Report on Future Education Symposium

Higher education has continuously evolved in its purpose and methods. As the demands on education have become increasingly complex today, it becomes essential to determine the needs of the future, and evolve a system of education that equips youth to face the challenges that the 21st century will bring, and scale its yet unseen peaks. The following paper draws its inspiration from the recent WAAS-WUC course on ‘Future Education’ in Dubrovnik, Croatia that sought to explore key issues in teaching and learning, and the means for ushering in a new paradigm in education.

1. The Value of Education
What education has done to improve human life would appear to be, in an age prior to the proliferation of education, a miracle. It has increased human life span, improved health and eradicated diseases. It has delivered us, to a great extent, from superstition and ignorance. It has raised agricultural output to feed over 7 billion people today. It has resulted in the invention of tools and devices that have made life easier. The common man or woman anywhere today has access to what was considered a luxury even to kings a few centuries ago. What was impossible, such as travelling around the world in less than 80 days or speaking to someone beyond shouting distance, has become commonplace. Education has abridged time and conquered space.

According to UNESCO, every extra year of school increases individual earnings by upto 10%, and the national GDP growth by 0.37%.* Girls’ education is the most powerful factor affecting the fertility rate and maternal mortality. Each extra year of the mother’s schooling reduces the probability of infant mortality by 5%-10%. It even boosts agricultural output by 25%! Education is positively co-related to peace, democracy, human rights and sustainable development.

Our educational system offers the entire knowledge that humanity has collected over centuries, and presents it in a capsule to every generation. The more and better the education, the greater is the benefit for all.

2. The Change we Need
Heitor Gurgulino de Souza, President of WAAS and WUC and Ivo Šlaus, Honorary President of WAAS, pointed out the quantitative and qualitative demands of the future. Global tertiary enrolment has multiplied five-fold since 1975, to about 180 million today. But if the forecast global demand for education is to be met, 4 new universities with 40,000 students each have to be founded every week, over the next 15 years. Nothing short of a revolution, not in constructing the university buildings and administering the enrollment process, but in the very conception of integrating these aspiring students into the education system, is needed. Quantitative expansion is one part, perhaps the easier to define, of the challenge in the future of education.

Quality of education is a much researched, much spoken about need. What makes this need most compelling and urgent today is the complexity of the issues that we face. Unemployment, climate change, religious fundamentalism, shortage of essential needs, threat of war—each challenge is multidimensional and interconnected. Garry Jacobs, Chief Executive Officer of WAAS & WUC, pointed out that every one of them is global in scope, defies solution by action at the regional level, and cannot be addressed by sectoral, piecemeal attempts to address it. What is needed is a radical change in economic and social theory, which in turn requires a change in the way we teach them to our youth.

The most fundamental change needed is at the conceptual level. Unless we change our understanding of the knowledge with which we approach our problems, we will not effectively address them. So it is not enough that our policies change. Our conceptions to the whole framework, the theories on which we base our policies need to change. This paradigm change is our best bet for a better future.

Education is central to this process of paradigm change. If the world needs to think freshly about how it can address its problems, that implies that we need to take another look at how we organize our education. It is to initiate the process of change and identification of a new paradigm that WAAS-WUC conducted three trans-disciplinary courses earlier, on the topics of individuality and accomplishment, a trans-disciplinary science of society and effective leadership. The Future Education course was intended to initiate a discussion on the qualitative dimension of the change needed in education in terms of the principles of higher education, how it is practiced, how the paradigm of education can improve and change in future, and thereby impact social thought and political decision making in a way that has not been done before.

The post-graduate certificate course was held from Sept 21-23, 2015 at Inter-University Centre, Dubrovnik, Croatia. The course involved 16 faculty members drawn from the fields of education and educational policy making from organizations in Europe, America and Asia. Apart from WAAS and WUC, The Mother’s Service Society, India; Person-Centered Approach Institute, Italy; Dag Hammarskjöld University College of International Relations and Diplomacy, Croatia and Inter-University Centre, Croatia were the partner organizations for the course.

The course was made available live on the internet. Online participants could watch the lectures and participate in the course by raising questions and responding to the discussion during the course, or afterwards in the online forum. The course has a permanent dedicated website similar to MOOCs, containing course announcements, recommended reading, video recordings of the lectures, lecture notes, assessment questions and other details related to the course. Apart from this, course details are also permanently available on the WAAS and WUC websites.§

3. Redefining the Purpose
“[I do not] carry such information in my mind since it is readily available in books. …The value of a college education is not the learning of many facts but the training of the mind to think,” said Einstein, one of the greatest scientific minds. Today, any information, useful, trivial or utterly frivolous, is available to anyone with a smartphone and internet connection. So what should we teach, and with what purpose? What is it that is not available in a book or a webpage?

It is expected that 50% of occupations today will no longer exist by 2025. But disappearing occupations do not result in diminishing jobs, they simply mean newer occupations will emerge. So, what future do we prepare students for? We cannot predict anything else about the future except that we can expect much that is new. Courses do need to teach facts, though in the case of some disciplines, information is multiplying exponentially and constantly going out of date. More essential than information are thoughts derived by the correlation of information, ideas that relate & integrate thoughts, and values as principles to guide accomplishment and growth.

The Age of Discovery saw great developments in the shipping industry and invention of instruments that aided navigation. The voyages and overseas conquests are a piece of information. Development in the science of navigation is another. When a student starts to think of the simultaneity of voyages and discoveries, and wonders if one led to another, or both mutually influenced each other, or were themselves part of a larger movement that was influenced by people’s aspirations, then thinking is born in him/her. Education that encourages original thought is better than the system that simply imparts different pieces of information. That is like stopping with admiring the different pieces in a jigsaw puzzle.

An education that misses values misses a crucial element. Values—personal, ethical, corporate—contain the essence of all human knowledge of accomplishment. Knowledge without values is like building a large and lovely mansion without a foundation. It is of no use, and may only harm.

During the Great Depression in the 1930s, the US was faced with its biggest economic crisis till date. Banks had collapsed, and people were in a panic. They rushed to withdraw their money from whatever banks remained, ensuring their eventual collapse too. The US President, Franklin D. Roosevelt, found that the economic theories he had learnt at Harvard did not serve him. He went on public radio, a new technology then, and spoke to the people open-heartedly. Workers used to rush home from factories saying if the President took the time to speak to them, the least they could do was listen! FDR was able to connect with and reach the people. He reminded them of the greatness of their country and extolled them to believe in themselves and their institutions. He asked them to leave their money in the banks. He imposed banking regulations and introduced economic reforms, but the public emotional appeal he made to his countrymen was a powerful idea. Banking and finance have an existence only inasmuch as they are connected to people. Without people, there is neither money nor economy. Integrating people with the economy, FDR saw that people’s aspirations were the lever that moved larger objects. Such relating and integrating of facts and thoughts to form ideas is a skill that our education could equip students with.

Isolation is impossible in the universe, from the level of the particle upwards, to the level of galaxies, and for all living beings from the microorganism to the human being. The current refugee crisis in Europe shows that an issue can have its origins in one part of the world in one century, and its effects seen in another century in any other distant part of the world. Thinking in silos, being concerned with a narrow cause, ignoring the larger picture and imagining that anything can be ‘contained’ are ideas education has to work on to eliminate in youth. Instilling a planetary identity, as Sesh Velamoor, Executive Director of the Foundation for the Future, described, rather than an identity with the national, state or county border expands the mind and personality. To such an expansive identity, when ethical responsibility is added, we create potential global leaders whom we need so much.

If the challenges of the earlier centuries were puzzling enough, with little pieces that had to be fit together as per a picture, today’s challenges are like jigsaw puzzles where the pieces are constantly changing shape while the big picture is also changing! So education today is more educational when the outcomes are uncertain, not when it is about securing a preconceived set of outcomes. Keri Facer, Professor of Educational and Social Futures from the University of Bristol, pointed out that we need a new contract between education and society, one that no longer prepares youth for or against a future we have already imagined. Instead, education needs to create the conditions that will enable students to assume societal leadership and responsibility, confront uncertainty and to participate in the dynamic creation of possibilities.

Janani Harish: Associate Fellow, World Academy of Art & Science; Senior Research Analyst, The Mother’s Service Society
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