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The present and past are insufficient guides for designing learning: we must also make wise use of futures thinking. Today, we have tools available that give clear indications of future trends. These trends are certainly not immutable; they will change but they also can be shaped. Educators need to consider how to prepare learners to understand and shape the direction and impacts of these trends. What it means to thrive has to be filtered through the awareness of emerging challenges for our planet, our societies and ourselves. Current scholarship and analysis suggest that humanity stands at the cusp of three great pivot points in its history. First, the planetary emergency, encompassing the climate crisis, consequences of the anthropocene, and the Sixth Great Extinction. Second, the apotheosis of technology, through artificial intelligence. And third, the possibilities for human evolution as multiple biomedical technologies converge. Never in human history have such profound, literally unprecedented changes been in prospect. But nothing is immutable. The future is not a straight line; it can and will be shaped by how and what young people learn in schools.
In the tradition of educational innovation, when we create something we like, we try to take it to scale. But schools that take thriving as a core purpose all have distinct purposes and approaches. Their approaches are embedded in a context, responding to local narratives, needs and resources. There is no way, therefore, to 'scale' thriving. Regardless, scaling in educating has mostly been unsuccessful. Instead we can focus on how to grow and spread the diversee narratives, logics and practices that promote thriving. This starts wih removing inhibitors, including our tendency to confuse measurable outputs of education with the outcomes we desire; the excessive scrutiny of some accountabilitty and monitoring sysems; and the lack of resources available in underfunded or inequitable systems. Then we can focus on conditions for growth: framing our purposes in design principles that support and direct decision-making; creating supportive newtorks of professionals and other partners; and developing a social movement for change. Thriving – at all levels – will become a purpose of school when more of us speak out openly to affirm that it should be.
Schools can achieve a lot by fully exercising their powers and autonomy, but schools cannot do it all alone. Schools are part of ecosystems which support a wider range of learning opportunities. Different kind of ecosystems are developing in education. Knowledge sharing ecosystems grow from think tanks, foundations and multilateral agencies who develop and disseminate new knowledge about education and learning. Innovation ecosystems develop when cities and regions intentionally create the conditions for educational innovation, through new funding sources, catalysts and platforms for exchange between educators, communities, policy and business. Finally, and most imporantly, nascent learning ecosystems exist wherever learners can access formal and informal learning opportunities through a range of providers including schools, NGOs, higher education and employers. Learning ecosystems truly emerge where these opportunities are linked and connected by platforms or credentialing sysems, allowing for richer and more cumulative learning. Several such learning ecosystems are now developing through intentional efforts in cities and regions around the world.
If young people are to be equipped to shape the future, then a key outcome of their learning experience needs to be the development of their own agency. Learners who have agency are purposive, reflective and action-oriented. Agency means developing goals, initiating action, reflecting on and regulating progress and belief in self-efficacy. Just like thriving, we can understand agency as a process or as an outcome of learning at a variety of levels: individual, collaborative and collective. Agency – and co-agency – are at the heart of the OECD Framework for Education and Skills 2030. Agency is central to transformational competencies: creating new value; taking responsibility; coping with tensions and trade-offs. In the school context, agency can be learned and exercised through stutdent voice, student leadership and student ownership of learning. Beyond the school walls, agency can be learned and exercised when students engage in community issues that matter. Some systems are now explicitly promoting agency with support resources and materials but government can do more to ensure that schools can promote learner agency while meeting regulative and accountability requirements.
Longitudinal research finds that thriving lives result from the capacity to form and sustain interpersonal relationships. This should not be left to chance or intuition but be treated as a matter of learning. The penetration of technology into every aspect of our lives has arguably put the development of empathy – the basis for good relationships – at risk. Although hyper-connected, people can feel very alone. The use of pornography is rising and gaming addictions and cyberbullying pose risks to young people. Empathy can and should be learned. In a context where our species is ageing, older generations are becoming cut off from families as living patterns change; and are suffering high levels of loneliness for longer periods. Well-designed learning experiences can close the gap between generations with reciprocal benefit. Therefore, the learning goals arising from attending to thriving at this level are: learning to develop loving and respectful relationships in diverse technologised societies; and engaging with and learning from other generations. The implications for educators are that social and emotional learning needs to be brought from the margin to the core
All the decisions we make in school – what gets taught (curriculum design), how we teach (pedagogy) and what learning we recognise and reward (assessment and certification) – should be based in beliefs about the purpose of learning. But there is currently no agreed coherent answer to the question 'What is learning at school for?' The implicit answer is built on economics: that the purpose of education is to provide 'growth' as measured by GDP. But growth, and particularly the narrower concept of GDP, are insufficient and increasingly attacked by economists themselves. We cannot continue to simply 'supply' skills and expect the economy to use them to create productive, equal societies. The challenges of inequality, resource exploitation and ill-health are not being solved in this way. A broader narrative must encompass more of what we know about what makes for healthy lives, societies and ecosystems.
Education systems were never previously designed for thriving – especially not by everybody. They now need to be, in the face of humanity's predicament. Education's purpose must be explicitly reconceived. Individual outcomes, even if defined as competencies (knowledge, skills, attitudes and values), are necessary but insufficient. Rethinking purpose is motivating and profound work. It is already an important focus in business, politics and civic society. For schools, COVID-19 has deepened the need to rethink their purpose. Schools are still needed, but they must be reinvented. Governments and systems need to support schools in the shift; some already are, including Finland, British Columbia, and New Zealand. The state needs to embrace alternative, broader outputs of schools. The personal experiences of two school leaders in the UK making the shift show how even in unconducive systems, progress is possible.
Economic growth is not the underpinning purpose of schools, thriving is. There already exist some possible accounts of what thriving as a purpose might mean. Jacques Delors for UNESCO developed a humanistic account of education's purpose as including learning to be and learning to live together. Others advance 'twenty-first-century skills' as key outcomes. The OECD has taken a competency-based approach, defining competence as knowledge plus skills plus attitudes plus values. In this model, competence aims towards individual and societal well-being. However, in a time of climate risks and biodiversity loss we have to think beyond the individual human or even society. Humans are a part of a bigger ecology of which we are a part; and we must attend to this planetery thriving as much as to our own.
Our thriving depends upon having a livable planet. This is threatened by three phenomena: climate crisis, resource depletion and destruction of biodiversity. The climate crisis is undiminished and international efforts to coordinate a response have not so far succeeded. Students now perceive this to be a direct threat to their futures. The depletion of resources such as fresh water and soil, set against increased human consumption is also a threat; as is the rate of species extinction and biodiversity loss. Earth's thriving must be as central to the purpose of schools as that of individuals and societies. There are some small signs that we are starting to reverse the worse trends and become better stewards of our ecosystems, but there is much more to be done. This is shared work and demands international cooperation and 'global competence'. We need to enrich this concept to prepare young people for a world after globalisation and where migration will be an ongoing reality. The learning goals arising from these considerations are: learning how to live sustainably; protecting the Earth's ecosystem; acquiring global competence.
Thriving societies do not necessarily depend on high levels of wealth but on equality. First, access to employment is a key driver to create more equal societies; but the world of work is changing, becoming more automated, and less secure. Automation is likely to reduce employment opportunities, raising questions about the meaning of work in people's lives as well as how decent livable incomes can be guaranteed for all. To equip learners to navigate an uncertain and disrupted landscape of work must therefore be a central learning goal if societies are to thrive. Second, in a context where societies are becoming more not less unequal, the health of democracy must be central to education's purpose. Democracy as a driver towards equality is in trouble in many parts of the world. If it is to be renewed, learners need to understand its fundamentals and become committed to its renewal. Therefore a second learning goal in pursuit of thriving societies is to prepare young people to invent and inhabit a democracy which is participative, auhtentic and meaningful. The two levers for thriving societies – good work and democracy – must be nurtured in education's explicit purposes.
What does it look like when schools try to foreground planetary thriving? More and more schools across the world are creating opportunities for children to look after and regrow part of their environment. Often it is diverse groups of indigenous peoples who have managed to create this work in schools. The goal here is not only knowledge and understanding – though this is certainly important – but also developing the values and ethic of care for the planet and its ecosystems. This is what it looks like when environmental and sustainability education moves from being something school's do to part of their purpose. In addition, a growing number of schools are making global competence part of their purpose. There is a long tradition of schools founded in the name of international cooperation, such as the United World Colleges, but increasingly this applies to state (or public) schools as well, such as the Asia Society's International Studies School Network. Developing global competence, including understanding of perspectives and working across cultures, but also working with a view to collective wellbeing, informs curriculum, teaching practice and assessment at these schools.
Relationships are central to our daily and long-term thriving. They could therefore be a very central purpose of schools. Some schools are already illustrating what this looks like. Making Caring Common is a movement to prioritise the teaching of kindness in schools. Understanding and practising empathy is more difficult than we might assume. Empathy is patricularly important in sexual relationships, and some schools are taking up the challenge of reinventing sex education for the current age, focusing on ethics and tackling the implications of the widespread availability of pornography. Other schools make empathy a basis for action. Dream a Dream and Design for Change are networks that illustrate how to develop rich curriculum and learning activities starting from a focus on caring and understanding the perspectives of others. Some schools are already showing how formal education can provide a basis for inter-generational relationships, by co-locating with retirement centres or nursing homes.
Around the world, some schools are starting to shift from funnelling young people towards a job or profession towards preparing them to navigate an uncertain future of work. Many such schools are found in the United States, where charter schools, magnet schools and regular public schools have taken the opportunity to develop their curriculum and pedagogy around a specific purpose. Some schools shape their currriculum with a focus on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), using this concept to shift away from discrete school subejcts towards a more integrated understanding of how knowledge and skills are combined in rapidly changing fields of work. Other schools extend this focus to STEAM, including the Arts, emphasising that creativity, diversity and humanity are core parts of innovation. Others take a different tack entirely, focusing on democracy or social justice. These schools demonstrate what it looks like to not only teach young peple about these concepts but give them a chance to practise democracy and justice in their daily decision-making.