Our education systems are not islands. On the contrary, they are interconnected with the social, political, economic and ecological environment, and dependent upon their preconditions and trends. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, people all over the world have become aware that our living conditions are in fact volatile, uncertain, complex and ambivalent (VUCA). We experience multiple transformations driven by mega-trends, specifically globalisation, digitalisation, demographic and social change, and climate change.
Globalisation brings about and promotes global economic competition, transparency of markets, products, services and living conditions, and the the open flow of information and exchange of ideas from a growing internationally experienced population. But it can also lead to an increasing dependency on global supply chains, with potential mishaps and delays, and open borders for people as well as for viruses.
Digitalisation is changing the way of personal, social and political communication, of teaching and learning, of working, producing and consuming. Data analytics and artificial intelligence are producing new economic values for some but also a significant number of existing jobs will be lost due to automation.
DEMOGRAPHIC AND SOCIAL CHANGES
The population of the EU member states is ageing, due to low birth rates, and communities are becoming more heterogeneous in terms of cultural, religious and ethnic diversity. There is also increasing inequality between rich and poor. In addition to the flow of refugees and asylum-seekers, the EU member states need a high number of young qualified immigrants for the labour market.
The ecological transformation of our lifestyles in the Western-oriented societies and of our economy is not only a technical and financial challenge, it also requires a social and cultural change process that can cultivate a different mindset.
How do we get along with these changes? How can we find the way, for ourselves and for our children? The 17 goals of the UN Agenda 2030 can be helpful guidelines, specifically No. 4: Quality education. But what are the competencies we need to handle the changes and to act in a sustainable way?
In order to achieve a sustainable education system, three educational goals should be achieved for all:
- Every person should get the chance to develop his or her talents, to use his or her skills for achieving a professional qualification and for living in a self-responsible way.
- Every person should learn how to learn, and to adapt to new situations throughout his or her life.
- Every person should be able and willing to take responsibility for our community, our society and our environment.
CHARACTERISTICS OF A SUSTAINABLE EDUCATION SYSTEM
1. Teaching and learning processes should become dialectic by linking the following in a systematic way:
– Basic knowledge with problem-solving skills;
– Expertise with understanding of interconnections;
– Theory with practice;
– Analogue with digital forms of learning;
– Individual with cooperative learning;
– Independent with team-based working;
– Personal cultural identity with inter-cultural understanding;
– Self-reflection with social interaction.
2. Educational opportunities for lifelong learning should be available for all through:
– Early childhood education in kindergarten;
– Differential forms of schools;
– Multiple vocational training opportunities in school and at university level;
– Informal learning opportunities in public libraries, community colleges and through digital media.
3. New ways of learning:
– E-learning with no constraints in terms of space and time;
– Individual and cooperative learning by design thinking;
– Active roles of pupils and students to solve problems individually and as a team;
– Explaining and exploring connectivity of different subjects;
– Learning by doing through combining theory with practice.
Analyses of the European Commission and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) have proven that all countries with a dual professional education system that links education to the labour market have significantly less youth unemployment, higher competitiveness of companies, better-paid jobs, less brain drain and a stronger regional economic development.
The German-speaking countries Switzerland, Austria and Germany have a long tradition of linking education, science and research, with economic development that begins in school, particularly in professional schools with half-time paid training in companies, in universities through internships, and through dual study programmes with half-time paid training in companies. Research institutes and technology transfer centres cooperate closely with companies, including small businesses, and help to support startups. To overcome the time-off suffered during recent lockdowns, the German government has subsidised some salaries for companies. As a result, the unemployment rate has stayed very low and the majority of the companies are booming again.
The lockdowns impacted the education system heavily: the pedagogical and didactic quality became, in many subjects, insufficient. The majority of the teachers were insufficiently trained and inexperienced with using digital media for the curricula. At the same time, many parents had to work from home, and quite often were unable to give their children the necessary support. We see now the gaps in knowledge but also in the personal development and social behaviour in the schoolchildren. We were made aware of the importance of school as a place for common learning, personal contact and shaping social behaviour in our heterogeneous society.
We will still need schools as meeting points for learning together, for social togetherness. But at the same time, we need better individual learning processes, by using, for example, artificial intelligence. As data protection is a sensitive issue in Germany, we then need to develop strong forms of data security.
I am convinced that in our globalised world, stronger international cooperation in the field of education, for example, using the knowledge of the OECD, will be helpful. We have a common goal: to give all children in the different continents better opportunities for their personal and professional development that will enable them to act for a more sustainable future.
Together with science and research institutes foundations like The HEAD Foundation, we can contribute to innovations in education for our VUCA world.
PROF DR WOLFGANG SCHUSTER
Prof Dr Wolfgang Schuster
was Mayor of Stuttgart, Germany from 1997 to 2013. Prior to this, he was a member of the Reflection Group on Europe 2030, Vice-President of the World Association of United Cities and Local Government, and member of the United Nations Advisory Committee of Local Authorities.
As President of the Council of European Municipalities and Regions, Prof Schuster founded the European Foundation for Education, which aims to strengthen the links between education and employment to improve youth employability, increase companies’ competitiveness and bolster regional economic development.
Today, Prof Schuster is the Chairman of the Council for Local Affairs at Deutsche Telekom AG, Managing Director of the Institute of Sustainable City Development, and member of the National Council of Sustainable Development.