This year, UNESCO published a report entitled Rethinking Education, which provides a thorough analysis of the future of education, thereby superseding the Delors Report of 1996, which established the four pillars of learning. The Centre for the UNESCO of Catalonia published the report in Catalan in July, making it the first presentation in the world. The document states that, ‘Rethinking the purpose of education and the organization of learning has never been more urgent’. Since we are in the process of building a new country, and we ought to consider its foundations before putting our plan into action, it is a good time to accept this invitation to reflect.
The purpose of education
Let us begin by considering the aim of education by analysing two major changes: first, the transition from academic skills to life skills; and secondly, the historically unprecedented transformation brought about by the internet.
From academicism to life competencies
The UNESCO report states: ‘Education is the deliberate process of acquiring knowledge and developing the competencies to apply that knowledge in relevant situations’. It adds, ‘The right to quality education is the right to meaningful and relevant learning’.
In the nineteenth century, universal education was designed to transmit encyclopaedic knowledge in equal measure to every child of the same age. It was a model that put ‘learning to know’ above all: above ‘learning to do’, above ‘learning to be’, and above ‘learning to live together’. Ultimately it was ‘knowledge’ based on encyclopaedic knowledge, its transmission and memorization, seeing intellectual effort as the only means to success.
In the nineteenth century, public schools were seen as an administrative extension of the state, which decided what was taught. The curriculum was contained in textbooks, and all the teachers taught in an identical manner and, therefore, they were interchangeable; that is why they were appointed through civil-service examinations and transfer between posts following selections organised according to seniority.
The Escola Nova [New School], which was promoted in Catalonia during the first third of 20th century by both public and private institutions (the School Board of Barcelona, the Mancomunitat of Catalonia and the Government of Catalonia during the Republic) was born with a radically different approach: it recognised that children are different; it recognised that a school needs to empower them in order that they can autonomously choose their path in life; and it recognised that learning needs to see reality itself as an object of study.
This meant a different type of school: a tailor-made educational project of our own; a globalized effort that tailors learning to the individual and guarantees success for all; with Principal’s teams with a clear ability to select teachers based on the needs of this new educational model. In other words, like present-day Finland. This was the education system which our country wished to provide, yet it was denied us thanks to forty years of dictatorship.
Over the last three decades, however, the global focus on education has changed: from content with purely academic ends, to ‘competencies for life’ as found in the New School. This change is apparent from the Delors Report, the Spanish Education Act LOGSE, and our own Catalan Education Act. Nevertheless, the inertia of the transmission model generates a disconnect between discourse and reality. People often speak of 'competencies', when they mean classic ‘subjects’; or speak of the curriculum when they mean textbooks.
The emergence of the Internet
This urgency to overcome this divergence between discourse and reality is the result of the historically unprecedented transformation which is being generated by the emergence of the internet.
The internet affects education in two ways. It makes an impact, to quote the UNESCO document, because ‘it has transformed how people access to information and knowledge’; and it makes an impact because it has also transformed ‘how they interact and the direction of public administration and business’.
Let us examine the first impact: the internet has produced a transformation in education akin to the appearance of the printing press. Before printing, reading was an irrelevant skill and the access to information was primarily oral. Nowadays, books and teachers are no longer the major conduit for information and the creation of knowledge. For this reason the top American universities upload their lectures to the internet: since their added value is no longer to be found in the classroom.
The second impact, however, is even greater: the internet is transforming our personal and professional lives. Think about it. The first website published in Catalan appeared just twenty years ago. In fact email has only become commonplace in the last fifteen years. Napster appeared less than fifteen years ago, leading to the collapse of CD sales; then there was Skype, which hit the telecoms industry; YouTube, which has redefined television; WhatsApp and Facebook, which have changed personal interaction; Spotify, which replaced the music downloads; Twitter, which has changed communication; and LinkedIn, which has redrawn the labour market and may eventually transform the way knowledge is accredited.
Now ask yourself: if we have experienced these transformations in just fifteen years, what competencies will a 5-years-old girl need in another fifteen years?
With this in mind, the report states: ‘The volume of information now available on the Internet is staggering. The challenge becomes how to teach learners to make sense of the vast amount of information they encounter every day, identify credible sources, assess the reliability and validity of what they read, question the authenticity and accuracy of the information, connect this new knowledge with prior learning and discern its importance in relation to the information they already understand’.
A holistic approach
But the document goes further, arguing that, ‘we need a holistic approach of education and learning that overcomes the traditional dichotomies between cognitive, emotional and ethical aspects’. Such a holistic approach ought to allow us to redefine the idea of success. In terms of the cognitive aspects, the easiest to measure, we must not forget that such learning needs to be applied: what good is it to be able to define 'Cataphora' if one does not know to use it in one’s life? The emotional aspects are of equal or greater importance: managing self-esteem and self-control, empathy and friendship, the meaning of life, coping with a sudden death, to love and feel loved. And also, the ethical aspects, which should support our new society, where success is not defined by obtaining fame and wealth at any price, but by having a full life, based on inclusive values of coexistence and commitment to others and with the environment.
The organization of learning
If these thoughts allow us to reconsider the purpose of education, then we can also rethink the organization of learning.
Unlike a hundred years ago, nowadays we have scientific information on how people learn. In fact just five years ago, the OECD published an overview of current theories of cognitive research in a document entitled The Nature of Learning. These can be summarized in the following seven principles of learning:
(1) The students are the centre of learning, not the teaching; (2) learning is social by nature, and essentially cooperative; (3) emotions and motivations are essential to learning; (4) learning must take into account individual differences among each child; (5) student effort is key to learning, although overworking, monotony, and fear are to be avoided; (6) continuous assessment promotes learning and serves for students to regulate their own learning; and (7) learning is building horizontal connections, overcoming the division between disciplines through global actions focused on competencies.
I would argue this resonates with the final quote from the UNESCO document: ‘The educational landscape of today’s world is undergoing radical transformation with regard to methods, content, and spaces of learning. This is true both for schooling and higher education. The increasing availability of an access to diverse sources of knowledge are expanding opportunities for learning, which may be less structured and more innovative, affecting the classroom, pedagogy, teacher authority and learning processes’.
We are aware, therefore, that our children need to develop skills for life. We know that, as digital natives, they need radically different competencies, far more adaptive than we have needed up until now. We know that quality education means significant education, and that education for all means personalised and inclusive. We know that education should be holistic, integrating its cognitive, emotional, and ethical aspects from a humanistic and humanizing perspective.
If we were able to adopt these principles, we could develop elements as to how to organize learning, which on a global scale is what the more advanced educational initiatives already show:
- One must learn through interdisciplinary strategies based on well-founded globalized work, in order to generate meaningful learning with the involvement of learners.
- We ought to evaluate developing indicators for non-cognitive skills and by giving importance to processes, empowering students to self-regulate their learning process.
- Teachers ought to serve as guides who work in a team to enable all their students, ‘from early childhood throughout their learning trajectories, to develop and advance through the constantly expanding maze of knowledge’. They therefore need to be provided with adequate training that allows them to keep abreast of developments in their role.
- Students should never stop asking questions and seeking answers with passion and creativity. Like Antoni Gaudí, who in spite of being a poor student of the old school, thanks to his endless curiosity and his love of the natural world, excelled in cognitive, emotional and ethical aspects.
- The school should become the core of a community that learns and enables linear learning for everyone in all areas of education; which sees in learning the development of numerous potentials in every individual, not a zero-sum game where some win and others lose; one which experiences innovation in its methods, according to the abovementioned principles of learning, as an everyday occurrence.
Education in the new country we are building must overcome the structure that was Franco’s legacy. We are a country that is admired for its art, scientific research, its cooking and sports. It is down to us all to also become a country which is admired for having one of the most advanced education systems in the world, enabling the knowledge revolution to combat poverty, which endows every one of our children with the tools they need for life, and which serves to construct a democratic society of free and fully-formed individuals, for the inclusive country we yearn for.
A major advantage we can count on is that in our country we already have many schools equipped for twenty-first century learning, of which so much has been said over the last year. We have the desires and the efforts of so many across the country, families, professionals, educators. Together they are the seed of the new educational system to which we aspire. For this reason we need to stop looking towards Finland to see what they did three decades ago: and go ahead and build an ambitious new educational system. Between us, let us dare to reconsider the purpose of education and the organization of learning, and provide the children of today with the tools to build the society of tomorrow which we truly want.
To be published in Catalan International View, Fall 2015