Valerie Hannon


If education is truly to move forwards, in tune with the times, we have to rethink its purpose. Our current education system, which emerged in the middle of the 19th century, designed to serve the needs of the Industrial Revolution, is under intense strain. This is true of most services in which the state plays a key role in providing. In the case of education, the pressure is now acute. There is a growing perception that the mass education system is failing the public.

In some senses, there has been a welter of change in education, under the banner of ‘school reform’. But these changes have in truth been superficial. They have manifestly failed to address the weakness of the public education system.

What are these failings?

  • Learner dissatisfaction or disengagement
  • The growing costs of the current system with marginal (or flat-lining) gains on existing outcome metrics
  • Frustrated, unfulfilled education ‘professionals’ (who are not treated as professionals)
  • Little impact on inequality – indeed, often the reverse
  • Profound mismatch with the needs of societies and of economies

Public debates about education – some of which are hot and polarized – have chiefly revolved around a set of issues such as:

  • what should be taught
  • how it should be taught
  • to whom (who gets access to what?)
  • how it should be structured
  • how it should be paid for

These are all important questions. Perhaps, in times of stability and continuity they are the ones to focus on. However, those are not our times.

The wrong story

The problem stems from the fact that we have not been prepared to ask the fundamental question of what, today, education should be for – what job we want the education system to do. There is an implicit assumption that the answer is too obvious to discuss. When politicians state their ‘commitment’ to education, it usually boils down to two ideas. The first is to promote ‘growth’ in the national economies: education will lead to bigger GDP. And second, individuals (if they work hard and are clever) will gain advantage in getting access to better jobs.

 Both these ideas are threadbare. Whilst there is some evidence that in developing countries, higher levels of education lead to improved economies, in the ‘developed’ nations that relationship is harder to show, since growth and prosperity depend on a wide and inter-related range of factors. But more significantly, what is growth? This is almost always equated with GDP – an indicator increasingly acknowledged to be misleading and insufficient.

The common-sense idea that ‘more’ education will help us to be better off doesn’t stand up because the idea that ‘growth’ is an unquestioned good is profoundly unsound. We have been doubling down on the industrial age mandate for growth above all else. Instead, we should accept that the era of extractive growth in relation to the resources of the planet is over. New thought in economics is pointing to the revised ideas about ‘good growth’. And this is actually about thriving – not just producing and consuming more and more. But this old taken-for-granted idea that education is about boosting national GDP has turned education into a sort of global arms race.

The second common-sense idea about education is that it will lead to better jobs for individuals. It is assumed to be the passport to higher income and social mobility. To some extent the (UK) data bears this out. A university degree earns you on average £7,000 a year more than not having one. (Though in many cases that premium is reduced by the need to pay off the now substantial levels of student debt accrued). However the reality is that the current education system is predicated on a system of filtering which remains deeply linked to social class – the evidence shows that social mobility has hardly increased at all. Moreover, ‘social mobility’ as a goal is itself inadequate: it takes for granted a hierarchical system in which inequality is a given. And far from reducing inequality, we see that, everywhere, inequality is actually on the rise. And the developments likely to take place in the labour market over the next thirty years, are likely to make competition for good (i.e. satisfying and well paid) jobs even tougher. The rise of under-employment – taking low-level, unsatisfying jobs is making more young people wonder what it was for. In any case, is that the best that education can do in the future – offer a slightly enhanced chance in the jobs race?

There is no clear narrative for public education today that both connects with the realities people are experiencing and faces up to what can confidently be said to be on our horizon. And we have some good evidence about the direction and pace of change. It is unlike anything the human species has faced previously. Some of the challenges are existential. All of these will impact our children’s lifetimes, let alone our grandchildren. Reflecting on the scale and direction of these shifts, I believe that today, education has to be about learning to thrive in a transforming world.

If this is the job we want the education system to do, we need to have a handle on the transformative shifts that are underway. There is an increasingly secure body of evidence on these. It is largely ignored by education.

Change? Really?

Of course the future is unknowable, but we do have an increasing volume of analytical evidence on some clear trends. Naturally these may be impacted by unforeseen events, and (hopefully) by human action. But, as things stand, taken together they mean that today our species and its home planet stand on the brink of changes that, within the lifetimes of today’s young learners, will impact upon their very nature. The changes are complex and unprecedented. Professor Klaus Schwab, Founder and Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum (WEF), set out his view for the WEF in 2016:

The changes are so profound that, from the perspective of human history, there has never been a time of greater promise or potential peril. My concern, however, is that decision makers are too often caught in traditional, linear (and non-disruptive) thinking or too absorbed by immediate concerns to think strategically about the forces of disruption and innovation shaping our future.

There is increasing consensus about the nature of these forces, and what they mean for us. However, ‘traditional, linear thinking’ is exactly what prevails in education today, which ignores entirely the ‘forces of disruption and innovation’ and their implications.

The changes can be grouped into 3 categories.

Our Planet’s Predicament. With the exception of the diehard climate-change deniers, it is now widely accepted that our planet stands on the brink of profound and uncontrollable change. If greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise, we will pass the threshold (two degrees above pre-industrial levels) beyond which global warming becomes catastrophic and irreversible. This pivot point will result in rising sea levels, polar melting, droughts, floods and increasingly extreme weather. No nation will be unaffected; in fact, some have already begun to feel the effects. But this is not all. We are systematically diminishing the bio-diversity of the planet such that scientists have now recognized that we are entering the 6th Great Extinction. Whilst previous extinctions were driven by natural planetary transformations (or catastrophic asteroid strikes), the current die-off arises from human activity. Fifty percent of all species could be extinct by the end of the century. How can humans thrive if our home environment does not?

The Supremacy of Technology. Most people, when they think about the future, go first to the technological revolution. The power and penetration of technology to reshape the world have attained unprecedented levels. Technocratic solutions are assumed to be capable of resolving any and all problems. From the perspective of humans’ capacity to thrive, and the role of education, two aspects are of special interest. The first and most obvious is the impact on jobs. The capacity of robots to assume many millions of jobs and tasks currently performed by humans is now unquestioned. The debate lies in the implications of this. Estimates vary: but there is an increasing consensus that the impact will be large and serious. The second aspect of relevance is the rapid developments in artificial intelligence (AI). The prospect of computers that can acquire the capacity to learn will mark a unique juncture in the relationship between our species and its technologies. The idea that human beings are the source of meaning as well as power is about to be challenged. How can we ensure that humans can thrive, as this relationship unfolds and the balance shifts?

Designing our own evolution. The convergence of the life sciences with the digital explosion has created the capacity to reshape the very fabric of life: it is changing not just what we can do, but who we are. The cost of gene mapping has plummeted. Individual gene sequencing will shortly be able to identify the exact nature of a particular cancer and its pathways. Genetic engineering of pigs is taking place to harvest lungs for transplant (and soon hearts and kidneys). Genomic screening and trait selection are advancing. The convergence, through implants or by other means, of human bodies with artificial intelligence is currently being researched. This is sometimes referred to as ‘transhumanism’ or ‘superintelligence’. Nick Bostrom, the leading thinker in this field, argues persuasively that the future impact of artificial intelligence is perhaps the most important issue the human race has ever faced: the potential for designing our own evolution. It is entirely possible that human beings are not at an evolutionary end point, but that we are destined to evolve further, playing a major role in the design and direction of the process.

All of these are evidence-based shifts which are currently well underway. They are not fantasy or science fiction and our children will have to live with them – or, learn to shape them.

The key response for our generation must surely be to debate the implications of these changes thoughtfully, and craft an educational response adequate to the challenge. In the UK, and many other systems, it has not even started.

I suggest that as a starting point, if we can agree that education has to be about learning to thrive in a transforming world, then we at least have some basis for the debate. The question then becomes: what might ‘thriving’ look like?

Learning to Thrive

When we examine what it means to thrive, we see that thriving must happen at 4 interdependent levels, none of which can be ignored:

  • global – our place in the planet
  • societal – place, communities, economies
  • interpersonal – our relationships
  • intrapersonal – the self

Planetary/Global thriving

Collectively and individually, we have to learn to live within the earth’s renewable resources. This entails not just learning how to redirect new technologies, but also to be responsible consumers, and how to reshape economies so that they are not predicated on endless growth and limitless consumption. This geo-political problem is also a learning challenge: for new generations must re-make their relationship with the physical planet. Similarly, the acquisition of global cultural competence, in the sense of respectful appreciation and tolerance, is the only means by which we can create the conditions for peace. The experience of globalisation is now profound and extensive. It now has many critics and malcontents; but they will have to learn how to reshape it, since it is unlikely to disappear.

National/local thriving

Whilst the nation-state may be eroding, learning how to reinvent democracy into some more participative process will be increasingly important if aspirations for equity and progress are to be realised. There is widespread dissatisfaction or disinterest in instruments of governance. If the collective learning is to create new means and processes for participative democracy, then at the individual level, the challenge is to learn how to practise it – and understand its importance. As economic turbulence and restructuring proceed apace, learning to earn a living through ‘the start-up of you’ must gain centre stage. In our increasingly longer lives, we must learn to expect and embrace change of job, career, field, skill-set – not once but regularly. And as economies will increasingly depend upon entrepreneurship and creativity, so too will individuals, both for material well-being and their own satisfaction. The processes of learning and earning will become symbiotic. So, as there will be no sharp distinction in start- and end-points of education and work, learning’s purpose and function will be intrinsic to working life. Learning to make a living successfully and contribute to the new economies will entail learning to think and act ‘green, lean, and eco’. It will also mean learning to adapt to work with automation, and with co-workers who are robots.

Interpersonal thriving

The evidence is clear-cut. The finding of the most extensive longitudinal study of adults ever is simple: “good relationships keep us happier and healthier”. As we become more reflective (and knowledgeable) about the conditions for, and skills involved in, creating and maintaining healthy human relationships, we recognise the scope for learning in this space. The damage done to individuals through dysfunctional families; the scarring of societies by sexist and racist behaviours – from atrocities to discrimination – is incalculable. Again, fast-changing conditions in this century increase the urgency for education to address this cluster of challenges. Changes to family structures, multicultural communities, provide the diverse contexts within which learning to relate authentically, and respectfully takes place. Education needs to equip learners with the knowledge base and the skills to acquire empathy and insight. Engagement in the arts of all forms is one route for achieving this. Though digital technologies in learning are a liberating force, they have also created the spectre of the ‘new Mowglis’ – brought up by screens, unsocialised and isolated. In an age when immersion in digital environments has been responsible for the pornographication of sex, compounding grotesque sexism, it is a challenge for learning to enable people to acquire sexual identities which do not harm; but rather enhance and humanise life. Finally, learning to care for and nurture others must in the future extend well beyond family ties: demographic changes are creating aged societies, few members of which will remain healthy and independent till death.

Intra-personal thriving

Learning about and within our own selves presents the ultimate frontier – and for some thinkers is the precondition for authentic learning in other domains. But in the C21st the notion of ‘self’ will change; humans will have access to more and more forms of enhancement (physical and cognitive). Humans must learn to deal with exponentially increased levels of artificial intelligence applied to everyday life; to a gradual incorporation into our own bodies of powerful technologies. Life journeys will be much longer, centenarians not unusual. Taking early personal responsibility for health and fitness will be a precondition for later well-being (in addition to preventing the collapse of health systems because of lifestyle illnesses like the obesity epidemic). Dignity, purpose and social engagement will be the dividends of continuing to learn. And lastly, the spiritual dimension cannot be omitted. Increasingly, in mechanised, technology-infused, confusing modern life, the need for mindfulness, awareness, inner silence and balance is becoming more acute. Organised learning must provide the means for its acquisition. There are many routes: the joy of the arts is one. Ultimately however, we cannot avoid the conclusion that there is an enduring response to this question of learning’s purpose. It consists in wisdom – though redefined for our post-modern context.

What would bringing these imperatives in to the centre of our learning goals, instead of at the periphery, look like? Something like this perhaps:

And there are visionary educators in schools across the world who are doing just that. In the UK, the system conditions are set firmly against such a direction because there is no public leadership able to articulate a new purpose for education.

Where are the politicians who will face this?

The public debate around education (in the UK especially, but not exclusively) is truly pitiful. The agenda ranges from “bring back the grammars, the selection, knowledge-transmission!” from one political wing; to “more money!” (for the same-old, same-old) at the other. Yet radical redesign is needed, and it is urgent. There will only be an appetite for this when education’s purpose is refreshed. Where are the politicians who can start to shape and frame that debate? To be sure, they face an uphill struggle. Vested interests and the media collude to maintain an echo-chamber which constrains how people can think about these issues. Many parents, given the space to reflect and consider the challenges, are profoundly discontented with the current offer. And a number of systems around the world are starting to show how shift can be achieved. Crucially, there are now numerous examples of schools demonstrating how a futures-oriented set of purposes can be transformational for their learners.

In such schools the dimensions of learning stay the same: they address knowledge, skills, dispositions and values. Of these, values have been the least considered in conventional systems, and yet are perhaps the most critical. We should ponder the fact that Goebbels had a PhD in literature. And the people who caused the financial crisis of 2008 were not ‘uneducated’.

The year 2016 saw a sea-change across Europe and the US of political culture, with global implications: the rise of successful populist demagoguery, relying on ‘post-truth’ campaigns, signalling the howl of exclusion and impotence that large sections of those populations experience. But education continues with the old prospectus: the promise of ‘succeeding’ (gaining better competitive access to the shrinking pool of good jobs) if the right knowledge and skills are acquired. Many have seen how hollow this promise has been. Educators can’t struggle with creating a different debate and a new prospectus alone. It’s time for a new generation of politicians to create a fresh narrative and new possibilities.


Valerie Hannon is an established thought leader in the field of education innovation. Valerie co-founded Innovation Unit (UK and Australia). She is a founding member and Co-Chair of the Global Education Leaders Partnership (GELP) supporting jurisdictions globally to scale their innovation and transform their systems. Valerie is an expert adviser on education to the OECD, and a frequent contributor to the World Summit on Innovation in Education (WISE). She is a regular keynote speaker and facilitator at international conferences and workshops. Her latest book is THRIVE: Schools Reinvented for the Real Challenges We Face is available (IUP 2017).