The future of learning

A transformative approach to education must have learning at its centre and go beyond traditional understandings of what is to be taught in classrooms. It must also reach all learners whether in school or out so that no young person is left behind.

Right now, there are 1.8 billion adolescents and young people growing up in a world of globalization and massive technological change. What kind of lives will they lead as they become adults? Will it be one of hope or despair? Will they be equipped with the knowledge and skills to make empowered choices, or will they find themselves woefully unprepared?

Let us consider these questions in the context of the global “learning crisis”. For the first time in history, there are more non-learners in school than out of school. An estimated 6 in every 10 children and adolescents globally are not achieving minimum proficiency levels in reading and mathematics. For too many, schooling does not equal learning. The breadth and depth of this crisis presents the greatest global challenge to preparing adolescents and youth for life, work and active citizenship.

Two girls sit together in a school clasroom
© UN0331835/UNICEF/AbdulUNICEF, with funding from the David Beckham Foundation and implementation from Trailblazers Mentoring Foundation, developed the Girls Education Club school clubs in Adjumani district to support teachers, administration, learners, parents and community members to establish an adolescent- responsive learning environment to improve access and retention.

Education and skills are fundamentally linked. Without the knowledge and skills provided by strong educational systems, young people cannot live empowered lives in which they decide their own futures. Shortfalls in learning eventually show up as weak skills in the workforce, making the transition from education to decent work even more challenging. And the gap is growing between what education systems provide and what young people, communities and economies need. Globally, an estimated 40 per cent of employers already find it difficult to recruit people with the skills they need.

But if the challenges are big, so are the opportunities for change. The time is ripe for a learning revolution that involves a fresh approach to how we think about education, learning and skills. A revolution that will give young people a better chance of securing decent work, and a life that makes the most of their talents and potential.

A more holistic vision of education incorporating a breadth of skills

To become successful lifelong learners, find productive work, and actively engage in their communities, adolescents and young people need to develop a breadth of skills. Foundational skills such as the ability to read, write and do math are key. But equally important are transferable skills – such as communication, collaboration, critical thinking and problem solving – which help learners adapt to dynamic labour markets, work collaboratively with others, and respond to global or local challenges. Most education systems don’t focus enough on these twenty-first century skills, and we need to mainstream these skills within and outside of education systems. Learning these skills right from the pre-primary years is critical to build strong foundations that continue into the first and second decades.

A girl in a science lab
© UN0331835/UNICEF/AbdulAn adolescent girl conducts a chemistry experiment at Kamulanga Secondary School in Lusaka, Zambia. UNICEF and partners are supporting national efforts to improve access to and quality of education, including activities to increase education access for adolescent girls and marginalized children.

Embed skills development through multiple pathways

Effective skills development requires alignment of curriculum, pedagogy and learning assessments – all of which require a systematic strengthening of teaching and learning through multiple pathways. At UNICEF, we are increasing our focus on this growing area of work. In 2018, the share of UNICEF-supported countries which have mainstreamed skills within national education or training systems reached 16 per cent, a significant increase from the baseline of 4 per cent. Alternative learning pathways can offer a second chance for adolescents and young people who have dropped out, are at risk, or simply had no access to formal education.

Such pathways, however designed, should not be seen as informal remedial programmes. They must be of good quality, recognized and accredited; they must also help learners gain knowledge and skills to complete their education, transition to technical education, or look for employment. This means that, more than ever, we need to keep a relentless focus on equity and quality. Young people of upper secondary school age (15-17) constitute the largest number of children who are out of school. Poverty is often a key reason for this number, with many choosing to look for jobs over continuing their education. Young women face the additional burden of gender barriers – they are three times more likely than their male peers to be outside the labour force and not participating in education.

Pay attention to digital skills and the divides

Digital technology has increased learning opportunities in a manner never known before, including the promise of online training opportunities and job-matching services. Benefits of the digital age are hardly equally shared, however. About 29 per cent of young people (15-24) worldwide – around 346 million– are not online. Digital divides mirror prevailing economic gaps, amplifying advantage for wealthier children and failing to deliver opportunities to the poorest. African youth are the least connected, for example. Around 60 per cent are not online, compared with just 4 per cent in Europe. Since digital access and literacy are increasingly becoming determinants of equal opportunity, they are vital for all children, adolescents and young people, no matter where they live. For those without formal education, online learning opportunities, particularly in non-formal contexts such as vocational training centers, represent a chance to learn Information Communication Technology (ICT) skills. For some it may be the only chance they get to engage with ICT at all.

Children taking selfies with a mobile phone
© UN036679/UNICEF/SharmaChildren take selfies using mobile phones at St. Columba’s School, New Delhi, India

The challenges we face are many – from constrained capacity within education systems, to finding evidence of effective approaches, and limitations of the measurement of skills. But change can begin when there is strong, long-term commitment and leadership from governments and all stakeholders. No country can afford a generation of young people lacking the education and skills to shape a better future for themselves and their communities.


Robert Jenkins is Chief, Education and Associate Director, Programme Division, UNICEF.

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