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.


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