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Audrey Azoulay: “We must rebuild our relationships with each other, with the planet, and with technology”


During a visit to Djibouti in February 2021, the Director-General announced that UNESCO would strengthen its work in the field of education policies.

The major challenges of climate change, digital transformation, the polarization of opinions, and misinformation make it imperative to rethink education to equip future generations with the necessary skills and knowledge and to lay the foundations for a new social contract for our societies, emphasizes Audrey Azoulay, Director-General of UNESCO, who has called for increased international co-operation in the field. 

The report Reimagining Our Futures Together: A New Social Contract for Education has just been published. What is its purpose?

This is not the first time that such a report has been published by our Organization. As the intellectual agency of the United Nations, UNESCO endeavours to take stock of the situation whenever the historical and social context requires it, by outlining the present and future challenges of education on a global scale. 

This is what the Faure and the Delors reports did in 1972 and 1996 – enabling such essential principles as “lifelong education”, “the knowledge society” and the need to “learn to know”. But this is also what Edgar Morin did in 1999, when he defined Seven Complex Lessons in Education for the Future for UNESCO in a work that has since become a reference.

More than two decades later, it is time to take stock again. The world has changed considerably, and education should not lag behind, but look ahead. In the race for constant adaptation, however, education has sometimes lost its ability to give direction to the future. At a time when climate, health, and technological challenges are intersecting, and when the Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the educational divide, rethinking education is more necessary than ever. It is to this fundamental need that the Futures of Education report must respond. 

This initiative – launched before the pandemic, from which it will draw lessons – is a projection of education to the year 2050 and beyond. In a word, since education is our future, we felt it was vital to examine the futures of education. And to do this, UNESCO has been able to benefit from the work of specialists, but also from the expertise of nearly 200 UNESCO Chairs, and feedback from the field from over 400 of our Associated Schools around the world. 

This work also benefited from the input of more than a million people – ranging from young people and teachers to civil society, governments and economic actors. It was essential for the project to have this democratic character, because tomorrow’s education needs to make more room for the participation, commitment, and contribution of both students and the entire educational community. 

Tomorrow’s education needs to make more room for the participation of students 

In the face of challenges such as climate change, the polarization of opinions, and the proliferation of hate speech, how can education still forge a collective future? 

Education must indeed respond to these major challenges, and this is not yet the case. Young people are aware of this, and they are clearly stating their concern that climate change, which is critical for our future, is still far from being central to school curricula. And this observation by young people was confirmed in spring 2021 by a UNESCO report, Learn for our planet – a fifth of the world’s school programmes, for example, do not mention biodiversity. 

Environmental education will indeed be a core component of education in the future. This is essential for two reasons. Firstly, because the fight for the climate will take place in the long term, which implies a real upheaval in the way we think about our relationship with nature. And what more effective tool than education to act in the long term? Secondly, because we are better at protecting what we understand. Understanding is the prerequisite for protection.

Environmental education will be a core component of education in the future

But as the UNESCO report has shown, we have a long way to go. We must therefore mobilize the international community, stimulate initiatives, and also obtain concrete commitments. This is what UNESCO achieved at the World Conference in Berlin in May 2021 – eighty governments pledged to considerably strengthen the role of environmental education in their school curricula by 2025. And UNESCO will support them in this task. 

At the same time, environmental education implies a strengthening of science education – a priority that is essential not only in light of climate change, but also in light of the upheavals we have experienced due to the pandemic. 

Considering the digital transformation of our societies, accelerated by the pandemic, what other new knowledge should young people acquire?  

I see several other major areas of work. First of all, particularly because of social networks, our entire relationship to information, to the media and to data in general, has changed profoundly. We must continue to develop digital skills training, because what we have gained in terms of ease of access, we have lost in terms of fact-checking and professionalism of information. Clearly, the proliferation of misinformation, the emergence of fake news and deepfakes that are increasingly sophisticated – and that can directly influence an election, for example – have made it more necessary than ever to strengthen media and information literacy. 

This discipline must support critical thinking and encourage rationality. It is of course important to learn to code, but even more important to learn to decode the flood of information to which we are constantly exposed. UNESCO is working on this. For example, we have updated our global Media and Information Literacy Curriculum for Teachers, and it will no doubt be updated again in the future.

The strengthening of media and information literacy must include critical thinking, and infuse the spirit of doubt and rationality

In addition to media and information literacy, education against all forms of racism and anti-Semitism must also be further developed. This is another lesson of the pandemic – racist reflexes, the tendency to scapegoat, all these behaviours are still present and continue to pose a threat. We must therefore learn to create a shared world, to learn where we come from in order to know where we are going. For example, by exploring the origins of humanity, everyone can perceive our common roots and, through the odyssey of the species, rediscover the meaning of humanity. 

Finally, we must move towards more cross-disciplinarity. I have already mentioned the necessary intersections between science education and environmental education. But we must also build bridges between education, culture and heritage, notably through art education. Generally speaking, faced with complex subjects that no single discipline can fully cover, disciplines and teachers have a lot to gain from coming together, and school programmes should encourage these encounters even more.

As in the rest of society, digital technology is increasingly entering schools. Is this a real opportunity? How should we frame digital technology in schools in the future?

Digital technology in schools should not be an end in itself, but a means to an end; we must remain clear about its limits and risks. It is true that the use of new technologies and artificial intelligence can offer real opportunities – particularly for personalizing learning, stimulating student creativity, or relieving teachers of the most tedious tasks. But they must not be seen as magic tools. 

We must be aware of the limits of digital technology. I see two main ones – the risk of inequalities, and the learning risk. 

First of all, and I think this is one of the major lessons of the Covid crisis, digital technology is widening all educational divides. There has been a lot of talk about distance learning in the last year and a half, but this concept was simply a mirage for many students around the world – in Africa, for example, where ninety per cent of students do not have access to a personal computer. So it is not surprising that more than 500 million students, according to our data, have not had  any access to distance learning. In many areas, especially rural areas, distance education will continue to mean education via radio or television.

Moreover, in terms of learning, no screen can replace a teacher. Because not even the best algorithm can replace the social and emotional skills of educators, their humanity, empathy and attention – qualities that will be central to the teacher training of tomorrow. Therefore, digital technology can only complement the teacher’s role, and be used on a case-by-case basis. On this point, the report is very clear – digital technology will transform schools and the work of teachers, but it cannot and should not replace them. 

Digital technology will transform the work of teachers, but it cannot and should not replace them

Beyond the question of goals, there is the question of means. What kind of international solidarity should be forged in the future so that education is considered a common good?

It is true that the devastating consequences of the pandemic are creating a very harmful temptation – that of wanting to cut back on educational spending, which is already subject to competition from other sectors. This risk is real because, according to a report published jointly by the World Bank and UNESCO in February 2021, two-thirds of low-income countries, for example, have already reduced their government budgets for education since the beginning of the pandemic.

However, the educational emergency requires a budgetary commitment. Stimulus packages give us a historic opportunity to consider education budgets for what they are – not just recurrent expenditure, but the most profitable investment for the future of countries. The knowledge economy, as its name implies, involves considerable investment in education. Increasing education budgets is a question of rights and values, but also of economic interests and competitiveness.

Over and above financial considerations, we must also provide ourselves with the institutional means to achieve our objectives. In this area, international co-operation is more necessary than ever – education is a global common good, so we must act on this scale. The Commission's report, therefore, calls for the co-operation of all regional and global actors in education. This is the whole point of the Global Education Coalition that we have launched, and that is active in more than 100 countries. We must also forge new partnerships, for example with the private sector and major digital players, around common objectives.

Finally, what follow-up will there be to the recommendations made in UNESCO’s Reimagining Our Futures Together report? 

The report, which has been produced following extensive consultations, is the culmination of a long process led by the Ethiopian President, Sahle-Work Zewde. But its publication is only a first step. The report is intended as a means to an end, not an end in itself. It aims to propose a range of actions to be taken in the coming years – not only in terms of education policy but also in terms of educational practices.

The report proposes the forging of a new social contract for our societies – to rebuild our relationships with each other, with the planet, and with technology. A new social contract that we need to repair past injustices and to transform the future.

The stakes are so high that we hope the discussion that has been initiated will continue. But I am very confident on this issue. The writing of this report has shown how much enthusiasm the subject has generated – among experts, among teachers, but also among young people, who have been very mobilized, because they know they are very concerned. The report makes assessments and outlines avenues of action – we must now seize upon them and extend them further.

Read more:

Eva-Maria Geigl: “The history of humanity is made up of a succession of migrations”, The UNESCO Courier,  October-December 2021
Generation Greta, The UNESCO Courier, April-June 2021
Racism: Confronting the unthinkable, The UNESCO Courier, October-December 2020


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