As the African Union heads of state and government gather in Addis Ababa under the new South African presidency, we call on them to address a situation that is an emergency for Africa and for the world: the need to rethink education.
We all know that greater investment in education is a must: to reach the sustainable development goal of inclusive quality education for all by 2030, we must overcome an estimated annual funding gap of $39-billion — 0.5% of global GDP. Unesco data shows that 258-million children are still not attending school, two-thirds of the 411-million children worldwide who lack basic literacy and numeracy skills are in school, and there are 750-million illiterate adults, two-thirds of whom are women. We need no further analyses to understand that the world is off-track. The international community needs to act — and it needs to act now.
At the same time, rethinking education — rethinking what we learn and how we learn — is also necessary. We would even argue that this is of equal or greater importance.
Firstly, this crucial investment in education will bring results only if it is channelled within fit-for-purpose educational models. The ongoing learning crisis clearly demonstrates that this is not the case, as the basic learning needs of all children, youth and adults are not being met. We cannot possibly deliver on our development commitments without ensuring that all young citizens have a foundation of basic competencies for further education, training, employment and civic participation.
Secondly, education is a critical tool to grapple with the major challenges facing the world this century — the need to embrace diversity, fight climate change and adapt to technological disruptions. This means taking into account advances in digital communications, automation and artificial intelligence, which are changing the way we live and the way we work, as well as the way we communicate, process knowledge and learn. This also means including environmental issues in curriculums, so that the next Greta Thunberg will not need to look beyond the classroom to find answers to her questions.
Only in this way will we be able to create educational models that give young people the tools to address the challenges of today and tomorrow. Today’s world is not only more interconnected, but also increasingly complex, uncertain and fragile. Education must aim to support human development by ensuring dignity, meaning and purpose. At the end of the day, holistic approaches will also have positive results for economic development.
Adapting existing approaches to address present and future challenges is no longer sufficient. We need to rethink the purpose of education and the organisation of learning. We need vision.
In response to this, Unesco has launched a major new futures of education initiative that looks to 2050 and beyond. A newly formed International Commission on the Futures of Education has begun this work, which will build on a global debate with all citizens. We invite you all to join this global conversation to collectively shape the future of humanity and the planet.
Audrey Azoulay is the director general of Unesco and Sahle-Work Zewde is the president of Ethiopia and the chair of the International Commission on the Future of Education