Our Inspiration

21st Century Challenges

Co-authors: Rebekah Simon and Teodora Boarta

(NB: This blog is an opinion piece and was created to serve as a conversation starter for the Designing Education workshops. Therefore it should not be used as reference in any academic writing.)

Since the introduction of compulsory educational systems in the UK, and its adoption in the form of universal education around the world, educational systems changed in response to multiple factors, often political in nature. Some of these factors reflected changes in society which put pressure on the governments of the time to reform the system to serve the changing needs of society (for instance, it is believed that compulsory education in the UK was the result of the rising need in a skilled labour force following the Industrial Revolution).

However, these changes often had a time lag and reform in education, when responding to a societal change, often takes some time to adapt to new environmental conditions. Can it be argued that the changes in today’s society are increasingly being outpaced by the system’s ability to adapt to these changes? If so, are there ways in which we can make it more responsive? For instance, can discussions on possible future scenarios of society and education be helpful in this matter?

Whether changes and pressures within society should be a sufficient catalyst to reform education or not is in itself value laden, and largely controversial. Should education change to respond to psycho-emotional pressures children face nowadays? Some would argue that education is reserved only to the development of rational thought (Hand, 2008, p.219), and addressing aspects outside of it, such as resilience, is not within the school’s remit.

Should education seek to equip children for the challenges a society faces at any given time? If yes, in what ways? See table below with a short list of examples (by no means exhaustive) of changes in the past 50 years, their impact on society and their potential significance for education.


Current Impact

Significance for education

  1. Instant access toinformation
  2. Increased onlinepresence
  3. Connecting individuals and communities across the globe
  4. Cyber threats
  5. Inequality in access to broadband
  1. Increased need for media literacy
  2. Internet safety education
  3. Equality in remote learning
  4. Impact on mental health of students
  5. Globalization – more access to new cultures and people
Advancements in science and medicine
  1. Higher demand for STEM skills and specialisations and less funding for arts
  2. More technological literacy necessary for low skill/low wage jobs
  3. Research and prototyping new technologies requires interdisciplinary collaboration and project management skills.
  4. We live longer lives which has an indirect impact on how services are funded (including education)
  1. Need for emphasis on civic education and community engagement
  2. Education is less holistic and more specialized
  3. Pressure on students to choose a field that is profitable (greater number of graduates in STEM fields and fewer students studying humanities)
  4. Floods of new graduates in STEM field without evidence of higher employability
  5. Advances in tech require constant continuing education (e.g. lifetime education)
AI and automation
  1. Data tracking and monitoring
  2. Productivity-driven mindset
  3. Algorithm-curated content
  4. Changes in the labour market and work environments
  1. More self-paced, individualized learning
  2. Shift to ‘human skills’, such as adaptability, flexibility, creativity, etc.
  3. Less socialization in classrooms
  4. Backlash from parents and increased socio-economic divides in access to tech-driven and tech-free learning
Climate Change
  1. Shift in methods of energy production
  2. Major changes in where people live
  3. Emphasis on sustainability
  4. Shift in focus from ‘individualism and ‘consumerism’ to the ‘collective’ and the ‘global’.
  1. Social action mindset
  2. Sustainability in the classroom
  3. Need for cultural literacy
  4. Individual responsibility vs. responsibility of government and corporations
  5. Skills to solve complex social problems

Over the past two decades, there have been a myriad of rapid changes in the education sector, as well as changes in the labour market and new technological developments. Many of the changes have been caused or exacerbated by the implementation of new technology in classrooms, as well as a decline in humanities education and an increased interest in STEM subjects. These changes create many new challenges in the field of education, and we should seriously consider whether these challenges need to be addressed in order to fulfil the goal of creating an equitable education system which imparts knowledge and skills while also producing a self-reliant populus.

While the table above tackles reflections on the educational system now, there are also more medium- and long-term trends that we could be considering and factor in long before they occur. This is because the educational cycle of a child is between 12-17 years of education. In order to create an educational system that prepares pupils for entering a society 20 years from now, education needs to think in advance of what such a society might look like and adapt our education systems to pre-empt meeting its demands. For instance we should be considering trends such as: multi-profession, passion-driven career, focus on work-life balance (including for pupils) or a demand for individualised services (including in education).

Deep dive into: Internet, AI, and automation

While there is much that can be said about automation and changes in the labour market, perhaps one of the most important changes of the last few decades has been the shift in focus from reading and writing as the fundamentals of literacy to a much wider definition. This is seen in education through the need to “mak[e] sense of abundant, often conflicting pieces of information, [and] assess the reliability of sources and the validity of given claims within concrete cultural contexts.” (OECD)

Technological and digital literacy is perhaps the most important component of this shift. However, theevidence is not strong enough to support claims about the relationship between tech and student outcomes (OECD). Also the introduction of technology as a component of schooling has served to widen the gap in access to education between different social groups. While the impact of new technologies should not be ignored in education, more thinking needs to be done around how this is integrated in the classroom. This may require a user-focused (i.e. pupils) approach, careful instructional design considerations and changes in curriculum and pedagogy.

Recent studies revealed that higher rates of screen time among adolescents have a negative impact on psychological well-being. This changes the way we should think about the future of technology and AI learning systems in the classroom, and what the best way of both encouraging students to gain skills in the area of digital literacy while also fostering good mental health and psychological well-being.

How do we plan for the future?

OECD has developed four possible scenarios for the future of education in order to start a conversation around how prepared we are as a society for each and what the gaps are. The scenarios are:

  1. Schooling extended – education is the primary way of gaining social and economic capital, so more people stay in school for longer, and degrees begin to lose their value
  2. Learning outsourced – Traditional schooling systems break down as society becomes more directly involved in educating its citizens. Learning takes place through more diverse, privatised and flexible arrangements, with digital technology a key driver.
  3. Schools remain, but diversity and experimentation are the norm. Opening the “school walls” connects schools to their communities, favouring ever-changing forms of learning, civic engagement and social innovation.
  4. Education takes place everywhere, anytime. Distinctions between formal and informal learning are no longer valid as society turns itself entirely to the power of the machine.

(Via OECD four scenarios schooling)

While we may not all agree on whether education should mirror major changes in society, they should at the very least inform how we think about the future of education. There are many facets that must be considered, from the mental health and well-being of students to the changing landscape of career opportunities, and the window of opportunity to rethink education through those lenses is narrowing rapidly.


Taking part

2nd Workshop

The second workshop in our series will take place on Thu, 24 June, 10am-12pm. 

Register to attend through this Eventbrite link.

How we propose to run the 2nd Workshop:


  • We would like to ask you to flick through our material in the ‘Our Inspiration‘ section before attending the workshop. This will familiarise you with ideas and theories from fields outside your own which may be relevant to our discussion on education.

Section 1: Intros & Recap

  • In the first 15 min we shall be reminding everyone of our mission, introducing the team and doing a short recap of the ideas discussed during the LAUNCH Workshop. Check out our blogs on Sandbox Approach and Systems Thinking Theory.

Section 2: Intro to Design Theories

  • 10 min presentation on applying Design Theories to existing project. Check out our short blog where we cover the fundamentals of these theories.
  • 15 min interactive group discussion reflecting on the opportunities of applying such concepts to education.
  • 5 min reconvene to share highlights discussed during the breakout session.

Section 3: 21st Century Challenges

  • 10 min presentation on a changing society and the new challenges we are facing, collectively and individually.
  • 15 min interactive group discussion on the extent to which the purpose of education needs to adapt to better equip the next generation to tackle these challenges.
  • 5 min reconvene to share highlights discussed during the breakout session.

Section 4: Stakeholder Mapping 

  • 10 min presentation on elements of change theory, how to use the stakeholder mapping tool and what the group exercise will entail.
  • 10 min exercise on creating our own stakeholder map, with their particular interests and with what each sees as the purpose of education.
  • 10 min group discussion on the challenges posed by different stakeholders on rethinking education to suit a 21st Century agenda.

Section 4: Wrapping up

  • 15 min for short reflection on concepts introduced on the day, concluding remarks and next steps

We are taking an Agile methodology approach to running this project, meaning that we are aiming to learn and adjust course as we go through our activities. Similarly, we plan on trialling structure of workshops, duration and prep ahead of discussions through this first meeting. So your feedback will be important to securing a better experience for the participants, with every workshop we hold.

Taking part

FAQ page

Here are some questions and answers to the queries raised during the workshop discussions.


  • Will we be discussing theories and approaches from within the field of education during our workshops?

Yes, but to a lesser extent. The aim of the project is to carry out a conversation on issues in education through novel lenses from outside the field of education. Therefore, the focus in our blogs and short presentations during the workshops will be mostly on this. We will be touching upon new (and old)  ideas within the field of education, but there won’t be a lot of emphasis placed on them.

  • Why are our workshop discussions around compulsory education and what does that mean for other types of education, such as university and lifelong learning?

While the focus of our project is on compulsory education, we will by no means restrict our conversations to it. Taking a systems thinking approach, all types of learning are interrelated (inside and outside of school) and all phases of education are part of a bigger whole. The focus on compulsory education (defined here as the schooling we mandate that children go through) comes from the idea that if we (as a society) are giving children no alternative but to go to school, do coursework and go through a rigorous assessment process, we should ensure that we are asking the right things of them and that the educational system we provide is purpose-led and well thought through. 

  • What is the ‘Toolkit for Innovative Thinking in Education’ and what will it include?

The toolkit will be a paper that aims to help students, and anyone else interested in education, be exposed to the kinds of thinking tools and approaches that are conducive to innovative thinking. We hope that this will give them a good start in being equipped to tackle complex problems, such as those present in the field of education. The toolkit will encompass all the novel ideas discussed during our workshops and a complete write-up of the project. Participant names will not be featured, unless we have their explicit permission to do so. 

Sandbox approach & Systems Thinking

  • Are there any analytical tools available to help us map out complex problems?

Please check out these two blogs for a long list of tools associated with systems thinking: ‘A pallets for systems thinking tools‘ and ‘Systems Thinking Tools‘. These lists are meant to give you a flavour for what kind of thinking tools we have at our disposal for analysing the complex system that is education. 

  • What do we mean by ‘switching off’ restrictions in a sandbox scenario and what are some examples of this?

Sandbox scenarios are meant to be thought exercises where we are explicit about what real world restrictions apply or which ones we choose to ‘switch off’ during our discussions. These include, but are not limited to: cost of implementation, time it would take for proposed change to be implemented, certain national rules and regulations, etc. 

  • What is the link between a sandbox approach and systems thinking?

Taking a sandbox approach to solving complex problems involves taking a holistic, systems thinking approach.

Our Inspiration

Systems Thinking

For a comprehensive cover of the need and usefulness of Systems Thinking in Education read the Educational Development Trust report available here. This blog, when ready, will aim to capture some of its highlights. 

Systems thinking is an approach used to tackle complex issues that persist over time, with no successful solutions to date. It seeks sustainable solutions based on deep understanding of issues. 

“Systems thinking is different to linear or cause and effect thinking, as it recognises more complex interdependencies and how multiple components may affect each other in different ways. It also helps to differentiate between the underlying issue and the symptoms of something deeper.” (Ndaruhutse et al, 2019, p. 13)

Table 1 below can be found on page 13 of the  Educational Development Trust report on systems thinking.

Traditional responses to improve education outcomes that take a piecemeal approach may have some success but are unlikely to solve the ‘wicked problems’ that different education systems around the world face. Systems thinking can help policymakers achieve faster and more sustained progress in education that results in broad outcomes for the current and future generation of children and young people.” (Ndaruhutse et al, 2019, p. 11)

Key ideas and concepts in systems thinking:

  • the components of any system are not only interlinked, but interconnected – that’s why when considering reform one needs to think about the unintended consequences of proposals, underlying processes, secure stakeholder involvement and seek to understand & resolve internal tensions resulting from proposed changes.
  • the system and its components are constantly changing and adapting – expect the possibility of unforeseen results & plan mitigations as much as possible, maintain a big picture view, solutions should be iterative, experimental and co-created. 
  • a system doesn’t exist and operate in isolation; influences what happens outside of it as much as external forces influence it – solutions need to be context-specific (not just based on good practice elsewhere), external ‘forces’ need to be identified, understood and taken into account when generating solutions.
  • distinguishing between underlying causal-relationships and symptomatic ones – leads to deeper understanding of the issue, multi-layered stakeholder analysis, closer inspection  of correlation vs causation and the need to challenge existing assumptions and own biases.

Figure 1 below can be found on page 10 of the  Educational Development Trust report on systems thinking.

Figure 1 below can be found on page 10 of the  Educational Development Trust report on systems thinking.

The report also helpfully identified 5 policy tensions in any reform proposal on education which are, by themselves, “a collection of complex, intractable problems and considerations that must remain at the forefront of the minds of those leading and delivering global education reform efforts” (Ndaruhutse et al, 2019, p. 11):

1. Keep a balanced focus on how to use systems thinking to address simultaneously the two ‘wicked problems’ of equitable access and quality learning.

2. To work across organisational boundaries in a joined-up way, reforming education systems to improve outcomes for all children whilst also considering the wider systemic influences so reform is not undermined.

3. Balance the desire to be evidence-informed with the reality that operating in a political, economic, social and cultural context will make this hard to do.

4. Pay equal attention to a) the change management programme and accompanying capacity development approach needed to implement a reform and b) designing the reform itself.

5. Carefully balance what the system can achieve with personal and collective responsibility for decisions that can (negatively or positively) impact the functioning of the system.

“Systems thinking expands the range of choices available for solving a problem by broadening our thinking and helping us articulate problems in new and different ways. At the same time, the principles of systems thinking make us aware that there are no perfect solutions; the choices we make will have an impact on other parts of the system. By anticipating the impact of each trade-off, we can minimize its severity or even use it to our own advantage. Systems thinking therefore allows us to make informed choices.’ (Goodman, 2018)

Adopting a systems thinking approach in education would mean (a short, but not exhaustive list):

  • thinking about all the actors and stakeholders involved in the system, their dynamic interrelationships and the need for co-creating solutions together (e.g. adjust expectations according to agency limitations of actors at each level);
  • understanding that there are no piecemeal solutions without a ripple effect of some sort;
  • thinking holistically about issues (understanding how system components work together) and transcending the boundaries of said system, like external drivers (e.g. the impact of pupils socio-economic background on their learning);
  • gaining enough trans-sectional understanding of issues across the system to grasp inter-reactions between system components (this may involve going outside our areas of expertise);
  • challenging own cause and effect assumption regarding issues in education;
  • being more critical of ‘borrowed’ reform and understanding how to contextualise solutions and their impact; etc.


Goodman, M., 2018, ‘Systems thinking: What? Why? Where? When? and How?’. The Systems Thinker Website available at https://thesystemsthinker.com/systems-thinking-what-why-when-where-and-how/ 

Ndaruhutse, S., Jones, C. & Riggall, A., 2019, ‘Why systems thinking is important for the education sector’. Educational Development Trust,  https://www.educationdevelopmenttrust.com/EducationDevelopmentTrust/files/17/17fec588-e413-461b-a107-78b6569304cc.pdf

Soeonline, 2020, ‘What Is Systems Thinking in Education? Understanding Functions and Interactions in School Systems’. July 28, 2020, American University’s School of Education Website, available at https://soeonline.american.edu/blog/systems-thinking-in-education#