Columns

Global megatrends and why education needs vision

Grace VIRTUE

Tuesday, July 01, 2014    

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The importance of education to human development, and, by extension, economic growth and prosperity, cannot be overstated. More people worldwide will climb out of poverty through education than the combined numbers who will do so through sports, entertainment, drug dealing, the lottery scam or fly-by-night business ventures.

Higher education is particularly important. Studies have shown that it buys longer life expectancy; better health; improved quality of life over generations; better decision-making skills; improved personal status; higher lifetime average salaries; higher employment rates; greater job consistency; higher savings levels; and improved working conditions and mobility.

Overall, society benefits from higher contributions made by the educated population to tax revenues, greater productivity, higher consumption, less reliance on social welfare, reduced crime rates, greater ability to adapt to technology, more charitable giving, more social cohesion and greater appreciation of diversity.

Education is also the principal way in which the state passes on the norms, values and mores of a culture and builds social cohesion, which is critical to high-functioning societies. Eighteenth-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant argues that a good education is planned and it references humanity as a whole since good conduct, when understood at the level of principle, transfers across time and space. Education, which is well-planned, meets the needs of the society; education that is unplanned is defective and will fall short of societal needs, expectations and goals.

Beyond transmitting a society's values, a good education should unlock innovation and creativity, thereby advancing human development, economic growth and prosperity. Economies like China, India, South Korea and Singapore that are thriving today built their growth agenda on education.

Former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown recognised this in 2009 with his observation that "...our Asian rivals are competing not just in low-skilled manufacturing, but in high-tech products and services. Once, we worried about a global arms race. The challenge this century is a global skills race... Globalisation dictates that the nations that succeed will be those that bring out the best in people and their potential... Put simply: in the past, we unlocked only some of the talents of some of the people; the challenge now is to unlock all the talents of all of the people."

Our discussions here generally miss the big picture as Brown sees it. This is why we continue the sophomoric celebrations with how many students get their first choice in the GSAT to go to "good schools" with no thought for those who do not — those whose talents we still need to unlock.

The same is true of the frequent trotting out of schools' ranking and the bleating about whether it is teachers who are failing or whether it is parents who are not doing enough.

There is no single factor that is responsible for our limited progress. It is a combination of factors, including a lack of visionary planning, resulting in major flaws in how education is conceptualised, designed and delivered; insufficient preparation on the part of some teachers; and too many social stressors on the families and the environment from which the majority of the children come.

The system now needs a grand redesign to correct its historic flaws and to bring it in line with current realities. Twenty-first century education must be value-laden to help children make good decisions in a confusing world, and it must be constructed to respond to the megatrends — "global, sustained and macroeconomic forces of development that impact business, economy, society, cultures and personal lives, thereby defining our future..."

Four of these trends are constant to most research. The first is demographic changes relating to ageing populations and the concentration of more people in urban centres. According to UN projections, the global population by 2050 will be between eight and 10 billion, the greatest concentration of which will be in the over 50 age group, expected to increase from 1.6 billion to 3.1 billion compared to the youth population (14 - 24) projected at 1.25 billion.

While slower population growth should allow for more spending on quality education, an older non-working population will put greater stress on social welfare. It also has wide-ranging implications for health care and related industries.

The second is climate change. Experts say food security will be seriously threatened by declining crop yields and rising sea levels, and extreme disruptive weather events will pressure natural resources, such as fresh water. Education must prioritise the study of climate change and sustainable living and prepare the workforce with the skills and knowledge necessary to live in such an environment and to respond to disasters.

The third trend is the shifting of the global economic centre from the west to the east. It is projected that by 2050, the centre of economic power will be inside China, and if current growth rates continue, five out of the top 10 economies will be countries that are currently considered to be 'emerging', including India and Brazil.

This has implications for how we engage at the policy level, as well as our understanding of other languages and culture. Cross-migration will be as normal as it is now between Jamaica and the western metropolis.

The fourth is the continued growth in information communication technology. Increased cellular phone and Internet access in developing countries will make information more available, and will significantly change the way education is delivered. It begs, though, for emphasis on media literacy, cyber security and critical thinking skills to navigate this minefield of information to help students remain safe and grounded in a national identity, which is critical to their psychological well-being.

The extent to which we have failed to build a strong education system, is the extent to which we have failed as a society and will continue to do so if we take only a myopic, one-dimensional, small-island approach to education.

— Grace Virtue, PhD, is a social justice advocate

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