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What if the purpose of education was to solve global challenges instead of helping people gets jobs?

What is the purpose of education, and "What if the purpose of education was to solve global challenges instead of helping people gets jobs?" Questions many countries will need to address as the supply of education places threatens to outstrip demand, with huge consequences for countries/providers/courses that do not manage to differentiate. A great thought piece....

Exceptional Change Leader | Long-term Strategy | Digital Strategy & Transformation | Leadership Coaching & Mentoring

New Zealand is currently in the midst of a plethora of reviews covering virtually every component of its education system. I fully support moves to make our education system more learner centred and more relevant, but for the most part all these reviews seem focused on what our education system should do and how it should work, rather than thinking about what education is for (the why).

In an education career spanning 20 years, I've never really stopped to consider that same fundamental question - what's the purpose of education? Until recently I've been working on the assumption that the purpose of education was to help people (eventually) get the skills and knowledge needed to get a job (and become productive members of society etc.).

But the work that I've been doing to look at the impact of megatrends on education and some great work undertaken in 2018 by my colleague Dee Anderson have got me thinking that the real challenge is not to review or 'reinvent' our education system, but in fact to make it fit for an entirely different purpose.

Education as a solution to Global Challenges

In 2018, another colleague Jeremy Campbell and Dee undertook some research for Education New Zealand to look for opportunities to develop new high value education programmes that were at the intersection of:

what global students wanted,what New Zealand was actually good at, andskills New Zealand needed to grow its economy.

Rather depressingly, the answer appeared to be that there was absolutely no overlap in this space at all.

Worse still, with the global supply of quality international education set to outstrip the demand from around 8 million mobile learners in the near future, host countries like New Zealand that has the majority of its 120,000 international students enrolled in generic programmes like Business and IT (where it has no real competitive advantage), are unlikely to fare well in the future.

The research did however reveal an apparently strong desire for learners to develop skills and experiences to help them solve global challenges - effectively becoming global citizens by exercising their knowledge and a strong desire to work across disciplines and cultures.

This Global Challenge concept became the core of a 2018 pilot programme developed by Dee called the 'Emerging Futures Summit' whose aim was to investigate and understand the needs, motivations, and attraction factors of the future global learner, especially the estimated 800 million global learners needing quality education that would never be able to afford an international education experience as it currently stands.

The programme was designed around a circular adaptive delivery model and was aiming to address what the megatrends research was telling us learners wanted - a chance to work with other like-minded people to tackle universal challenges like human survival, waste streams, social change, cultural diversity, and resilient energy.

Learning Re-invented & Re-purposed

With a tiny budget and an insanely short time-frame, a minimum viable product was developed using off-the-shelf tools like Google Hangouts, Slack, Trello and Google Plus communities. Context for the Emerging Futures Summit was co-created by 13 panellists across six expert panels.

The Summit learning platform was designed for participants to practice:

Collaboration, especially cross-culturally and trans-disciplinary to achieve a common goal (develop a solution to a global challenge)Communication to best convey their ideasCritical thinking for solving complex problemsCreativity to think outside the box

What was learned

Global Citizenship

After the Summit, participants were asked what they enjoyed most about the programme. 68% stated it was the opportunity to work in cross-cultural teams. Exchanging ideas to problem solve some of the global issues we currently face also rated highly. The Emerging Futures Summit clearly acted as a channel for active global citizens to collaborate within a culturally safe environment.

Practising within real-world contexts

The Emerging Futures Summit offered no academic or technical skills. Nor did it promise an accredited qualification. Yet it achieved high learner engagement through purely exercising transferable skills through working together on real issues that connected with the participants.

Even though most participants cited timezone differences, learning to use new digital platforms, and language as barriers, for most, the opportunity to put their expertise into practice - to problem solve by collaborating and communicating across globally diverse teams was highly fulfilling.

Learning from each other to develop solutions to global challenges

Platforms that mimic real world and real working scenarios to exercise transferable skills are in demand. These skills are based on peer-to-peer exchanges, just like in a working environment. In order to succeed a high-trust environment needs to be established based on strong inter-personal connections.

The pilot results showed that teams were at their best and had a higher chance of completion when a solid rapport was fostered by their facilitators. Teams offered a more transactional and instructional approach did not self-organise or build the trust required to be creative or critical in their thinking and were less likely to complete the challenge.

What if the purpose of education was to solve global challenges instead of helping people gets jobs?

Using approaches like the one used in Emerging Futures, clearly its possible to connect potentially millions of people to develop solutions to global challenges like climate change. Think about that for a moment. We're talking about the potential to bring people of all ages, genders, nationalities and experiences together to develop local solutions to global challenges, rather than leaving it up to a relatively small number of scientists, or policy makers, or business people. Wow!

50 years after Apollo 11 landed on the moon, it's clear that organisations with a seemingly impossible mission-based purpose ("land a man on the moon") can do amazing things. Over the next 20 years, as the world grapples with the impact of climate change, the impacts of automation and AI on work, a changing population, and changing consumer expectations, I'm optimistic that education will play a fundamental role in helping us rise to meet these global challenges.

If you're keen to find out more about the Emerging Futures pilot, contact Dee Anderson at


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