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01 Feb 2024
Hugh McLean

Foundational Learning Futures

On the occasion of the launch of NORRAG’s special issue (NSI 09) on “Foundational Learning: Debates and Praxes”, Hugh McLean reflects on the futures of foundational learning by drawing on Keri Facer’s notions of “friendship” and “fallibility”.

Every age feels as if it is on the edge of time: teetering on what has come before and poised for what comes next, its essentially unknown futures. It has been said that “the future belongs to those who prepare for it”. Strategic actions in the present therefore involve sensible ways of preparing ourselves, our communities, our societies for uncertain futures. In education, foundational learning is the time capsule for these inter-connected personal and collective futures. Luckily, we largely know what it needs to contain, not because we are able to forecast or control the future in any way, but because we have a good idea of the kinds of learning that are needed to provide the capabilities that future roles and challenges will require. 

NORRAG’s NSI 09—Foundational Learning: Debates and Praxes—confirms that foundational learning involves both precise sets of skills, including numeracy and literacy, and a broader set of attributes, including adaptability, critical thinking, creativity, and social and emotional skills. Policy grapples not so much with what the foundational learning package should contain but with what it should emphasise, how its elements should be sequenced, how funding should be distributed. NSI 09’s “Part Five: Pre-thinking Futures” merely brushes on how foundational learning engages the future, or indeed how our ideas of the future should engage foundational learning in the present. At the online launch of NSI 09 on January 24, World Education Day, Professor Keri Facer, who is a leading thinker on education futures helped us develop this conversation.

Prof Facer invoked Maxine Green’s idea of the social imagination¹, “thinking of things as if they could be otherwise”, to ask how foundational learning could help prepare for two major transformations individual humans and human societies are sure to face in the 21st century: 1) living in a disruptively warming world and 2) the pace of rapidly and disruptively changing technologies. “What does it mean to be human?” she asks, “in a world that reminds us it is awake?² And on a planet where our machines are better pattern matchers than we are and where human augmentation is likely to become part of the human experience?”

Keri Facer offers two additional F’s to help us think about foundational learning futures: friendship and fallibility. Friendship, she suggests, always emerges as indispensable for surviving change and supporting the adjustments and any changes of course that are needed as the future unfolds. Foundational learning dare not overlook these inter-relational skills. As I note in the introduction to NSI 09, not all of these competencies can be taught in structured ways, they are mostly learned intrinsically through human relationships both in and out of school. As several of the contributions to NSI 09 show, however, quality learning environments hot-house the development of inter-relational skills, including our relationships with other humans, with politics and power, with aesthetics and sports. As for fallibility—the acknowledgement of frailty and foolishness; these need to be embraced far more candidly within the learning experience. Our testing systems do not incentivise this. Keri Facer recalls John Moriarty’s ideas³ about being vulnerable to our experience as this is where deep learning lies. She also draws attention to the tension between the prevailing notions of standardisation and the need for a flourishing of differences: “a networked localism rather than a standard globalism.” Foundational learning should enable us to “make connections between different sorts of differences.” The way we test and monitor progress, as NSI 09 points out, needs to reflect this complex reality rather than attempt to smooth out its bumps.

Finally, foundational learning requires an understanding that the world includes both the long arc of geological time and the brief sparks of the micro interactions of many individual lived experiences. “We are part of long revolutions,” Keri Facer insists. These come together to tell the larger story of life on this planet and the responsibilities we share in ensuring that it thrives in all its diversity. Foundational learning should help to generate this meaning and purpose—understandings of what it means to be alive at this time, during this great extinction, on what Carl Sagan referred to as this “pale blue dot.”4    

Practically oriented educators may well ask: “this is all very well, but how does it affect what I teach, and how we organise and deliver education?” That would be a lot to address in a blog, of course, but if these are your questions, I’ll be happy to direct you to NSI 09 for all the rich experiences that are to be found there on what educators do to actively engage foundational learning futures.


1 Greene, M. (1995). Releasing the Imagination. Essays on Education, the Arts, and Social Change. Jossey-Bass.

2 An informative interview with Amitav Gosh can be found on the DW Podcast (13 Oct 2023). Amitav Ghosh on colonialism and the climate crisis – Living Planet

3 See, Shaw, M. (2021). A Hut at the Edge of the Village. Lilliput Press, for a collection of essays by the Irish writer and philosopher, John Moriarty (2 February 1938 – 1 June 2007).

4 Sagan, C. (1994). Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space. Random House


About the Author:

Hugh McLean, Senior Advisor, NORRAG

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1 Response

  1. The blog post delving into NORRAG’s special issue on “Foundational Learning: Debates and Praxes” offers a thought-provoking exploration of the evolving landscape of education. Through insightful reflections on the futures of foundational learning, drawing from Keri Facer’s concepts of “friendship” and “fallibility,” the post sheds light on crucial considerations for preparing individuals and societies for uncertain times. The emphasis on inter-relational skills, adaptability, and embracing diversity resonates deeply, underscoring the need for a holistic approach to education that goes beyond traditional academic metrics. Moreover, the incorporation of diverse perspectives and references, such as Maxine Green’s social imagination and Carl Sagan’s reflections on humanity’s place in the universe, enriches the discourse, making it both informative and thought-provoking. Overall, this blog provides valuable insights into the complexities of foundational learning in the context of contemporary challenges, offering educators a rich resource for navigating the intricacies of education in a rapidly changing world.

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