Renewing education to transform the future: Critical perspectives on the Transforming Education Summit

Sobhi Tawil and Charlène Camille - 20 March 2023

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There has recently been much reference to the transformation of education in global development discourse. This is undoubtedly related to the Transforming Education Summit convened by the United Nations Secretary-General in New York in September 2022. The process around the Summit arguably represents one of the most significant mobilizations of the international education community in recent years. Bringing together Heads of State and of Government in New York, the Summit was preceded by a Pre-summit at UNESCO in Paris attended by over 150 Ministers and Deputy Ministers of Education. The process also included the mobilization of international expertise around five thematic tracks, the organization of national consultations with over 130 countries submitting national statements of commitment to transform education, and the release of a vision statement by UN Secretary-General António Guterres.

Despite this international mobilization, however, there has been little clarity on why we need to transform education, confounding the short-term need to address the impact of the Covid-19 educational disruption with ambitions to strengthen commitment to the globally agreed education goals and to unlock the transformational potential of teaching and learning for longer-term change. There has also been very little discussion on what transformation in education actually means and how it may be different from reform. In order to provide more clarity, it is useful to go back to the UN Secretary-General’s 2021 report Our Common Agenda which first announced the Summit on Transforming Education referencing the report of the International Commission on the Futures of Education as a key framing document for the process.1

Why transform education?

The 2021 report of the International Commission on the Futures of Education, Reimagining Our Futures Together: A new social contract for education, proposes a vision for the renewal of education. It begins by looking at the present with a long view towards 2050. Indeed, any effort to reform, renew, or transform education must necessarily begin with a critical re-examination of our present reality shaped both by past trends, as well as by our visions of probable and possible futures.

Any examination of projections based on current development trends make it abundantly clear that probable futures are bleak and even dystopic. Indeed, environmental destruction continues unabated with an acceleration of climate change and biodiversity loss that threatens the future of life on Earth. Unsustainable patterns of consumption and production, exacerbated by demographic pressures, continue to exceed the capacity of replenishment of the natural world. Greater concentration of wealth across the world fuels growing inequalities. Regression of democratic space is undermining hard-won gains in human rights. And while the digital transformation of our societies is offering new possibilities for human development, it is not only ushering in uncertainties about the future of work, but it is also contributing to greater surveillance and the polarization of societies. The new multipolar world continues to be a stage for violent conflict, the destruction and disruption of lives, and the displacement of millions.

We are at a critical historical juncture in global development with threatening prospects of probable futures. It therefore comes as no surprise that the UN Secretary-General, in his 2021 Our Common Agenda report, affirmed that “humanity faces a stark and urgent choice: a breakdown or a breakthrough.” This framing is echoed in the Futures of Education report which states that “the future of humanity and the planet is at risk” and that “we are faced with an existential choice: continue on an unsustainable path or radically change course.”2

"No trend is destiny"

But in highlighting that “no trend is destiny”, Reimagining Our Futures Together insists, not only on the possibility of shaping alternative futures, but also on the urgency of doing so. It reaffirms that education is key to changing course. As the foundation for human development, knowledge and education are also the basis to transform and shape alternative possible futures. Indeed, education has great potential to help shape more just, inclusive, and sustainable futures by rebalancing our relationships with each other, with the living planet, and with technology. Despite this potential, however, the report argues that current educational models, approaches, and practices will not help us change course and transform the future. This needs to change. Education needs to be renewed if it is to transform the future.

The first rationale to renew education is the persistence of widespread exclusion from educational opportunity despite progress made in expanding access worldwide to educational opportunity over the past several decades. How can current models of education possibly transform the future when over 770 million youth and adults around the world are non-literate?3 When an estimated one in four youth is excluded from education, employment, or training.4 How can our models of education transform the future when close to 60% of youth around the world do not possess minimal proficiency levels in reading and mathematics?5 We are in the third decade of the twenty-first century —how is this possible? We cannot hope to transform the future without addressing these knowledge divides and educational exclusions. Doing so requires addressing the root causes of social exclusion. As argued in the report of the International Commission on the Futures of Education, today’s gaps in access, participation, and outcomes are based on yesterday’s exclusions and oppressions.6 Past injustices need to be addressed and corrected. This is the necessary condition for the renewal of educational models and approaches that can hope to shape more just and inclusive futures.

Furthermore, we also know that some of our educational approaches, models, and practices are contributing to the socially, economically, and environmentally unsustainable development trends we are witnessing today. The second rationale for renewing education is based on the recognition that education has been part of the problem by sustaining models based on human exceptionalism, individual accomplishment, competition, selection, and exclusion. Our educational models continue to be informed by a utilitarian approach with its imperative on economic growth that all too often overrides the role education can pay in promoting social or environmental justice. Indeed, as has been noted “[t]he world’s most educated countries and people are the ones most accelerating climate change” and that if “educated means living unsustainably, we need to recalibrate our notions of what education should do and what it means to be educated.”The same can be argued about the role of many education systems in perpetuating bias, discrimination, division, and in undermining social cohesion.  More of the same will not do. Maintaining or strengthening political commitment to, and financing of, current education systems cannot take us towards breakthrough. We need a different education. To shape more just and sustainable futures, education itself must be transformed. We need to rethink our models, our approaches, our practices.

Towards transformative teaching and learning

What, then, does transforming education actually mean? And what exactly should be transformed in education? The more than 130 national statements of commitment to transform education submitted as part of the 2022 Transforming Education Summit process is a useful starting point. Unsurprisingly, the analysis of these statements indicates that the vast majority of countries highlight the need to renew how and what we teach and learn.

Indeed, close to 70% of countries cite curriculum reform, and the renewal of content and methods, as key levers to improve the quality and relevance of teaching and learning.8 Among these countries, over half highlight the need for learning content to center environmental questions, green transitions, and broader sustainable development goals across disciplines. Indeed, if we hope to grow individual and collective capacities to shift away from unsustainable ways of inhabiting the planet, we must re-learn our interdependencies in a more-than-human world. Reimagining Our Futures Together insists that we must also learn to unlearn “the human arrogance that has resulted in massive biodiversity loss, the destruction of entire ecosystems, and irreversible climate change”.9 If education is to help transform the future, it must nurture a culture of care for the planet.

Leveraging the transformational potential of teaching and learning also requires renewed pedagogies that develop learners’ ability to navigate future uncertainties and approach the complex problems and multi-dimensional crises of our times in meaningful ways. As highlighted by more than 40% of the national statements of commitment analyzed, the continued prevalence of rote learning methods will not take us in this direction —we need to renew how we learn. The pedagogical transformations that countries are calling for also resonate strongly with the Reimagining our Futures Together report and include interdisciplinary, project-based, and problem-solving teaching and learning methods that are seen as developing capacities for systems thinking beyond disciplinary boundaries. But in transforming how and what we learn, it is also important to re-examine how we assess and validate learning through evaluation methods that reduce competition and value critical thinking and research on contemporary issues.

Recognizing that no transformation of curricula content and methods will be possible without teachers, almost 95% of countries highlight the need to strengthen and revisit pre- and in-service training and professional development of teachers. Paradoxically, however, only a third of countries acknowledge the need to improve the working conditions and social status of teachers, only a quarter address the fundamental issue of teacher shortage, and only a handful reference the question of contract teachers. And yet, we know that 69 million teachers must be recruited globally to reach the 2030 education goals,10 and a significant proportion of contract teachers is being used to fill the acute gaps in certain regions —in Sub-Saharan Africa, for instance, contract teachers represent up to 65% of the teaching workforce.11 How can we possibly transform education without serious efforts to recruit, train and retain qualified teachers? To what extent can we hope to transform teaching and learning practice without addressing the fundamental social, economic, and political issues that define the teaching profession?

How can we expect to benefit from what the digital transformation of education may have to offer, if we cannot even value our teachers?

In parallel, close to 90% of countries reference digital learning as one of the major levers of transformation in education. But how can we expect to benefit from what the digital transformation of education may have to offer, if we cannot even value our teachers as the main drivers of any renewal of education? While we know that teachers remain the most significant factor in educational quality, we also know that their roles must change. There can be no renewal of education without the transformation of the teaching profession. The profession must be both revalued and reimagined as a collaborative endeavor which builds new knowledge and capacity to bring about possible alternative futures. The voice of teachers will remain key in shaping the future of the profession and of education.

Transform? Renew? Reform?

Renewal of education must mean going beyond reform. Rather than better versions of existing systems, renewal implies education systems that are different from today.12 It implies fundamental changes to educational processes and opportunities. But we are not starting from scratch. Three questions can be considered as we seek to renew education. First, what to do now that we should continue doing; what do we need to maintain, protect, and strengthen within existing educational systems? Second, recognizing that some of our policies and practices are ineffective, outdated, and even harmful, what do we need to abandon? Third, what to reimagine and reinvent? Transforming our futures will require a renewal of education that builds on our collective accomplishments, critically examines our current failings, and reinvents new models.


Sobhi Tawil is the Director, and Charlène Camille an Associate Expert, of UNESCO's Future of Learning and Innovation Division.

Cite this article (APA format)
Tawil, S., & Camille, C. (20 March 2023) Renewing education to transform the future: Critical perspectives on the Transforming Education Summit. UNESCO Futures of Education Ideas LAB.  Retrieved from

Cite this article (MLA format)
Tawil, Sobhi, and Charlène Camille. "Renewing education to transform the future: Critical perspectives on the Transforming Education Summit”. UNESCO Futures of Education Ideas LAB. 20 March 2023,

A shorter version of this Ideas LAB blogpost will be published in the Commonwealth Education Report 2023.



1 United Nations. 2021. Our Common Agenda. Report of the Secretary-General. Page 40.

2 UNESCO. 2021. Reimagining our Futures Together: A new social contract for education. Report of the International Commission on the Futures of Education. Page 7.

3 UNESCO Institute of Statistics data.

4 International Labor Organization data.

5 UIS. 2017. Fact Sheet No 46.

6 UNESCO (2021: 20).

7 UNESCO (2021: 33).

8 UNESCO. 2022. Analysis of National Statements of Commitment on Transforming Education.

9 UNESCO (2021: 66).

10 UIS. 2016. Fact Sheet No 39.

11 UNESCO. 2020. A review of the use of contract teachers in sub-Saharan Africa. Report of the International Task Force on Teachers for Education 2030. Page 11.

12 International Commission on the Futures of Education. 2022. Transforming education together for just and sustainable futures. Statement from International Commission on the Futures of Education.


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