The future of education is now

By Tracey Burns
Senior Analyst, Directorate for Education and Skills

and Joshua Polchar
Policy Analyst, Directorate for Education and Skills

There is no shortage of challenges facing the world today. Conflict and instability are driving waves of migration, prompting political responses that range from open to hostile. Inequalities are rising and wages are stagnant in many OECD countries, a phenomenon widely blamed for public discontent. Trust in government is at its lowest in decades. Societies are more connected than ever, but also more divided and polarised – and many of our online interactions are tainted by anger, misinformation and cyberbullying.

When discussing such a wide array of diverse and complex problems, it is astonishing how often people come to a single, clear and convincing solution: better education. We certainly believe in the power of education to transform the world for the better. But in our rapidly changing world, education cannot rely on lessons of the past to prepare us for the future. Responsible policy making does not push present problems into the future; it pulls future developments into the present, and turns them into an opportunity to learn and prepare.

The newest edition of Trends Shaping Education, published today, examines major economic, political, social and technological trends affecting the future of education, from early childhood through to lifelong learning. The report aims to inform strategic thinking and stimulate reflection on the challenges facing education globally, at the societal level and for individuals. Below are just a few of the challenges the report addresses.

The future is not a distant, external world where we can send our problems to be fixed by education.

Globally, climate change will bring rising sea levels and more frequent extreme weather events. Last year, hurricanes, floods, droughts and wildfires took hundreds of thousands of lives. Efforts to mitigate climate change may be bearing some fruit, such as the growth in renewable energy production, but more remains to be done. The balance of economic power is shifting towards Asia, with giant economies emerging in China and India. Yet globalisation is also bringing new challenges: growing consumption, unsustainable use of resources and, for some, a feeling of being left behind. Education has an important role to play in equipping students with the skills needed to succeed in the global future – but it cannot act alone. More work must be done to help make the next phase of globalisation work for all.

On the societal level, digitalisation has completely transformed our lives. We may seem to live in a more individualistic world, with a declining sense of belonging to the traditional reference points of community, church or workplace. But digital connectivity suggests that our sense of belonging is changing, not disappearing. Digital markets make it easier for buyers and sellers to come together across time and space; and social networks provide spaces for individual and collective expression and creativity while allowing us to communicate with the wider world. But digitalisation has its downsides. While the digital era has given rise to entirely new categories of work such as social media managing, automation has rendered other jobs obsolete. And although digitalisation can help address many of the risks linked to increased frailty and dependency in our ageing societies, it also opens up new threats, such as Internet fraud, that explicitly target the elderly.

On the individual level, much of the world has long benefited from more effective medicines. But recent work has demonstrated that the rising resistance of many infections to our most common medicines poses a grave threat to our health. In Greece, Turkey, and many of the emerging economies, the average share of infections caused by resistant bacteria is expected to be over 40% by 2030. At the same time, fewer new antibiotics are receiving regulatory approval, limiting the prospects for new treatments to replace current medicines when they become ineffective. For education systems, this raises important questions: What role should schools play in inspiring healthy behaviour? Should children be allowed to go to nursery school or kindergarten if they do not have up-to-date vaccinations? Is there a trade-off between personal choice and better security for society?

All of these trends are important to consider for our education systems. The future is not a distant, external world where we can send our problems to be fixed by education. The future is here, and education systems need to learn from it. Our success will depend on how effectively we use our knowledge to anticipate the future, and how quickly we take action to shape it.

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