“The power of education extends beyond the development of skills we need for economic success. It can contribute to nation-building and reconciliation. Our previous system emphasized the physical and other differences of South Africans with devastating effects. We are steadily but surely introducing education that enables our children to exploit their similarities and common goals while appreciating the strength in their diversity.”
These words spoken by Nelson Mandela over twenty years ago articulate the promise that receiving an education plays in relieving us of the burdens of our ignorance and preparing groups and individuals to progress towards the common good. Mandela recognized that all educational systems, whether intentionally or through circumstance, transmit values, narratives, and ideas that shape the community of learners who interact with them. And so as 2020 comes an end, and we look back at a global educational system buffeted by the winds of a virus that threatens to roll back many of the sustainable development goals that have driven our progress, we are faced with the question at hand – what is the future of education? The answer is clear. The future of education lies in harnessing the social and emotional dimensions of learning to equip our global community to navigate our societies towards the common good.
Sustainable development Goal 4.7 calls the global community to “ensure that all learners acquire the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development, including, among others, through education for sustainable development and sustainable lifestyles, human rights, gender equality, promotion of a culture of peace and non-violence, global citizenship and appreciation of cultural diversity and of culture’s contribution to sustainable development.” And yet even as the organizations like UNESCO’s Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Education for Peace and Sustainable Development and Salzburg Global Seminar’s Karanga Alliance have arisen to meet this call through the mainstreaming of social and emotional skills, there remains a reluctance to harness the role of educational systems, in cooperation with the levers of civil society, to integrate tools of social-emotional learning to equip its citizens with the capabilities to forge consensus, build community, and pursue the common good.
This reluctance is grounded in a fixation around what students know to the exclusion of who they are. Indeed, according to the United Nations, the largest threat to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goal 4 – Ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all, is conflict and stability in the nations themselves. That is, while the digital divide, training of elementary school teachers, and gender disparities around access to education are formidable foes, an estimated 50% of out-of-school children of primary age are in conflict-affected zones. The context of stability is as important for pursuing learning as the learning systems themselves. Conversely, depriving youth of a holistic educational experience exasperates the conditions for instability. It is a foundational goal of education to prepare a nation’s citizens to learn how to live in a community with each other. Given the headwinds of coronavirus, how can we achieve this vision?
First, we must take seriously the UNESCO definition of education as the process of facilitating learning or the acquisition of knowledge, skills, values, beliefs, and habits. One can’t help but note the combination of skills, values, beliefs, and habits in their conceptualization of education. This idea can be operationalized by organizing education systems around three principles:
- Who a citizen should be?
- What they should know? and
- What they should do with that knowledge?
In the future of education, a young person will be the one who leaves the educational system with the skills, values, and experiences necessary to cultivate a consideration for others and a desire to contribute to their community positively. In the future of education, a young person will leave the educational system knowing how to recognize sources of error in their thinking and the thinking of others, how to identify, define, and solve problems independently and collaboratively, and will be equipped to pursue truths about themselves and the world. Lastly, in the future of education, a young person will pursue problem-solving through the lens of the common good. This is the future of education. These are social, emotional, and cognitive skills.
Next, we must honor those in our society who use their education to pursue justice and community. Those who build the shared values, identities, and networks that bond us to each other through a commitment of reciprocity and the willingness of individuals to act through the common interest. We must nurture those who seek to refine the set of ideals and organizing principles that inform the institutions of our respective societies and create systems to ensure that people receive what they deserve. We will acknowledge that our social engineers contribute as much to our communities as their more mathematically minded counterpoints. For what use is a sturdy bridge if the society around it crumbles?
Finally, we must celebrate those institutions which dedicate themselves to the aims above. Schools, civil societies, and systems of governance that seek to renew and replenish the social contract that binds us to each other. Indeed, the upcoming International SEL Day celebration seeks to do just that. With the theme of “Building Bonds, Reimagining Communities” the day is an opportunity to recognize the institutions across the world that produce the people who seek to connect us to each other. By recognizing these institutions, we honor their legacy in the world, and we hasten the future described above. The future of education lies in integrating the social, emotional, and cognitive domains of learning in order to move our global society forward by “enabling our children to exploit their similarities and common goals while appreciating the strength in their diversity,” and that future begins today.