to join in on the conversation.   Noah is at UNESCO while on extended leave  of absence from his faculty position   as a Professor at Loyola University, Chicago.  He is also Past-President of the Comparative and   International Education Society, and the Editor  of the journal, European Education, Noah.

- Thanks very much, Alicia, for that introduction,  and it's great to be here. It's wonderful to   follow you, Olli, I think there's a huge number  of points of overlap and synergy between which you   were presenting, I mean, the importance of values,  the importance of thinking about our purposes,   and also as Alicia mentioned, the real  urgency of working in collaboration   are things that are front and central in  this UNESCO project that I've been involved   with for the past three years, a report titled,  reimagining our futures together: a new social   contract for education. So, what I'm going to do  is talk very briefly about some of the orienting   frameworks and recommendations that come out of  that report because I think they'll be useful   when I go into more detail as asked on the digital  transformation of education in that dimension.   Let me start with the overarching argument  of the report. And if you want to get a copy,  

I can put it a link in the chat afterwards. If  you google, UNESCO Futures of Education, you'll   come to it, or if you scan that QR code you'll  get to it, but I think it was distributed in the   materials for this. So the overarching argument  of the report begins with the realization that   many of us are increasingly aware that we're at  a turning point. If we're honest with ourselves,   we also know that doing more of the same,  even if faster, even if more efficiently,   is propelling us towards a cliff, it's simply not  sustainable, either in terms of our relationships   with the living planet Earth or our relationships  with one another, both within and across countries   for us to continue as we are. So we face a choice.  We can continue on an unsustainable path, or we   can radically change course. Now, we know that  education has great power to bring about change,   we know that knowledge and learning are essential  for any social transformation, but at present   the ways we organize education do not do enough  to ensure justice, peace, and a healthy planet.  

And in fact, some of our difficulties stem from  how we educate. So the primary argument of this   new report is that we need a new social contract  for education that can both repair past injustices   while transforming the future. So I'll go into  a little bit of detail on this, but first,   a quick word on how this was prepared. I think I  see some names in the room that I recognize from  

participation in focus groups and discussions.  So, the report, which is an independent report,   was prepared by an international  commission on the Futures of Education,   that was chaired by the President of Ethiopia, her  excellence, Madam Sahle-Work Zewde. She was joined   by 17 other global thought leaders from different  areas and different parts of the world. So they   composed an international commission that authored  the report, and crucially, with the input, with   the ideas, the hopes and fears of over a million  people worldwide who joined and engaged during the   two year preparation process that included focus  groups, that included online platforms, webinars,   background papers, a whole extensive engagement  that is actually still ongoing as we roll out   the report, and I'll say more about that  at the end. It's perhaps useful, and Olli  

covered some of this already, to begin with kind  of an assessment of where we are. On the one hand,   long-term trends show that we have actually come a  long way in education in terms of access, in terms   of learning outcomes, in terms of gender equality.  But of course that progress has been very uneven   and many of today's gaps are based on yesterday's  exclusions and injustices. You know, one in five   children today in low income countries, one in 10  across the world are still out of school. Olli,  

usefully mentioned that, you know, you can  create systems that have great schools, but   that doesn't mean you're creating great education  systems. So, there's a lot of work to do to   even meet the past promises of education.  You know, what we have looked to education   to accomplish in the past, and of course, I  don't need to tell you that the COVID pandemic   has really exacerbated these challenges and  the inequalities that we face around the boat.   So, as if that weren't enough of course, we also  are amidst a number of emerging disruptions and   real uncertainties about the future. The planet is  in peril, but of course at the same time, there's   great momentum to heal it. Democratic governance  is under attack, but at the same time, activism   and citizen participation is growing. Ensuring a  human-centered world of work is getting harder,  

but at the same time, more attention in many  places is being paid to purpose and to work that   matters. And then finally, as I'll go into more  detail later on, digital technologies have great   potential but they don't always deliver on their  promises. So these are all emerging disruptions,   they are the known unknowns, and what's unknown  about them is the direction that they'll head, I   would submit and this is a position strongly taken  by the UNESCO report, that our task is not simply   to respond, but to shape the direction of these  uncertain changes of these transformations. In  

other words, it's really important to think  of education, both as adapting and adjusting   to a changed world, but also actively striving  to shape and change the world. The final thing I   want to mention that I think is very important  in framing of this report and perhaps useful   when I get into the digital technology, this  I think connects very closely with a number of   things Olli was mentioning across so many of the  conversations that we had, the commission had,   in trying to mobilize really a global discussion  about futures of education, we heard repeatedly   the concern of many people that things feel out  of balance right now, that there's a real need for   us to relearn our interdependencies, to rebalance  our relationships with each other, with the living   planet Earth and with technology. So, you know,  finding that balance I think is very much takes   us into questions about what it means to be  human and how we want to express our humanity,   and maybe even how we want to improve  our humanity. The call in the report   is to build a new social contract for education.  This is something that's going to require   ongoing collaboration, and it's not something  that's one and done, I think we all know from   working in many cases on this call decades in the  field of education, that this will always be an   ongoing process, there's not going to be a magic  bullet solution that's going to solve and position   us for the future. But just as our anticipation  of the future changes, what we commit to,  

how we work together in education's going  to need to change. So, to begin some of the   real extensive cultural, social changes that  are needed, the commission focused on five areas   of education, five dimensions, each of these is  the subject of a detailed chapter in the report,   very specific, rapid recommendations that actually  are quite granular. But to quickly recap, in   pedagogy, so thinking about, as Olli was talking  about, you know, learning as a set of an education   is a set of relationships between a learner,  knowledge, competencies, the world, and a teacher.   You know, there is in many places in the  world a real focus on teacher driven lessons   despite the fact that we bring groups of learners  together into the same spaces, our efforts are   largely directed at individual accomplishment.  And the commission proposes that in a new social  

contract for education, pedagogy needs to be  organized around principles of cooperation,   collaboration, and solidarity. Now, in many places  today in the world, curricula are organized as a   kind of bureaucratic grid of subjects. And  the call here is to shift to an emphasis on   ecological, intercultural, interdisciplinary  learning. And if you stop and think about it,   what ties those three things together is an  invitation for us to think more in terms of   connections than in terms of categories. In  many parts of the world, teaching is considered  

an individualized practice, something that occurs  behind a classroom door. And the call in this   report is to increasingly professionalize  teaching as a collaborative endeavor   where the autonomy and the freedom of teachers is  supported and they become valued participants in   public debates on the futures of education. As for  all of us, the experience of the COVID disruption   for the commission and everyone involved in this  project to give a lot of thought to the school,   what we learned by the absence and closure of the  school, we know that as the school became a global   institution across the 20th century, a universal  model and universal procedural norms were imposed,   not always with the right kind of localization  and sensitivity to different contexts. However,   the commission and this report strongly feels that  the school as a place that brings people together   to learn within from others is something that  needs to be protected and safeguarded even as   it needs to be transformed, reimagined in diverse  ways. And finally, when we consider the broader   educational ecosystems, we need to ensure that in  addition to schools and educational and training   organizations, we're thinking about welcoming and  expanding learning opportunities in all social   and cultural spaces. So, I think this aligns  very closely with what Olli laid out about the   necessity to think holistically and kind of to  tackle the whole set of elements that go into   education at the same time. Let me now go into  what I'm supposed to talk about , which is the  

digital transformation of education, which I  wanted to plug into that because I wanted to   basically begin by recognizing that the  accelerating transformation of our societies   by digitalization, by digital technologies, is  of course reshaping how we learn, how we live.   The digital technologies, particularly  ones focused on enhancing connectivity,   really can enrich educational processes,  can improve learning outcomes,   they can be bent in the direction of supporting  human rights, of enhancing human capabilities,   also of facilitating collective action in the  directions of peace, justice, and sustainability.   But we clearly have not yet fully delivered on  many of these promises. And in fact, too often,   the digital drives us apart  instead of bringing us together.   So, the first thing I want to just point out is  that this contradiction is in fact no different   than the contradiction that we've experienced  at other great moments of technological change,   be that the agricultural revolution or the  industrial revolution where major collective gains   also come with worrisome increases in inequality  and exclusion, ensuring that proper rollout   is something that takes time and deliberate  attention. When we look to the future, and I think   it's important, I mean, it's of course famously  difficult to, you know, talk about technological   trends, more difficult than talking about trends  in other domains, but I still think it's possible   to identify some of the emerging disruptions, and  then again, we both need to react and adapt to and   try to steer. You know, the first of these is  a pretty significant transformation in human  

meaning making. You know, the data that can  emerge from digital processes, the increasing   ability that we have to store, to transmit  and search information, gives us vast new   computational powers. And obviously that comes  with considerable risk, and one of those risks   is that it can sideline other ways of knowing, for  example, indigenous or low tech, the ephemeral,   the spiritual, you know, non-commoditized  forms of knowledge. So, in our attention   to the ongoing transformation of human meaning  making, we obviously need to attend to that.   The second disruption that I think is important  for us to pay attention to is the substitution   of machines for human decision making. You  know, we're seeing across many sectors,  

and education is part of this, an expanded  use of algorithmic machine learning techniques   that are really entering into the terrain  of social and political decision making,   and in some cases replacing human judgment. To an  extent, you know, we're all aware that bias and   subjectivity might be able to be controlled by  technological processes that have transparency,   yet we also at the same time know that those  processes can be veiled in secrecy and complexity,   and can in fact reinforce the very biases that  we're trying to overcome. The possible erosion   of intellectual and personal freedom, you know,  the ways that certain forms of digital technology   lend themselves to surveillance and control,  you know, creates considerable room for abuse,   and as we look to the future, that's something  we should be paying great attention to.   Right now, digital platforms in education are  really quite linked to commercial interests,   and advanced purposes linked to the broader  business objectives of their providers.   Now, there's a strong movement in the UNESCO  and across other organizations as well,   including the OECD, to build robust public  infrastructure, open educational resources.  

So I think, again, this is an area of emerging  disruption where it's in our hands to steer.   Finally, I think the displacement of social,  political, cultural, economic, even interpersonal   life into virtual spaces, raises some profound  questions about what it means to be human and   what are core approaches to  teaching and learning need to be.   So, how do we respond to this? I'm going to talk  quickly about recommendations in three areas.   You know, the first of which is  ensuring that digital technology   actually empowers and connects. We can do this  by focusing on supporting learner wellbeing,   you know, by making sure that when kids are using  Google Classroom or whatever online platforms for   their interactions, that we're paying attention  to the ways that those same technologies can be   individually isolating. You know, there's a lot  of research out there pointing to the increased  

loneliness, selfishness, even narcissism that's  accompanying the spread of social media and other   technologies into our lives. So, as we use  education, pay close attention to the sort   of wholeness of people's needs to support  their wellbeing. Second, to increase public   investment in open digital resources, resources  that are unbeholden to commercial interests, that   are based on a commitment to the common good, and  resources that are open in two important respects,   one in terms of access and freely available,  but also open to be manipulated, to be adapted,   and to be added to and changed by learners.  We also, I think, need to, if there's a need   for connectivity, and I think there is,  clearly we need to close digital divides,   we also need to respect non-connectivity, the  offline life-worlds. We need to ensure that  

our rush for technological solution doesn't drown  out on non-digital forms of knowing and learning.   The second set of recommendations that I  want to put forward is around the principle   of centering the most marginalized, right?  So, clearly we need to close digital divides.   You know, we need to enable any time, anywhere  internet access for students and teachers.   In doing that though, we need to commit  to safeguarding cultural diversity,   to language diversity, we know that connectivity  on its own is not going to produce that,   but it's going to take a lot of intention and  effort and shared work. This is really a call for   adopting principles of inclusive design. You know,  one of the problems with a lot of innovation in  

education, but this holds across a lot of areas is  that, you know, it's typically designed and tested   on a unique profile, often those who are, you  know, already enjoying privilege and advantage,   and then it's rolled out and adapted to others. So  the call here is to reverse that process and begin   with the most vulnerable and the most marginalized  situations, you know, with the learners who are   most in need of greater opportunities, and then  to scale out to more privileged communities.   Finally, it's I think really important for us  to require that technology foremost, you know,   as we use it in schools, as we use it outside of  schools and in formal and non-formal education,   that it serve educational purposes. So, the first  point is, you know, is the strong conviction of   the commission that digital technologies cannot  and should not be allowed to replace schools,   that learning cannot be fully displaced into  virtual spaces, that is put forward as a lesson   of the COVID pandemic. You know, that fully  remote online schooling is a poor substitute   for the positive learning environments that  schools can provide. You know, second here,   that we really need to work on leveraging digital  connectivity around enhancing access to knowledge.  

You know, there's amazing ways that the digital  opens up possibilities for teachers and students   to access texts, to access artwork, to connect to  other kinds of human experiences across the world,   and we need to make that the focus of our  efforts. You know, connected with that,   you know, digital tools have been very useful as  ways to promote communication between teachers,   parents, and students, also to bring parents into  supporting their children's learning in new ways.   We need to remember that alongside the digital  being such a valuable communication tool,   it's a really valuable creation tool, right? That  students can create videos, it's not just a matter   of receiving things from the world, but it is  a way of enabling people to put things out in   the world. You know, clearly we need strict data  protections and to ensure ethical use of AI and   algorithms to make sure that, you know, when they  bring their predictive models, that's not relying   on or reproducing existing stereotypes and systems  of exclusion. So, I want to close by going back to  

the call in the Futures of Education report  for really centering on education that creates   and nurtures possibilities. And the three  questions that are put forward, you know, as   questions that inspire the commission's  reflections to begin with, inspire the report,   but are questions that need to be asked by  all of us as we, you know, continue this   ongoing collaboration work together. So the  first of these is to begin by thinking about,   what is it that we do in education now that we  should continue? You know, what might need to be   strengthened or safeguarded? And why, you  know, why are these the important things   to keep moving forward? Connected with that is  a conversation about, what we need to abandon,   what we need to move away from, what we might need  to unlearn, and why those elements of education,   be they practices, policies, or even assumptions,  are actually doing us more harm than good,   that's an important step towards  moving forward. And then finally,  

taking some time to identify what is it that  needs to be really creatively reimagined afresh?   And maybe that's something, you know, it's  just begins with a process of identifying, hey,   we haven't figured out how to do this. You know,  it's not something, maybe it'll take six months,   maybe it'll take six years to solve, but these  sets of questions, you know, what to continue,   what to abandon, and what to reinvent, is the  suggestion put forward by the UNESCO commission   on the futures of education for best transforming  education. And I think they're as applicable to   the questions around the digital  transformation of education in front of us   as they are to other areas. So, I'll  close with that, thank you very much.

2022-07-10 18:25

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