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19 Jul 2021
Arran Magee

UNESCO Futures of Education Progress Review – A Missing Thread?

Abstract: This NORRAG Highlights was written by guest author, Arran Magee, doctoral scholar in Education and International Development at the UCL Institute of Education. Magee discusses the progress update released by UNESCO’s International Commission on the Futures of Education. He reveals paradoxes, brought forth by focus groups, in the vision for education and proposes that the Commission take a more process-centered approach to their final report (expected: November 2021). 

In September 2019, UNESCO convened the International Commission on the Futures of Education. It outlined an ambitious vision “to reimagine how knowledge and learning can shape the future of humanity and the planet” (UNESCO, 2019) as part of a “radical reframing” of education that can “strengthen our common humanity and ensure sustainable relationships with others, with nature, and with technology” (UNESCO, 2021b). It builds on UNESCO’s history of (re)framing a humanist vision of education to integrate the multiple dimensions of human existence; an education based on respect for life and human dignity, equal rights, social justice, cultural diversity, international solidarity, and shared responsibility for a sustainable future (UNESCO, 2015).

The initiative and vision has drawn considerable attention. At the time of writing, over 1 million people had engaged with the Futures of Education initiative through various mediums including focus group discussions, background papers, surveys, webinars and artwork. In March 2021 a progress update (UNESCO, 2021b) from the Commission gave the first real insight into our collective contributions and presented a juncture to reflect on the published materials and process to date. As someone whose work is grounded in humanist visions of education and having been invited to a UNESCO-NORRAG consultation in 2020 (NORRAG, 2021) I was eager to assess the progress so far.

What has become clear through this assessment, is a significant discrepancy between the visions for education across the datasets. In particular, between the background papers produced by academics (UNESCO, 2020)  – predominantly from the Global North – and the synthesis of the 410 focus groups, including students, youth, educators, parents, government officials, and academics as well as leaders from business, civil society and nongovernmental organizations (UNESCO, 2021a).

Indeed, a number of the background papers presented utopian left-leaning wish lists (Common Worlds Research Collective, 2020) that would always have been difficult to reconcile with the broad political spectrum of views and opinions we face in 2021. However, they also shared a very reasoned recognition of paradoxes in education visions to date:

  1. Education’s preoccupation with jobs and fueling economic growth on the one hand and its simultaneous ambition to mitigate the degenerative impacts of economic growth on the other (e.g. Gautam and Shyangtan, (2020); Facer, (2021))
  2. Education’s focus on individualism to solve collective problems, rather than interdependence with both nature and each other ( e.g. Common Worlds Research Collective (2020); Hager and Beckett (2020))

Subsequently, the background papers suggest that ‘more of the same’ will not suffice and that there must be an opportunity for a broader perspective of education and what a successful education system can achieve (Buchanan et al., 2020). Presumably such a vision sat well with the UNESCO Education Futures which has long sought a broader vison of education “beyond narrow utilitarianism and economism” (UNESCO, 2015, p. 10).

In the analysis of the focus group discussions, however, this message, although present, does not share the same emphasis. The focus groups maintain a significant steer towards the job market:

Participants emphasized that learning should focus on twenty-first century skills, particularly critical and creative thinking, virtual and financial literacies, flexibility, communication and teamwork. According to them, these skills provide a more humanistic learning experience and equip individuals for a changing job market (UNESCO, 2021a, p. 7).

Moreover, the focus groups were “largely seen by participants as being driven primarily by the individual learner, who by setting their own agenda and fulfilling their needs (mind, body and soul) produces better social outcomes” (UNESCO, 2021a, p. 7). The focus group analysis identifies for itself the contradiction at hand:

The paradox here is that, while social and global problems were often discussed in collective terms, the solutions offered focused mainly on the individual (aligning with their interests, goals, well-being and happiness) (UNESCO, 2021a, p. 7).

The Commission’s progress report – which outlines some key themes and a structure for the final paper to be released in November 2021 – has done well to balance the contrasting views presented in its dataset. The progress report maintains its steer towards a need for a humanist vision and radical reform, yet recognises some of the pull-factors that maintain the status quo: that “families, communities, and governments around the world know well that, despite shortcomings, contemporary education systems create opportunities and provide routes for individual and collective advancement” (UNESCO, 2021b, p. 7).

The progress report to date, however, has overlooked a vital thread that unites its datasets and underpins its humanist philosophy: the importance of the process itself. It notes only briefly and without detail in the ‘Epilogue and continuation’ section UNESCOs intent of an ‘ongoing intergenerational debate’ (UNESCO, 2021b, p. 17). Yet the Commission’s evidence of the disjunctures that exist between and within us calls for coordination of a continual process of negotiation and balancing of interests and perspectives in order to continue to evolve a collective vision of education. It is a need already well established in the background papers and their principles (e.g. Desjardins, Torres and Wiksten (2020); Haste and Chopra (2020); Stitzlein (2020)) and at the heart of UNESCOs humanist, democratic vision.

Therefore, my reading of the Commission’s progress to date calls for far greater emphasis on the process rather than the ‘outcome’. Producing what it calls the ‘final report’ would be to miss what we need most from the Commission: the leadership to continue the discussion. Subsequently, as part of its core chapters should be:

  1. a reflection on the process so far and its role in shaping education
  2. a proposal on how to continue the discussion
  3. a proposal to incorporate yet more voices, from even further afield

In doing so, the Commission would be demonstrating its intent to try and invoke constructive conflict and negotiation. In this space exists the opportunity not only to discuss the future we envision, but the opportunity to collectively create one.


About the Author: Arran Magee (@arranmagee) is a doctoral scholar in Education and International Development at the UCL Institute of Education. His research centres on education in emergencies with a particular focus on critical pedagogies for conflict-affected forced-migrants. Over the past decade he has worked across a range of contexts, including Jordan, Egypt, Syria, Bangladesh, India and Afghanistan.

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