Two roads ahead for education – which one should we take?

Sobhi Tawil
UNESCO, France




– There are two parallel strands of the current global discussion on the future of education. The first relates to the role of education in the international development agenda beyond 2015. The second relates to the implications of global societal transformation for the way in which we approach education and learning. While both strands of the discussion are complementary, the very different contours of these discussions offer substantially varying perspectives on the future of education.

The international education and development agendas

The first strand of global discussion has to do with the international development agenda as defined by the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and, in the case of education more specifically, by the Education for All (EFA) Framework for Action. Both of these international frameworks have set goals and targets for countries to reach by 2015. Within this strand of discussion about the future of education, the primary concern is with exploring the shape and scope of any agenda that may be proposed and adopted beyond 2015. In order to do so, the starting point has been to take of stock of main trends as they emerge from the monitoring of progress towards international education goals since 20001. These main trends may be summarised as follows:

  • There has been significant progress made in expanding access to basic education worldwide. Evidence of this can be seen through improved school enrolment ratios, the decrease in the number of out-of-school children, the improvement in literacy rates, particularly among youth, and the narrowing of the gender gap in both school enrolment and adult literacy.
  • While there has been rapid progress made in expanding access to formal basic education worldwide, significant inequalities between countries persist, and national averages in many countries mask striking inequalities in levels of educational attainment and outcomes. Traditional factors of marginalization in education such as gender and urban/rural residence continue to combine with income, language, minority status, and disability, to create “mutually reinforcing disadvantages”, particularly so in low-income and conflict-affected countries (UNESCO 2011).
  • With the growing acknowledgment of the challenges of “reaching the unreached”, there is a need to better exploit more disaggregated data (such as household survey data) in order to better identify patterns and causes of non-enrolment and school dropout, in view of the design of more targeted strategies for the most vulnerable children, youth and adults.
  • The expansion in access to basic formal education has also resulted in a shift from a quantitative focus on access and participation in formal education to a concern with qualitative aspects and the results of learning and their social distribution. [For more on competences, click here]
  • Expansion of access to primary education has also resulted in the recognition of a growing demand for secondary and tertiary education and increasing concern for vocational skills development, particularly in a context of growing youth unemployment, and in a continuous process of qualification/requalification.
  • Finally, there is a growing awareness of the pressures being placed on public financing of education and a resulting need to seek more efficient use of these limited resources, greater accountability in the investment of public resources for education, and ways in which to supplement them through greater fiscal capacity, new partnerships with non-state actors, as well as through advocacy for increased official development assistance.

Such stocktaking of successes and challenges in progress towards internationally agreed-upon education development goals constitutes the foundation for the diverse proposals made thus far for a global education goal beyond 2015. (UNESCO-UNICEF 2013; Commonwealth Secretariat 2012; Save the Children 2012; UNESCO 2013; HLP 2013). These proposals appear to be based on a consensus that international goals will not be reached by the target date set, that the agenda shall remain unfinished; that despite progress made, the current agenda remains unfinished in delivering on its promise to provide equitable and effective opportunities to meet “the basic learning needs” of all children, youth and adults. Any future agenda will thus be a continuation of goals set in the past, presumably with some refinement and adjustment (Tawil, in press). The scope of the agenda will also be expanded beyond the narrow confines of primary schooling that has been associated with the MDG framework, to include lower secondary education and some reference to (vocational) skills development among youth.

“Paradoxically, while we acknowledge that the world has changed significantly since 2000, the nature of education goals being proposed beyond 2015 remains fundamentally unchanged.”

Whatever the nature of the proposals made, however, they all reflect the current architecture in terms of goals and targets, albeit with greater concern for reducing disparities, and ensuring that learning is effective in terms of skill acquisition. Despite an examination of wider development trends in current post 2015 debates at the global level, the proposals made remain within the constraints of the existing architecture of the international education and development agendas. Paradoxically, while we acknowledge that the world has changed significantly since 2000, the nature of education goals being proposed beyond 2015 remains fundamentally unchanged.

“Thinking outside the box” of education

This brings us to the second much broader strand of the global discussion on the future of education. Indeed, beyond concerns directly related to the international development and education agendas, experts, policymakers and practitioners are rethinking the interrelation between education and the multiple dimensions of development in an increasingly complex and uncertain world. This has to do with examining societal changes at the global level, and the way in which these are affecting our understanding of development in general, and of education in particular. Rather than a framework of goals and a timeline to achieve them, this second strand involves the critical re-examination of the paradigms that frame our thinking of development and the creation, dissemination, appropriation, and impact of knowledge, skills and values. This strand of discussion has to do with thinking “outside the box” of education, understanding emerging trends that are shaping global development, re-examining dominant models of economic development, of international cooperation, and the possible implications of these trends for education and learning.

Emerging development patterns in a changing world

In exploring perspectives for the future of education, we must consider emerging development patterns and the possible impact that these may be having on education worldwide. We see an increasing interconnectedness and interdependency of all societies in the wake of intensified globalisation in its social, economic, technological and environmental dimensions. This new phase of globalisation is also spurring multifaceted crises evident in widening inequalities observed in most countries (UNDP 2013), as well as in growing youth unemployment and rising vulnerable employment . The result is an increased social exclusion and the undermining of social cohesion. At the same time increasing pressures on natural resources, environmental degradation and climate change associated with unsustainable patterns of consumption and production are calling for a re-examination of our conceptualisations of progress and dominant models of economic development. As new information and communication technologies rapidly develop there is a greater access to information through the multiplication and diversification of sources of information. The result is the emergence of new forms of civic and political socialisation and mobilisation in the context of diverse expressions of a crisis of governance at the local and global levels. [For more on global citizenship, click here]

“Increasing pressures on natural resources, environmental degradation and climate change associated with unsustainable patterns of consumption and production are calling for a reexamination of our conceptualisations of progress and dominant models of economic development.”

Finally, shifting multipolar global geopolitics are also modifying the dynamics of international cooperation with emerging donors introducing new patterns of South-South and triangular cooperation. Such changes in global patterns of development have a number of implications for education and learning.

The exponential growth of information and its changing nature

Indeed, with the continued development of knowledge societies, the influence of new technologies on the creation of knowledge is growing. Not only is the rate of production and the volume of information continuing to grow exponentially, but the nature of information is changing as well. Information is becoming less and less dependent on text-based transmission and increasingly includes audio, graphic, and visual supports through a variety of media. The exponential growth in the volume of information and its changing nature are questioning the role and the authority of traditional bodies of knowledge controlled by legitimate educational institutions and an elite corps of specialists.2

Redefining functional literacy in an evolving knowledge society

Despite progress in reducing illiteracy worldwide, it continues to represent a persistent challenge with an estimated 800 million illiterate youth and adults (UNESCO 2012a). Such figures do not account for the millions of semi-literate people across all societies who are unable to function properly in societies where information and knowledge are increasingly text-based. Indeed, notions of what constitutes a minimum threshold of functional literacy are evolving as a result of progress in science and technology and the development of the Knowledge Society. As the skills associated with the use of new digital media in our everyday lives evolve and become more complex, it is important to consider the various forms of information and media literacy required for full integration into our contemporary knowledge society. Beyond traditional definitions of literacy and numeracy skills, adequate information and media literacy must be an integral part of foundation skills in the digital age.

A shift away from teaching to an increased focus on learning

With formal education traditionally emphasising teaching more than learning, education systems have focused on the transfer of information and knowledge from the teacher to the learner. Such a teacher-dependent education system is also “time-dependent, location-dependent, and situation-dependent” (Frey 2010). With the multiplication of new information and communication technologies and digital media, sources of information and knowledge are becoming more diversified and accessible beyond the confines of formal education systems. Beyond the traditional curriculum-related questions of what to teach (learning content) and how to teach it (teaching/learning methods), the question of when and where learning is taking place is increasingly important.

Greater recognition of the multiple pathways to skills acquisition

The schooling model surprisingly continues to associate learning essentially with classroom teaching, when a great deal of learning actually takes place at home and elsewhere in the form of homework, reading, writing of papers, and preparation of examinations. The physical space defined by the classroom as the main locus of learning – or what Frey refers to as “classroom-centric learning” (Frey 2010) – remains a central feature of formal education systems at all levels of learning. This classroom-centred paradigm is being increasingly challenged with the current expansion of access to information and the emergence of learning spaces beyond classrooms and schools (CISCO 2011; Taddei 2009). Recognising that learning and relearning is increasingly taking place beyond formal education and training settings, at different times and locations, implies that the role of teachers will also have to evolve fromdispensers of information and knowledge to facilitators and enablers of learning. There is, however, a growing recognition of the importance of learning and relearning taking place outside the formal education and training systems.

Towards the assessment and validation of vocational skills acquisition

Such recognition raises the issue of the assessment and validation of skills and competencies acquired through self-learning, peer-learning, work-based learning (including internships and apprenticeships), on-the-job training, or through other experiences of learning and skills development beyond formal education and training. It is therefore important to envisage new approaches to education and skills development that capitalise on the full potential of all learning settings. From a traditional focus on the content of learning programmes and teaching/learning methods, the focus is now shifting to the recognition, assessment and validation of knowledge and skills, regardless of the formal, non-formal and informal pathways through which they were acquired. In terms of skills development, “there is [also] evidence of increasing attention paid to the measurement of skills levels and the efficient matching of these skills with those required by the world of work. This is being done either through the development of outcomebased national/vocational qualifications frameworks, or through large-scale assessments of skills levels among adults.” (UNESCO 2012 b)

Towards flexible Lifelong Learning systems

This is perfectly in line with the Lifelong Learning framework. “Encompassing formal, non-formal and informal learning, Lifelong Learning emphasises the integration of learning and living – in life-wide contexts across family and community settings, in study, work and leisure, and throughout an individual’s life.” (UIL: 2012) While the paradigm itself is not new, recent societal developments are reinvigorating the relevance of education that is life-long and life-wide3. In addition to the challenges of the continuously quickening pace of technological and scientific development, the exponential growth and changing nature of information, the Lifelong Learning framework is critically important in the context of the increasingly challenging task of forecasting the emergence of new professions and associated higher levels of skills needs. “There is a need to develop more responsive education and skills policies that include greater diversification and flexibility and that allow for the adaptation of skill supply to rapidly changing needs and ensure that individuals are better equipped to be more resilient and can learn to develop and apply career adaptive competencies most effectively.” (UNESCO 2012 b)

Rethinking education in a complex world

It is precisely in this perspective that UNESCO is currently undertaking a process of re-visioning education in light of global societal transformations underway. In rethinking education in an increasingly uncertain and complex world, the aim of the process is twofold: (1) To examine the implications of multifaceted societal transformation on education, and on the way in which knowledge, skills and values are created, transmitted, appropriated, and validated; and

(2) To rethink the fundamental principles on which our approaches to education and learning are founded in light of the new parameters of globalisation. Such analysis can also broaden the current global debate on education post 2015 through an interdisciplinary approach of education that provides a more coherent framework for understanding education in the current context of global development (Aubin/Haddad 2013).



1 In particular, through the annual Education for All (EFA) Global Monitoring Reports. Available at

2 With almost 75 million young people under the age of 25 years of age out of the total of 200 million unemployed persons, global unemployment is clearly mainly affecting youth. Furthermore, vulnerable employment is on the rise mainly in sub-Saharan Africa (22 million persons) and in South Asia (12 million persons). ILO (2012): Better Jobs for a Better Economy. World of Work Report. Geneva.

3 This was already articulated, for instance, as early in the early 1970s in the landmark report Faure et al. (1972): Learning to Be: The world of education today and tomorrow. Paris: UNESCO. Available at


Aubin, JP. & Haddad, G. (2013): Towards a Humanism of Knowledge, Action and Cooperation. In: International Review of Education, and UNESCO (forthcoming): Report of the first meeting of the Senior Experts’ Group to rethink education in a changing world. Available at

Cisco (2011): Developing an Innovation Ecosystem for Education. A white paper. Available at

Commonwealth Secretariat (2012): Recommendations for the Post-2015 Development Framework for Education. Available at

Faure et al. (1972): Learning to Be: The world of education today and tomorrow. Paris: UNESCO. Available at

Frey, T. (2010): The future of education. Available at

High-Level Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda (May 2013): A New Global Partnership: Eradicate poverty and transform economies through sustainable development. The Report of the High Level Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda. Available at http://bit.lylaJ67M

ILO (2012): Better Jobs for a Better Economy. World of Work Report. Geneva. Available at

Save the Children (2012): After the Millennium Development Goals: Setting out the Options and Must Haves for a New Development Framework. Available at

Taddei, F. (2009): Training creative and collaborative knowledge-builders: A major challenge for 21st century education. Report prepared for the OECD on the future of education. Available at

Tawil, S. (in press): Beyond 2015: UNESCO and the international education agenda. ERF Working papers No. 7. Paris: UNESCO Education Research and Foresight.

UIL (2012): UNESCO Guidelines for the Recognition, Validation and Accreditation of Outcomes of Non-formal and Informal Learning. Hamburg: UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning. Available at

UNDP (2013): The Rise of the South: Human progress in a diverse world. Human Development Report 2013. Available at

UNESCO (2011): The Hidden Crisis: Armed Conflict and Education. EFA Global Monitoring Report. Available at

UNESCO (2012a): EFA Global Monitoring Report.

UNESCO (2012b): Education and skills for inclusive and sustainable development beyond 2015. Think piece for the United Nations Task Team on Post-2015 Development. Available at

UNESCO (2013): EFA Global Monitoring Report. Proposed Post-2015 Education Goals: Emphasizing equity, measurability and finance (March draft for discussion). Available at

UNESCO-UNICEF (2013): Envisioning Education in the Post-2015 Development Agenda. Thematic consultation on Education in the post 2015 development agenda. Executive Summary – zero draft – revised June 3, 2013. Available at


About the Author

After having been involved in adult language training for some ten years, Sobhi Tawil, PhD, then worked for the Graduate Institute for Development Studies in Geneva, the Network for International Policies and Cooperation in Education and Training (NORRAG), and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Since 2002, he has held various positions at UNESCO. Initially, at the International Bureau of Education, then at the Maghreb Office in Rabat, and later at the Paris headquarters. Research interests include basic education and development, youth and adult literacy, as well as diversity, conflict and social cohesion. Sobhi Tawil is currently Senior Program Specialist in Education Research and Foresight at UNESCO Paris.


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