We have a choice, choose your future.

21st century challenges

Graham Brown-Martin
Dec 3, 2016 · 6 min read

Preparing our children for the challenges of today, and tomorrow

If you work in or around education, attend any education related conference, or have just been following the debates in education for the past 20 years or so you’ll be familiar with the phrase “21st century skills”.

So frequently is this phrase used in the discourse on education today that when uttered it generates involuntary winces amongst those listening. On the education conference circuit “21st century skills” is the certainty on the buzzword bingo card. Never mind that we’re almost at the end of the second decade of a century that is the only one that every child in school has ever known.

To be fair, it’s a well-intentioned phrase used by well-intentioned people. I’m sure it’s a phrase that’s passed my lips on more than one occasion even before I saw the foolishness of it.

Welcome to England

I say foolish because there’s no agreement on what it means. It’s vacuous like “Brexit means Brexit” or “Make America Great Again” yet it has the same power to make people nod their assent with their serious face on.

There’s a general consensus that most 21st century skills are things that begin with “C”; creativity, collaboration, communication, critical thinking and so forth. It’s a phrase, like Y2K (A.K.A. the Millennium Bug), that has launched 100’s of conferences, global summits and the careers of consultants.

Whilst there’s a consensus it’s not shared by everyone in the education profession. Some believe that the need to inculcate 21st century skills is the reason why schooling must radically transform. Others believe that we can’t possibly know the future so eschew alternative pedagogy in favour of the teacher-centred, subject knowledge focused approach favoured in the Victorian era and driven by industrial processes.

The Global Education Reform Movement (GERM) seeks to standardise education globally so that all children pass thru a standardised curriculum aimed at passing a standardised set of tests so that we can compare and contrast via league tables such as PISA, for example. The problem with GERM, like the measurement systems that reinforce it, is it’s a homogenisation machine devoid of context and based on an arbitrary normal.

It turns out that decontextualised knowledge, stuffed into children’s heads, regurgitated on demand and then forgotten just isn’t that useful in the grand scheme of things. Sure, back in the days of empire it was handy to have identically dressed clerks all over the world who could perform mental arithmetic and communicate in clear written English. The British East India company that ran the Indian sub-continent under corporate rule couldn’t have happened without it. One might say the same today with global corporations like Google, etc or the now stalled globalisation project.

So back to “21st century skills”.

For the past couple of years after my book about education was published I’ve been on the public speaking circuit and the crux of my message hasn’t been 21st century skills but why we think sending our kids to school is important. It’s fair to say that I’ve racked up an awfully large number of miles travelling pretty much everywhere in an attempt answer this question, and whilst sending our kids to school is almost universally regarded as important, there is little agreement on why. Arguments range from affordable daycare to eradicating poverty to making coin for one of the ever decreasing number of global multinationals.

My own view, as stated in a video interview I gave a few years back, was that the reason we send our kids to school is for the survival of the species. Whilst this caused a chuckle amongst some in the education community I wasn’t alone in this thinking. Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal, from Cambridge University holds similar views and over the past few years others have joined the chorus.

Learning Without Frontiers

My conclusion after researching, thinking and reaching out to some the worlds most brilliant theorists, scientists and industrialists is that whilst there may indeed be a need for 21st century skills it is the 21st century challenges that inform them. It is these challenges that we need to be working on together and ensuring our children everywhere are equipped with the knowledge and skills to meet them.

These challenges include rapid population increase, climate change, growing inequality, diversity, ideology, antibiotic resistance, an ageing population and the future of work. The point I’ve been making in my talks is that these challenges are happening simultaneously in this century, in our lifetime and certainly our children’s. Those who know me and my work will know that I’ve been discussing these challenges for years not as a dystopian vision but as a compass for how we might survive them. By “we” I mean all of us, not just the global north or western nations.

Association of Medical Education in Europe, Barcelona 2016

So imagine my surprise when I recently read that senior members of the global military were coming out in support of this view. Now, I suspect they may be seeking to increase their military budgets in the belief that we, as a human society, will fail to resolve these challenges peacefully but here’s the skinny. Population growth and climate change will, in our lifetime, cause a refugee crisis on an “unimaginable scale” presenting the greatest security threat of the 21st century where mass migration will become the “new normal”.

Even based on the UN’s conservative population projections the African continent, for example, will grow from 1.2 billion people today to 4 billion by the end of this century. This is the worlds second largest continent that has yet to enter a university in the worlds top 100 and today has some 60 million children who don’t have access to primary education.

Human Population Through Time

Population growth and climate change will impact all of us and regardless of the Globalisation 1.0 movement, which was essentially commercial in nature, we are interdependent on each other if we are to establish a peaceful and equitable society. What if the Globalisation 2.0 movement was one, like the transition from web 1.0 to 2.0, enhanced by enablers that promote personal creation and value?

If we’re closing borders as a solution to these future challenges then surely for that strategy to be successful isn’t it important to raise global living standards? Wouldn’t this take the pressure off border control? By this I suggest education systems that are contextualised. Bangladesh, by example, faces a catastrophic climate situation that will displace over 20 million people. What education provision has been put in place to assist citizens across the region and the planet to home these people?

And I’d suggest that we begin thinking about these challenges and baking them into what we think education is for. The solution isn’t about every man for himself, that didn’t work out so well for the Titanic (706 survivors 3,327 passengers, 21% survival rate). Ultimately we have the option of educating for conflict & war or educating for peace & unity.

The global north is about to go through some seismic shifts in society and how we engage with each other at least across borders. Suddenly the early 20th century invention of passports has potentially become an indicator of life possibilities. Surely the purpose of passports isn’t to ensure a sufficient population of poor people or the people left behind on the Titanic?

David Attenborough on climate change: ‘The world will be transformed’

Thanks for reading, feel welcome to comment, add to the conversation and share on social media. If you tap the clap button I will feel joy.

More at:

Learning {Re}imagined

How the connected society is transforming learning

Graham Brown-Martin

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Society, Innovation & Education + Foresight & Anticipation http://grahambrownmartin.com

Learning {Re}imagined

How the connected society is transforming learning

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