Competencies for Today and Tomorrow

At a recent education conference, I was invited to participate in a panel entitled, “Problematizing future competencies: Learning development in the unknown 21st century.” Something about the title generated resistance in me, so instead of offering suggestions on “competencies” for the “unknown” 21st century, I problematized the theme of the panel instead. I would like to share my thoughts with you.

I began with a quote credited to President Abraham Lincoln.  He said:  “The best way to predict your future is to shape it.”  I share this view and indeed believe that we as human beings play a key role in determining our future.  It is through our large and small actions that we shape future events.

 

In recent decades, the world has made powerful leaps in technology—not only ICTs but also in medicine, transportation, and war technologies. Much less progress has taken place in terms of humanistic development—much less progress in coming to terms with our dreams and ambitions, with the frail nature of the human condition. In fact, Amnesty International’s 2016 report concluded there had been “a serious regression in human rights” that year.

 

I don’t like the present, characterized by greed, competition, feelings of superiority among industrialized countries, and, much too often, feelings of exceptionalism. Therefore, I would like to work to have a different future, one in which harmony prevails over conflict, where widespread well-being is more important than immense wealth, where empathy is greater than self-aggrandizement, and where global concerns indeed receive more attention than narrow national interests.

 

I see as essential to our existence that we place less emphasis on technical competencies and more on inculcating the value of conviviality.  The inordinate attention to the subjects of reading, math, and science tend to crowd out humanistic disciplines such as history and philosophy and even disciplines such as the social sciences.

 

Allow me to give you an example on the question of gender.  In treating the issue of gender, global policies in education--currently Sustainable Development Goal No. 4--emphasize school access and completion of girls and boys.  Yet, education leaders maintain a culture of silence regarding key manifestations of gender asymmetries.  Beyond a brief and superficial sex education, there is no discussion of constraining forms of gender-related violence such as rape, domestic violence, sexual violence and harassment, female genital mutilation, and honor crimes. The role of the sexual division of labor in shaping female and male identities and the weight of material inequalities affecting women, such as access to credit, inheritance laws, and divorce norms, is simply not discussed in schools.  This knowledge—which would fall under the rubric of fundamental basic skills—remains underdeveloped.

 

Developing countries have large numbers of people with poor basic skills in reading and math.  This is a situation that must improve.  However, in the struggle for progress, we move into paths that are dangerously narrowing the curricula and redefining knowledge in less than desirable ways.  Since most measures of knowledge are now based on global or regional tests, knowledge is being redefined to mean performance in standardized tests. These tests are based on items that must discriminate among takers and on items in which one single response is correct. Standardized tests, therefore, make our knowledge black and white with no possibilities of greyness—something that does not match our own experience and that contradicts education policies that ostensibly seek to foster critical minds in new generations.

 

We proclaim the value of social equality, yet are committed to market-driven reforms.  We want peace yet keep on arming ourselves with the latest war technologies. To create a just world we have to form a youth and citizenry who are themselves just, participatory, self-reflective.  These are the values and skills we must foster today. The World Bank, which is solidifying its position as the main development agency, identifies as its key objectives the elimination of poverty and the promotion of shared prosperity.  How can these objectives be attained in the absence of respect and empathy for others?

 

Target 4.7 of the SDGs refers to the humanities and moral purposes of education indirectly as it addresses the need to mainstream into the curriculum textbooks with a global citizenship component that includes gender equality and human rights.  At the same time, the expert group working on indicators to measure this target has reported that very little data are available on this.  Further, only three countries have expressed support to work on issues of citizenship (Japan, S. Korea, and Germany). This suggests that this target will not be covered in future reports and, even more likely, not implemented.

 

In closing, I would like to make a plea for considering educational competences that go beyond the nearly exclusive focus on basic reading and math, which tends to deprive us of the kind of values, knowledge, and skills that allow individuals to better understand one another. A re-introduction of humanistic learning would achieve a more life-enriching balance with the instrumental skills that now dominate our learning. And we need to act now; otherwise, we are moving increasingly distant from creating a more just and peaceful world for all.

 


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Nelly P. Stromquist

Nelly P. Stromquist is Professor at the University of Maryland. Her research covers a wide range of issues: gender and education; popular and non-formal education; social movements in education; global and national equity policies; and the impact of globalization on education, particularly on professorial identity. She examines educational phenomena from a sociological perspective that builds upon critical theory.

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