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The Emerging Global Institutional Discourse on the Future of Education:

Narrowed Prognostic Horizons, Deeper Political Effects

Part I

Blagovesta Nikolova

Institute of Philosophy and Sociology at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences



Abstract: The current paper aims to outline some of the common problems in thinking about the future of education that usually takes the form of international organizations’ official prognoses, strategies and action plans for the adequate governance of the sector. The text will focus on the features of the evolving global discourse on the needed education policies against the backdrop of growing uncertainty; it will identify some main assumptions that underline existing prognostic analyses; and it will point to some of its political effects. The paper represents a step in laying the groundwork for productive escape from conventional patterns of thought advanced by currently circulating international prognostic documents that are usually used as a conceptual basis in the policy-making process of national competent authorities.

Keywords: education futures, prognostic methods, global policy, childhood, uncertainty.


1. Introduction

The paragraphs that follow represent an attempt to challenge the manner in which the problem of the future of education is posed in currently circulating prognostic documents issued by international organizations. The selection of documents is not exhaustive as formal content analysis is not the aim of the text. The goal of the paper is to point to the narrowed conceptual scope of conventional prognostic elaborations enacted by the emerging global institutional discourse on the future of education.

The argumentation will be developed as follows: the first section will briefly trace the evolution of forecasting approaches in education in order to provide a background perspective on the shifting focus towards the transformative utility of the prognostic endeavour; then, the second section will attempt at grasping the contours of the conventional prognostic horizon by summarizing some main themes that organize the emerging global institutional discourse on the future of education; finally, the third section will reveal how these main themes produce narrowing prognostic effects that impact the policy-making imagination in a certain direction. 

Many of the evoked references from UNESCO, OECD, and the World Bank reports speak to that particular problem. It is not to say that there are no accounts in sociology of education, political theory or philosophy of education for that matter that challenge problematic assumptions that can be traced in institutional future-oriented narratives (see Bøyum 2008; Popkewitz 1997; Young & Muller 2010). On the contrary, as will the final paragraphs show, it is exactly these kinds of considerations that the institutional futuristic imagination is deprived of and which fuels the need to push against the narrow confines of common prognoses and policy recommendations on education. [1]

2. The evolution of forecasting approaches in education

The emerging international lingo on the future of education has been accompanied by a noticeable change in the way the problem has been approached in terms of forecasting tools and prognostic premises. The evolution of prognostics in education reflects some major shifts in the intellectual attitudes on the push and pull between uncertainty and regularity in shaping our perceptions about the world and the possibility to introduce change in it. In the last several decades the attention has been moving increasingly towards unpredictability as main consideration in prognostic endeavours. Uncertainty seems to be the only sure thing about the future and a productive exploitation of this fact requires embracing the latter as an opportunity and imagine ways in which to intervene in the already projected developments, to divert them from undesirable paths and navigate the plausible effects.

Analysing official documents that offer perspectives on the future of education, we may stumble across a telling tendency regarding the use of prognostic tools. Starting back from the 1970s and 1980s there is a noticeable transition from prospective reflection towards scenarios and transformative visions. Although all these tools for “approaching the future” rely on preliminary identification of trends, they actually advance different understandings on how and why social change can be enacted. For example, in the 1980s, UNESCO’s prognostic reports are based on trend extrapolations and the utility of the latter is sought in revealing issues that national authorities will need to address in the future and adjust current policy-making to the trend-elicited conclusions of this prospective reflection (e.g. UNESCO, 1980; UNESCO, 1984). Thus, the significance of trends in this period lies in their illuminating power as to the emerging problems and impediments before education systems; whereas the utility of the prognostic effort can be sought in building the adaptive capacities of countries.

Then, we see that a little later, scenarios gained prominence along the realization that uncertainty is playing a greater role in our prognostic endeavours. The decreased visibility as to the future results in the need to conceive several plausible or less plausible stories which could help not so much in predicting the future but in strengthening the navigational capacities of responsible authorities and institutions. Trends are still at the heart of scenario building but their significance is in identifying previously ignored challenges and opportunities that can fuel strategic dialogues and promote engagement between stakeholders. Here trend-extrapolations are not preparing us for “the future” (singular) that is to come upon us; instead, they highlight the nonlinearity of the historical process that can take the shape of many “futures” (plural) by pointing to possible points of intervention that could divert the development of the education system away from its initially projected path. OECD uses scenarios in its work concerning the future of education. They have issued two prominent reports using this tool – What Schools for the Future? (OECD, 2001) and Back to the Future of Education (OECD, 2020) – as a means for orientation for policy-makers. It is interesting to mention that the organization harnesses trends as a means for navigation not only in building scenarios. Some other trends-based futuristic work includes the Learning Compass 2030 (OECD, 2019a) and the Trends Shaping Education (TSE) series (OECD, 2019b) which provide a rich material to orientate and prepare interested stakeholders to come to terms with complexity and grasp the contradictions, the discontinuities, the possible shocks and surprises of a highly uncertain future.

Within this brief comparison we can see that whereas in previous periods trend extrapolations were employed to focus the attention on projecting regularities so that we can know what will probably happen, now they are predominantly used to focus the attention on both negative and positive uncertainty, on the grey zones of unpredictability for the mere existence of which we need to be prepared.

Except for building adaptive and navigational capacity, one cannot but mention a third use of trends vis-a-vis the creeping shadows of uncertainty, namely for building transformative visions. It must be clarified that although in such normative forecasting efforts trends may not explicitly be part of the official futuring algorithm, the perception of hovering negative developments is usually the basis and the occasion for the compelling need to realize the proposed vision. Here trends, in the sense of identified and projected regularities, are in the role of a powerful trigger for arguing the urgency of the envisioned change; thus, they contribute to building transformational capacities of the subjects involved. The preference for normative foresight tools in the form of transformative visions is very explicit since the COVID-19 crisis broke. For example, in 2020 UNESCO issued Learning to Become with the World: Education for Future Survival as an invitation for a paradigm shift in thinking about the future of education that entails reimagining and reconfiguring the notion of education against the backdrop of the urgency to ensure the survival of the planet. The latter requires revision of long-held assumptions in the sphere of knowledge and learning about our relation to the world, about agency, about Cartesian dualism, and so on and so forth. This kind of prognostic elaborations (visionary declarations in the form of “By 2050 we will have done…”) open room for emancipatory futures in contradistinction to various forms of projected futures. This line can also be traced in earlier UNESCO reports (UNESCO, 2015). Following the pandemic-related negative effects on learning, the World Bank (2020) has also advanced its vision for the future of learning (Realizing the Future of Learning), a vision that positions key pillars of the sector (learners, teachers, learning resources, schools and systems) within an agenda for accelerated transition from learning poverty to “Learning for Everyone, Everywhere”.

Within the current foresight landscape, the pending perception of a highly problematic and uncertain world on the brink of a variety of possible systemic collapses – environmental, energetic, economic, healthcare, social, democratic, financial, technology-driven etc. leads to preoccupation with sources of unpredictability, surprises, wild cards and weak signals that constitute the conventional blind spots in the prognostic endeavour. Along with that, the utility of the prognostic effort as to the possibility and desirability of social change is construed in three main directions:

alignment with a pre-conceived notion of society – foresight consists in revealing the conditions and pathways for catching up with certain developments in order to realize the promise of learning vis-à-vis the demands of that notion. For example, we need Education 4.0 to keep up with the Fourth Industrial Revolution (WEF, 2020); or, we need to enhance learning-centred policies to bring about the envisioned ideal for becoming “learning societies” (Faure et al. 1972; Delors et al. 1996);

opening policy options – foresight consists in identifying challenges and opportunities for intervention in already projected developments, which could allow for diverting from the current course of the trends and steer the education system towards more desirable paths. For example, OECD (2001, 2020) scenarios exploiting the de-schooling/re-schooling axis can yield insight as to possible configurations and synergies between formal, informal learning environments, the market and local communities in achieving the mission of education to support individuals to develop as persons, citizens and professionals;

reconfiguring the current educational landscape by overturning basic assumptions not only about the aims and functions of education, but also as regards the education content that is delivered. We already mentioned the last UNESCO report which advocates for the need to switch from learning about the world (the world as an object of inquiry) to learning to become with the world (humans in co-evolutionary mode with the planet).

In summary, it must be noted that up until the 1970s there was no deep-rooted tradition of foreseeing the future of education as a sole focus of the prognostic effort. One could find milestone reports like the ones issued by UNESCO (devoted to the notion of learning societies) but not a case of regular exploration of the issue. However, in the last 10-15 years we witness a significant rise in the interest of international organizations on the topic and a myriad of projects, working groups, thematic commissions, and quite regular reports (like OECD’s TSE) exploring different aspects of the problem. In an increasingly complex, uncertain and interdependent world, the hope that education will contribute to solving global societal challenges is gathering momentum and is even turning into an imperative for immediate action towards the transformation of the sector. In terms of prognostic tools, we see that the response to this difficult situation leads to a gradual shift from exploratory and quantitative to normative and qualitative methods.

3. The emerging global institutional discourse on the future of education

This section will concentrate on the global institutional discourse on the future of education that has been emerging and gradually stabilizing in the course of the last few decades (see Mundy et al., 2016). In view of that, the paragraphs that follow will attempt at outlining the conventional prognostic horizon that the global vernacular on the problem produces. What is coined here as “conventional prognostic horizon” does not refer to the temporal aspects of speculating on the future of education. It actually pertains to the forming conceptual framework, to the cognitive operational closures enforced by the overlapping of themes, foresight methods, pillar concepts and governance implications. The prognostic narratives on lifelong learning, 21st century competencies and skills, de-schooling and re-schooling, digitalization of the learning experience, S&T-enhanced pedagogies, trends and driving forces, probable and desirable scenarios, etc. – all these conflate in a somewhat common discursive canvass, reinforcing several main normative assumptions as to any prognostic and policy-making endeavor. Some of the elements of this conventional prognostic horizon are presented below. As can be seen, they establish pivotal themes bearing “prognostic charge” that can manifest into different policy directions when projected into the future.

First, the insistence seems unanimous that we need to shift our attention from education policies to learning policies. Learning is supposedly at the heart of the matter, key in enacting adaptive or transformational strategies. This change of focus comes to show that schooling is not equal to obtaining critical literacies; neither are the number of years spent in school indicative of acquiring key skills, capacities and attitudes (The World Bank 2018: 2-27). In forecasting documents this preoccupation with learning opens conceptual and policy avenues for challenging the temporal and the institutional limitations of formal educational institutions. On the one hand, the notion of continuous learning at any age, “lifelong learning”, becomes almost ineluctable. On the other, it opens prognostic juncture points for speculation on the role of external forces (the market, NGOs, local communities, etc.) for the future of education around the reschooling/de-schooling opposition (OECD 2010:  325, 326; OECD 2015: 18, 19, 60, 61).

Second, the education process is conceptualized more and more as an object of design (e.g. OECD 2010; OECD 2015; OECD 2018; The World Bank 2018). Re-designing the learning environment is believed to successfully deliver on the promise of education. This outlook is projected on two levels: the governance of the system by reconfiguring the relations between involved stakeholders (formal institutions, parents, nonformal institutions, teachers, local communities, NGOs, etc.); and on the level of the interaction between students and teaching professionals. Then not only the process of acquiring codified knowledge becomes a matter of design but the social and the emotional aspects of the in-class interactions do as well. Within prognostic documents this assumption opens juncture points for foreseeing different configurations around the authentic/unspontaneous forms of interaction as the basis of the education and the role of digital technologies in advancing the latter.

Third, it is presumed that the increasing involvement of science and technology in the governance of education will result in improved efficiency of the learning process and greater visibility as to the inner workings of individual students’ cognitive development. Evidence from psychology, education research, neuroscience and others, is looked upon for insight and potential ways of productively nurturing and enhancing the “cognitive and emotional resources” of every child (UNESCO 2015: 10, 27). Thus, science is rendered crucial for coming up with successful strategies for designing an efficient learning environment that would produce the desired outcomes (OECD 2018a: 13, 14). Technology, on its turn, is becoming an ever-important component in these design efforts because of its already demonstrated ability to reshuffle the overall educational landscape and dramatically change the learning experience for both students and teachers (The World Bank 2020: 43, 44, 59). Not surprisingly, the place of science and technology, the normative and practical implications of their envisioned involvement, opens prognostic juncture points that feed into different scenarios depicting the possible, probable and preferred futures of education.

Fourth, the good governance of education is one based on the increasing role of quantification in both the management and the learning processes. On the level of system governance, the pursuit of quantifiable expression of the different elements and functionalities of the education system is regarded as the means for obtaining greater manageability of the sector, allowed by more measurements, greater comparability between different national systems, universal assessments, more transparency and accountability of education authorities and thus the emergence of a global governance framework (UNESCO 2019: 2, 4). Within this vision, digitalization and datafication are crucial for the evidence-based steering of the sector. On the level of the learning process, the ubiquitous reliance on metrics as to the different aspects of obtaining knowledge and skills in the classroom is seen as elucidating the different stages of the cognitive advancement of the individual students. This opens a prognostic room for speculations as to the role of digital technologies – for more personalized and engaged learning, for changing the forms of interactions between students and teachers, the use of artificial intelligence solutions for automating, optimizing and enhancing the learning process, the integration of VR and AR tools to enrich the learning experience and positively influence motivation and performance of both pupils and the teaching professionals (Ibid.: 4-6; Facer & Selwyn 2021: 10-12).

Fifth, the international institutional jargon on the future of education also centers around the notion of “21 century skills” as specific set of skills that the young (and not exclusively the young in the context of lifelong learning) need to be equipped with in order to thrive in a volatile world that is and will be more and more demanding as to their adaptational and transformative capabilities (OECD 2019a: 7). The assumption is that these skills refer not only to specific literacies that one will need in order to navigate in an increasingly technologized and dynamic environment (ICT literacy, media literacy, financial literacy). They also refer to the possibility to productively exercise one’s agency (OECD 2019g: 6,7,9) by introducing changes into the world (critical thinking and reflexivity, creativity, problem-solving, curiosity, leadership) and swiftly navigate in an ambiguous, normatively fragmented and multicultural world (OECD 2018b: 4, 5; OECD 2019f: 6,7; Haste & Chopra 2020; Cope & Kalantzis 2015). The latter entails a specific engagement on part of the education system to develop in the learners the necessary “soft skills”, “social and emotional proficiencies”, “character qualities” that would mitigate communication and collaboration challenges in bringing together diverse perspectives, views and interests for elaborating agreed and coordinated solutions for pressing problems. As to foresight, this issue opens a prognostic possibility for speculation on the role of the social and emotional aspects of the education process (OECD, 2010: 320-323).

One other prognostic assumption that makes room for discussion on the future of the sector is that the role of the teacher will inevitably change. Most of the accounts insist that with the pervasive presence of digital technologies and unimpeded access to knowledge the traditional hierarchical relations between the teaching professional and the students will transform towards more horizontal and interactive forms whereby the teacher will be more of a coordinator, facilitator and mediator in steering the complex learning process with the help of technologies (Facer & Selwyn, 2021: 14,15) instead of being a single and authoritative source of knowledge and commonly held socio-cultural perspectives (ideological aspects of education like nurturing patriotism, cherishing competition, instilling enthusiasm for technology and innovation). Thus, the teacher is often envisioned in its assisting role in a more personalized and independent learning process instead of imposing a stable framework by acting as reliable and respected “window to the world” (as to the classroom of course, we cannot exclude other non-internet sources like libraries). In prognostic narratives this tension around the question whether the teacher shall be just a partner in the learning endeavor provides space for different scenarios that explore whether the teacher as a figure has some specific functions that go beyond the narrow focus on developing the “mental capital” of a country.

And last but not least, many reports regard the problems of the education system as part and parcel of the social inequalities problematic. The issue of poverty has always been present into the prognostic horizon on education. Several decades back it was articulated within concerns as to illiteracy levels in postcolonial developing regions and the need to focus on this issue so they can successfully take on with their new independent history (UNESCO 1984: 45-58). Now this problem is readdressed as worry about the rising numbers of the learning poor in view of their supposed inability to join the expanding global workforce, to satiate the needs of the growing global economy and prevent the potential loss in terms of global GDP (The World Bank 2018: 3-12). The motif of being excluded was not so persistent in the last two decades, specifically in prognostic accounts. But the COVID-19 crises dramatically exposed the inequality problem on the terrain of education (The World Bank 2020: 12-18). It shifted back the attention on the socio-economic dimension and even rehabilitated the significance of the school institution after a prolonged conceptual attack about its supposed inadequacy.

In sum, the outlined seven topics above are not exhaustive of what has been emerging as an international discourse on the future of education in the last several decades. Nevertheless, in their overlapping themes, arguments and rationales we may start grasping the contours of the conceptual horizon they produce – the conventional prognostic horizon that can be distilled out of their discursive resonances and that informs (and confines respectively) the political imagination as to what is possible, probable and desirable in the undergoing evolution of education.

4. The deeper effects

The current section will concentrate on the problem posed at the beginning of the paper, namely, how the existing international discourse on the future of education narrows the prognostic horizon so that crucial aspects that concern the issue at hand are somehow obfuscated and thus excluded from the discussion. It is not to suggest that it is an intentional retreat from deeper exploration and understanding. It is more about the effects of the natural institutional reflex to grasp and comprehend complex issues by enacting certain operational (cognitive) closures that would hopefully make the problem manageable. In the same vein the abovementioned themes and assumptions produce conceptual prognostic effects that impact the policy-making imagination in a certain direction. These affect the way the meaning and value of education is implied, the way childhood is understood, the way the world is perceived and the way the role of schooling is being conceived.

The first effect that can be easily grasped is the continuing process of economization of the analysis on the future of education. It has deep roots in the usual coupling of education with employment and advances the assumption that the value of education can be measured mainly vis-a-vis the ability of the latter to produce the necessary workforce of the future. Within this framework education is regarded as investment in human capital. By the same token, learning/literacy/skills/capacities are considered resources in sustaining the current or the emerging socio-economic order. Then, the purpose of education is to accumulate mental capital (cognitive and socio-emotional resources) [2] as condition for ensuring economic growth and overall societal wellbeing. In more recent prognostic documents, the economic rationale expands its scope and attempts to cast its grip on the socio-emotional goals of the learning process. Thus, for example, the importance of building specific affinities for tolerance, empathy, cooperation or understanding is justified with the argument that future economies will be social skills-intensive (Deming 2017). This all results in: overemphasis on the serving function of education as to the needs of the economy; allowing the business sector set educational priorities; treating schoolchildren solely as economic agents in formation;  regarding moral character and virtues as economic assets; and  overall obscuring of noneconomic but fundamental aspects of the education process (socialization, safe social space for children at risk, collective experience, building moral character, teaching ethical behavior, etc.). One particular aspect of the process of the economization of the prognostic accounts on education is often expressed confidence that the private education sector and the new EdTech industry are crucial in delivering the education’s promise and compensating for the deficiencies of formal education structures (The World Bank, 2020).

Text continues in Part II


1. The text also shies away from accounts originating in the Futures Studies realm as the intention was for it not to be perceived as yet another futuristic work. The point of departure is the international institutional vernacular on the future of education itself. Engaging directly with the content of international organizations’ documents is an attempt at finding a conceptual avenue for enriching what is being currently the source of insight for individual national governments and their respective policy-making mechanisms in the education sector. For the sake of clarity, we need to mention that Futures Studies (Futures Research) is a broad intellectual space of interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary encounters for exploring different possible, probable and desirable futures. It is related with prominent futurists like Alvin Toffler, Ed Cornish, Sohail Inayatullah, Wendell Bell, Eleonora Massini, Fred Polack, Peter Bishop, etc.

2. Nick Lee explores the biopolitics of childhood and the effects of the notion of “mental capital” as a new target of intervention. See (Lee 2013).