What constitutes a quality education? Today, quality is most often measured through the OECD’s PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) standardized tests – and countries are ranked accordingly. The higher on that list, the better your education would be. But do these results and rankings still relate to what really matters today – and tomorrow?

At first glance, the relationship between PISA and economic performance doesn’t seem too hard to pinpoint. Correlations between high PISA rankings and “hard” variables such as GDP, performance, productivity – these are easy enough to draw up. But if we agree that the success of modern-day economies is based on more than children’s ability to read, write and do maths, what other variables might we draw up and how might we assess their presence? If we also agree that societies are more than just their economic performance, what of instruments such as GDP and PISA?

SDGsSource: Jakob Trollbäck 

Preparing children for life

The rapid changes we’re experiencing in our societies are having a substantial impact on the likelihood that our children will find a satisfying path when they are older. Our life expectancies are rising dramatically. Rather than pinpointing the single role they’ll play, children may have to prepare for a series of roles, more so than we have so far been used to.

The meaningful discussion I believe we should engage in thus goes beyond the mere necessity of finding a job. Should an education prepare us for a single job to last our entire career, or might it take into account the sequence of professional roles that is becoming more commonplace?

Does one mould fit all?

Each developing child passes through our school system to reach their full potential as an adult in society. The current version of our education system requires each child to be measured against the same standards. We must all fit these particular norms, fit that particular mould, strive to meet those specific criteria. Are we not wasting an awful amount of potential and harming both ourselves and society? Wouldn’t developing the full and infinite potential of each person be the preferable route to take, for each individual as well as humanity? What if we could use all our existing knowledge on learning and developments in technology to find a solution that matches the natural diversity in talents with the infinite array of different roles?

Artificial employees

We are entering an age where computers, robots and artificial intelligence will start to outperform humans in skills we score children against today: computation, applied writing, organization and assembly, rote memorization, decision-tree-based problem solving. Replacing humans in such jobs makes as much economic sense as the replacement of horses by cars once did. In healthcare, in retail, in the services industry, this is already happening and there is every reason to believe it will continue.

Roles likely to avoid such robotization for some time yet are those that revolve around the precise traits that make us unmistakably human: inventiveness, creativity, empathy, entrepreneurialism, intuition, lateral thinking, cultural sensitivity, to name a few. What if we gave these more emphasis in schools? Who is going to programme the robots?

Policy changes vs. fundamental review

Changes at the policy level are a constant for our schools and our teachers are right to sigh at yet another shift. Changes in recent years seem to have been mostly directed at the what and the how of education, rather than the more fundamental question: what is it for? That is the broad, deep and fundamental discussion I would very much like to see happening: what should be the purpose of our education, if a substantial portion of our children will soon have more than 100 years to spend in societies that are changing rapidly?

It’s up to each of us to find our own answers to these questions: individuals, schools and also governments, in creating the wider conditions for their citizens. There may be no correct or ideal answers, just like there are no ‘ideal’ political standpoints. But we must try to answer them, to determine a course for the compass.

Five attempts at an answer

After several years of asking these questions in various national and international forums, I’ve come to the conclusion that education has five key goals:

  • To unleash the infinite potential of humanity. A substantial potential remains unused in people, simply because current curricula and testing bodies lack the means to address it. Imagine the benefits of an education system that helps students reach their full potential? Imagine the effect such students might have on our societies?
  • To learn how to apply oneself as an instrument towards lifelong value. Post-war generations went to work where they could. In contrast, recent generations have learned to do what they enjoy. Bridging the two tendencies, we might teach children how they matter and impart a sense of self-appreciation in a societal context. Ask them what are their core strengths, their talents and interests, and how they will put these to use for society?
  • To learn how to shape the future. Rather than preparing children for the future – which is rather passive and arguably impossible to do, as we don’t know how history will develop – we might teach children how they may have an influence on society; how they may shape, design, develop, articulate, make and programme ideas and things.
  • To understand and master the conditions for peace. Conflict resolution, clear interpersonal communications, empathy and intercultural understanding may well be crucial traits of our societies if they are to stay liveable, both in the context of our increasingly culturally diverse societies as well as the everyday school and work environment.
  • To learn how to be healthy and happy. Taking proper care of one’s body and discovering the drivers of one’s general well-being are essential skills to succeed at life. Schools might help students find a good balance between effort, exercise and relaxation, and to define their personal priorities in life.

This is not a debate for politicians and civil servants alone. Every single one of us is a decision-maker when it comes to education. None of us should debate how a quality education is best provided to children or how such quality is best assessed if we haven’t first asked ourselves: what is quality education in the first place?

Have you read?
5 reasons why we need to reduce global inequality
Why gender equality will make or break the Global Goals

Author: Claire Boonstra is the co-founder of tech start-ups, founder of Operation Education and a Young Global Leader

Guest editor of this series is Owen Gaffney, Director, International Media and Strategy, Stockholm Resilience Centre and Future Earth

Image: Children sit inside a classroom on their first day of school at Shimizu elementary school in Fukushima, northern Japan April 6, 2011. REUTERS/Carlos Barria