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The Emerging Global Institutional Discourse on the Future of Education:

Narrowed Prognostic Horizons, Deeper Political Effects

Part II

Blagovesta Nikolova

Institute of Philosophy and Sociology at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences



The text continues from Part I

The second significant effect as to public and policy perceptions concerns the place of education in the overall reshuffling of responsibility when it comes to who and when should enact the necessary societal transformations. Within this perspective schools and other formal educational institutions are at the forefront of preparing young people to be agents of change towards a sustainable and more democratic world (see Slater 2015). These institutions are expected to build schoolchildren’s sense of agency (OECD 2019g) and equip learners with the necessary skills, competences and transformative capacities to be active shapers of the future (OECD 2019f). By this conceptual token the question of tackling the coming planetary crises is transferred on the terrain of education, which in itself is an implicit admittance that the socio-economic restructuring that this problematic world requires cannot be delivered by the political realm or current regulatory mechanisms. What is more, the logic of this transference opens room for reconsidering the allocation of intergenerational responsibilities for keeping and saving this world from collapse. Today’s children are looked upon not to improve and perpetuate the world they inherit from us. They are expected much more – to exercise the courage to denounce and radically transform the bitter legacy they are left with. For that end educational systems need to arm the young with the proper 21st century transformative skills, competencies and attitudes. The effect of such elaborations is twofold. On the one hand, the fault of failing to cope with grand societal challenges is being laid on education systems as they allegedly disappoint at keeping pace with the demanding agenda of contemporary societies. And we can often hear this reproach in ongoing political discussions. On the other hand, we witness reconfiguration of intergenerational relations both on the terrain of the classroom and with regard to responsibility for the future of the globe. Policy formulation efforts step on the assumptions that entail disintegration of the traditional hierarchical model of relations between children and adults in terms of dependency, maturity, authority, rationality and responsibility (Hart 1992; Lee 2001). We see this in scenarios for conferring schoolchildren the power to guide their own learning process, for transforming the teaching professionals into assistants, mediators and facilitators, for denouncing common curricula and make learning entirely individualized and mobile experience (to “learn as you go” as one OECD (2020) scenario summarizes it).

The third powerful effect of the outlined conventional prognostic horizon is putting digitalization as the ultimate solution for transforming educational systems in desirable directions. It was already briefly mentioned in the previous section that the hope with regard to the reforming potential of digital technologies lies in maximizing efficiency in learning, optimization, alleviating the administrative burden for involved actors, accelerating the process of acquiring knowledge and skills, better attention economy within the classroom (for both teachers and students), and of course, stronger motivation for pupils to be deeply engaged with the process. All this speaks to the abovementioned conceptual economization of the prognostic discourse, which is readily taken by the public and manifests in firm technological enthusiasm on the part of policy-makers, parents and educational entrepreneurs as to the benefits of marrying learning with digitalization. Concerns with regard to implications for the long-term cognitive, mental and physical wellbeing of children remain in the periphery of public discourse. One pertinent question remains unexplored: how school will situate itself as to the broader process of digitalization beyond its walls and what will it be its role in tackling already identified negative effects for children of the prolonged and pervasive exposure to screens and virtual medium (see Carr 2010). So far policy imagination is occupied with how formal educational institutions can equip future citizens with employable digital skills and digital literacy that will allow them to navigate successfully the virtual realm and shy away from its lurking dangers (as to content, contact and conduct risks associated with internet). But deeper risks for the young’s cognitive development, sociability, health and commitment to nonvirtual reality are not explicitly integrated as prognostic vantage point; nor is the enquiry into the role of school in mitigating or tackling the problematic moments of digitalization in the efforts to create well-performing professionals, engaged citizens and good persons. These issues are touched upon only circumstantially in trend analyses that deal with the importance of writing, physical education, unstructured learning experiences or narrowing the digital divide (e.g. OECD 2019c; OECD 2019e; OECD 2019d) but not targeted heads on as to the possible dangers of all too great reliance on digital means in the education process.

5. Instead of a conclusion

If we browse through the documents of international organizations and institutions occupied with the problem of good governance, like OECD, the WB, UNESCO, etc., we cannot but notice that their take on the future of education has a certain flavour of urgency and almost apocalyptic anxiety that the sector is in crisis and needs to undergo critical changes in order to keep up with the challenges of a growingly demanding, uncertain, and volatile world. Actually, this sense that education is at a critical juncture and begs for reconceptualization in terms of relevant aims and adequate pedagogical tools is not new for political discussions. For example, back in 1954, Hannah Arendt (1961) offered an essay on the crisis of education, in which she turns her attention to the deeply embedded problem of the loss of authority in public and political life against the backdrop of pedagogical conundrums as to “Why Johnny cannot read?”.

Well, public anxiety as to what is wrong with education has not faded much since then. Its triggers, its discursive varieties, its formal manifestations in international prognostic documents have evolved in the last several decades, undoubtedly. And yet, there seems to be something unspoken about the sources of the combination of haste and uneasiness when considering the future of education in contemporary policy-making. That is why the paragraphs above were occupied with how certain interpretative configurations that reproduce the conventional prognostic horizon can impact the possibility for profound understanding of the actual issues at stake as to the future of education.

A pertinent problem, which somehow remains circumvented in prognostic discourses and around which all accounts seem to tiptoe, concerns the deeper socio-political role and meaning of education given the increasing “messiness” of the world. Many reports adopt a depiction of a world in deep trouble in sustaining some stability – as to processes, explanations, orientations, interpretations and working solutions. Today’s children will live in an increasingly volatile, ambiguous, and tumultuous environment. Given that, few crucial questions, which are not explicitly addressed in prognostic accounts, arise. How could the formal education institutions conceptually hold together a decomposing world in order to provide some basic orientation for the students? How can the latter be achieved and should it be attempted at all in the context of increasing uncertainty and complexity, anomie, alienation, crisis of the narrative form, violence, conflict, fragmentation and capsulation, crisis of trust in science, and so on and so forth? Then, how education institutions can perform the crucial function of making sense out of this versatility in a post-truth regime? Last but not least, how can the therapeutic function of education be thought in this situation? Does it need to be in the form of a catching-up strategy as it is now (to aim at arming children with adaptive capacities of higher order – ex. tolerance for ambiguity and incompatible logics; feeling comfortable with instability, failure and rejection; productively exploiting discontinuity, etc.); or, we need to think of different risk-mitigating strategies? We certainly do not have the answers to those pressing questions. But a better understanding of the limitations of the conventional prognostic horizon can be a useful first step in initiating the deeper inquiry our children deserve.


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