Building peace in the minds of men and women

Wide Angle

Rethinking our futures together

The growing concern about environmental issues, the rise of artificial intelligence and digital technologies, the decline of democratic governance – in a changing world, education has a key role to play. The result of a two-year global process of collective reflection, a new UNESCO report, Reimagining Our Futures Together: A New Social Contract for Education, takes stock of the current situation and lays the foundations for a new social contract for education by making a series of recommendations.

Our world is at a turning point. We already know that knowledge and learning are the basis for renewal and transformation. But global disparities – and a pressing need to reimagine why, how, what, where, and when we learn – mean that education is not yet fulfilling its promise to help us shape peaceful, just, and sustainable futures.

Today, high living standards coexist with gaping inequalities. More and more people are engaged in public life, but the fabric of civil society and democracy is fraying in many places around the world. Rapid technological changes are transforming many aspects of our lives. Yet, these innovations are not adequately directed at equity, inclusion, and democratic participation.   

Everyone alive today has a weighty obligation to both current and future generations – to ensure that our world is one of abundance, not scarcity, and that everyone enjoys the same human rights to the fullest. 

In spite of the urgency of action, and in conditions of great uncertainty, we have reason to be full of hope. As a species, we are at the point in our collective history where we have the greatest access ever to knowledge and to tools that enable us to collaborate. The potential for engaging humanity in creating better futures together has never been greater.

The problems of the world affect us all because we are connected to each other. Many people are already engaged in bringing about these changes themselves – they share the strong belief  that it is imperative to be part of a common effort. Starting from an acceptance of diversity and difference, we need to work together and take collective action to find solutions that benefit everyone.  

Education – the way we organize teaching and learning throughout life – has long played a foundational role in the transformation of human societies. It connects us with the world and to each other, exposes us to new possibilities, and strengthens our capacities for dialogue and action. But to shape peaceful, just, and sustainable futures, education itself must be transformed.

To shape peaceful, just, and sustainable futures, education itself must be transformed

A new social contract for education

Education can be seen in terms of a social contract – an implicit agreement among members of a society to co-operate for shared benefit. A social contract is more than a transaction as it reflects norms, commitments and principles that are formally legislated and culturally embedded. The starting point is a shared vision of the public purposes of education. This contract consists of the foundational and organizational principles that structure education systems and the distributed work done to build, maintain, and refine them.

During the twentieth century, public education was essentially aimed at supporting national citizenship and development efforts through the form of compulsory schooling for children and youth. Today, however, as we face grave risks to the future of humanity and the living planet itself, we must urgently reinvent education to help us address common challenges. This act of reimagining means working together to create futures that are shared and interdependent. The new social contract for education must unite us around collective endeavours and provide the knowledge and innovation needed to shape sustainable and peaceful futures for all anchored in social, economic, and environmental justice. 

Between past promises and uncertain futures

Widening social and economic inequality, climate change, biodiversity loss, resource use that exceeds planetary boundaries, democratic backsliding, and disruptive technological automation are the hallmarks of our current historical juncture. These multiple overlapping crises and challenges constrain our individual and collective human rights and have resulted in damage to much of life on Earth. While the expansion of education systems has created opportunities for many, vast numbers have been left with low-quality learning.

Looking to the future, it is all too easy to paint an even darker picture. It is possible to imagine an exhausted planet with fewer spaces for human habitation. Extreme future scenarios also include a world where quality education is a privilege of elites, and where vast groups of people live in misery because they lack access to essential goods and services. Will current educational inequalities only worsen with time until curricula become irrelevant? How will these possible changes impact on our basic humanity?

At present, the ways we organize education across the world do not do enough to ensure just and peaceful societies, a healthy planet, and shared progress that benefits all. In fact, some of our difficulties stem from how we educate. A new social contract for education needs to allow us to think differently about learning, and the relationships between students, teachers, knowledge, and the world.

Proposals for renewing education

Learning should be organized around the principles of co-operation, collaboration, and solidarity. It should foster the intellectual, social, and moral capacities of students to work together and transform the world with empathy and compassion.  There is unlearning – of bias, prejudice, and divisiveness – to be done too. Assessments should reflect these pedagogical goals in ways that promote meaningful growth and learning for all students.

Learning should foster the intellectual, social, and moral capacities of students to work together and transform the world

Curricula should emphasize ecological, intercultural, and interdisciplinary learning that supports students to access and produce knowledge, while also developing their capacity to critique and apply it. Curricula must embrace an ecological understanding of humanity that rebalances the way we relate to Earth. The spread of misinformation should be countered through scientific, digital, and humanistic literacies that develop the ability to distinguish falsehoods from truth. We should promote active citizenship and democratic participation in educational content, methods, and policy. 

The spread of misinformation should be countered through scientific, digital, and humanistic literacies that help distinguish falsehoods from truth

Teaching should be further professionalized as a collaborative endeavour, where teachers are recognized for their work as knowledge producers and key figures in educational and social transformation. Collaboration and teamwork should characterize the work of teachers.  Reflection, research, and the creation of knowledge and new pedagogical practices should become integral to teaching. This means that their autonomy and freedom must be supported, and that they must participate fully in public debate and dialogue on the futures of education.

Schools should be protected educational sites because of the inclusion, equity and individual and collective well-being they support – and also reimagined to better promote the transformation of the world towards a more just, equitable and sustainable future. Schools need to be places that bring diverse groups of people together and expose them to challenges and possibilities not available elsewhere. School architectures, spaces, times, timetables, and student groupings should be redesigned to encourage and enable individuals to work together. Digital technologies should aim to support – and not replace – schools. Schools should model the futures we aspire to by ensuring human rights and becoming examples of sustainability and carbon neutrality.

Digital technologies should aim to support – and not replace – schools

We should enjoy and expand the educational opportunities that take place throughout life, and in different cultural and social spaces. At all times of life, people should have meaningful, quality educational opportunities. We should connect natural, built, and virtual sites of learning, carefully leveraging the best potentials of each. Key responsibilities fall to governments whose capacity for the public financing and regulation of education should be strengthened. The right to education needs to be broadened to be lifelong and encompass the right to information, culture, science, and connectivity.

Catalysing a new social contract for education

A new social contract for education needs to overcome discrimination, marginalization, and exclusion. We must dedicate ourselves to ensuring gender equality and the rights of all – regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, disability, sexual orientation, age, or citizenship status. A massive commitment to social dialogue, to thinking and acting together, is needed.

A call for research and innovation. A new social contract requires a worldwide, collaborative research programme that focuses on the right to education throughout life. This programme must centre on the right to education and be inclusive of different kinds of evidence and ways of knowing, including horizontal learning and the exchange of knowledge across borders. Contributions should be welcomed from everyone – from teachers to students, from academics and research centres to governments and civil society organizations.

A call for global solidarity and international co-operation. A new social contract for education requires renewed commitment to global collaboration in support of education as a common good, premised on more just and equitable co-operation among state and non-state actors. Beyond North-South flows of aid to education, the generation of knowledge and evidence through South-South and triangular co-operation must be strengthened. The international community has a key role to play in helping states and non-state actors to align around the shared purposes, norms and standards needed to realize a new social contract for education. In this, the principle of subsidiarity should be respected, and local, national and regional efforts should be encouraged. The educational needs of asylum seekers, refugees, stateless persons and migrants, in particular, need to be supported through international co-operation and the work of global institutions.

Universities and other higher education institutions must be active in every aspect of building a new social contract for education. From supporting research and the advancement of science to being a contributing partner to other educational institutions and programmes in their communities and across the globe, universities that are creative, innovative and committed to strengthening education as a common good have a key role to play in the futures of education.    

It is essential that everyone be able to participate in building the futures of education – children, youth, parents, teachers, researchers, activists, employers, cultural and religious leaders. We have deep, rich, and diverse cultural traditions to build upon. Humans have great collective agency, intelligence, and creativity. And we now face a serious choice: continue on an unsustainable path or radically change course.  

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Any new social contract must be governed by two foundational principles:

Assuring the right to quality education throughout life. The right to education, as established in Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, must continue to be the foundation of the new social contract for education and must be expanded to include the right to quality education throughout life. It must also encompass the right to information, culture and science – as well as the right to access and contribute to the knowledge commons, the collective knowledge resources of humanity that have been accumulated over generations and are continuously transforming.

Strengthening education as a public endeavour and a common good. As a shared societal endeavour, education builds common purposes and enables individuals and communities to flourish together. A new social contract for education must not only ensure public funding for education, but also include a society-wide commitment to include everyone in public discussions about education. This emphasis on participation is what strengthens education as a common good – a form of shared well-being that is chosen and achieved together.

Learn more about the global Futures of Education initiative

Disruptive transformations can be discerned in several key areas

A second-chance school in Montreal, The UNESCO Courier, October-December 2019

School for the future, The UNESCO Courier, April 2009


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