Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Breaking down the silo: connecting education to world trends

by Tracey Burns
Analyst and Project Leader, Innovation and Measuring Progress Division, Directorate for Education and Skills 

Did you ever wonder if education has a role to play in stemming the obesity epidemic sweeping across all OECD countries? Or what the impact of increasing urbanisation might be on our schools, families, and communities? Or whether new technologies really are fundamentally changing the way our children think and learn? If so, you’re not alone.

The OECD’s work on Trends Shaping Education stimulates reflection on the challenges facing education by providing an overview of key economic, social, demographic and technological trends. It has been used by ministries to guide strategic thinking and in Parliaments as a strategic foresight tool. It’s also part of the curriculum in teacher education colleges, and is a resource for teachers when designing courses and lectures, as well as parents and students themselves.

The fourth edition of the book will be launched in January 2016. Two weeks ago, the Trends team travelled to Brussels to hold an expert workshop with researchers in a number of domains, including demography, governance, urban design, new technologies, climate change, financial literacy, small and medium enterprises, children and families, and banking.

Why take the time to meet face-to-face with these experts? To be honest we weren’t sure that it would yield any results. Researchers have many demands on their time, and it is not often that they are given a chance to look beyond their own particular speciality to think more holistically about global trends. Sometimes, though, it is by bringing people together unexpectedly that the best ideas emerge.

Will robots replace our teaching force in 10 years? In 20 years? Will new fertility technologies allow for designer babies (and, in parallel, “rejects” that did not turn out as expected)? Will online relationships rival or replace our friendship groups? What might this mean for families, and schools? These ideas might seem radical, but the trends behind them are supported by science. And while they are still speculative, there are a number of trends that could have an impact on education, if not today, then tomorrow or the next day. And yet most of our education systems still do not address them.

For example, climate change trends make it clear that across OECD countries we can expect to experience more and more extreme weather events. In most of our countries, the effects will be felt most acutely in cities, where the density of the population and ageing infrastructure (roads and services, such as water, electricity and plumbing) makes us especially vulnerable. If you combine this with worries about the emergence of new epidemics (MERS in Korea is just the latest example) and our ageing populations, a cautious city planner has reason for concern. And not just hypothetical reasons, either. Recent flooding in New York and other major cities has revealed the weakness of many of our emergency-response services.

So what does this have to do with education? Good question. In the short term, communities need to have a plan to educate their populations on what to do (and not do) in the event of a major storm or other extreme weather event such as drought or fires. In the medium and long term, we need to develop school infrastructure and transport that are designed to provide safe access for our students. Hoping it won’t happen is not a sustainable plan – certainly not for the communities that have already experienced an extreme weather event or those that are forecast to do so in the near future.

This is just one example. Important trends to keep an eye on range from the macro level (increasing globalisation and migration) all the way through national and regional labour markets, urban planning, and our changing demography and family structures. How can education support our ageing populations – currently one of the major demographic preoccupations for most OECD governments – to stay active and healthy well past retirement? Will cities keep growing at increasing speeds, or will we continue to see the decline of mid-size cities, such as Detroit (USA) and Busan (Korea)? What about new technologies in the classroom, will they change the way we teach and learn? Perhaps even our concept of what a classroom is?

In September, we plan to hold a second workshop in order to discuss how the trends we have identified might interact with education in the short and medium term. Stay tuned to find out how that goes, and to get a sneak peek between the covers of the next Trends Shaping Education volume, due out in January next year.

Trends Shaping Education 2013
The Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI)
Photo Credit: Concentrated students in lecture hall working on their futuristic tablet during lesson @Shutterstock

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