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UNESCO Bangkok Director: The power of ideas to change the world

©UNESCO/S.Chaiyasook

01.03.2013

[This article originally appeared at Ideapod]

The 2015 deadline for the Millennium Development Goals and the Education for All (EFA) goals is fast approaching. In its role as the Asia-Pacific Regional Bureau for Education, UNESCO Bangkok has led regional consultations on the future of education beyond 2015. The most recent thematic consultation “Education in the Post 2015 Development agenda” will bring together over 100 representatives from across the region.

In this interview, UNESCO Bangkok Director, Mr Gwang-Jo Kim, shares his vision for the future of education and the power of ideas to enrich the lives of all.

How would you describe the power of ideas to change the world?

“…one of the greatest challenges for education systems today is keeping pace with a changing world of work and equipping youth with the skills they will need in an increasingly knowledge-based economy.”

“I would say that life itself is a product of many ideas from many different individuals throughout the history of humankind. The way we live, the way we reside, the way we work, the way we eat - all of this is actually influenced by ideas or inventions. We often don’t acknowledge it, but ideas, both big and small, have the power to shape the history of humankind.

“The United Nations, the international upholder of peace and human rights, provides a good example. While we know that the UN was built on the back of the League of Nations and on the basis of proposals by country representatives, we forget that its establishment is also tied to the collective intelligence of some of our most prominent thinkers including Henri Bergson, Albert Einstein, Marie Curie and others.  Today, we celebrate education as a fundamental human right, but this was also once just an idea; in 1948, UNESCO recommended Member States make primary education free, compulsory and universal. This became a global movement in 1990 at the World Conference on Education for All in Jomtien, Thailand, and a global commitment 10 years later in Dakar, Senegal. Today, all of our Member States have committed to achieving basic education for all by 2015. What was once just an idea, or a vision shared by few, is now an international movement to improve the lives of all people through education.

“So ideas, big and small, have the power to shape the history of humankind, but an important caveat is that the kinds of ideas we generate depends fundamentally on the extent of our knowledge, which in turn depends on the quality of education we provide.”

What do you see as the most important trends in education?

“Before highlighting trends, one of the greatest challenges for education systems today is keeping pace with a changing world of work and equipping youth with the skills they will need in an increasingly knowledge-based economy. It’s a significant challenge; young people are more numerous than ever before, jobs are not being created fast enough to meet the needs of this youth population and while policy-makers prioritise job creation in private enterprises to tackle this head on, there are still millions of young people who lack basic literacy and numeracy skills. How will they find their feet in this new knowledge-based economy? The 2012 EFA Global Monitoring Report focused specifically on this issue, noting that the challenge of ensuring all young people have the opportunity to acquire the skills they need has sharpened acutely since the year 2000.

“To create a better future, youth must behave as though their every action will affect a thousand people for generations and generations to come because increasingly, it will.”

“So the most important trends in education address this challenge. For example, we are seeing a general move toward more open, flexible approaches to education for all, regardless of age, location or stage of life. Much of this is achieved through the greater incorporation of information and communication technologies into formal, non-formal and informal education settings including online and distance education. We are also seeing stronger linkages between education systems and industry to help improve transitioning from school to the world of work. Education systems are developing a greater capacity to keep pace with a rapidly changing world but it is a slow process, particularly in less developed countries where access to skills is unequal.”

How should education systems respond to the increasing demands of the knowledge-intensive economy?

“I think we need to look at what education systems have been delivering to this point. Traditionally, learning outcomes have been measured in numeracy, literacy and scientific knowledge. But in 2013, foundational skills alone are simply not enough. In fact in 2013, what does it really mean to be ‘literate’ anyway? I would argue that we need to expand our definition of ‘literacy’ to encompass a broader set of skills and competencies. An increasingly interconnected world and an increasingly knowledge-based economy calls for creative and inventive thinking, entrepreneurial spirit, the ability to generate new ideas, adapt to new realities and maintain a sense of curiosity throughout learning. This new kind of ‘literacy’ requires more self-directed learning, which must be fostered by education systems.

“I continue to dream of a world where every child, no matter where they were born and no matter what their circumstances, is able to receive a quality education.”

“At the same time, learners today require stronger inter and intrapersonal skills. They must be able to work well with their peers in developing and building upon ideas. I’m thinking at the moment of Wikipedia, a clear product of collaboration, of collective intelligence. In this knowledge-intensive economy, one needs particularly well developed inter and intrapersonal skills to work well with others, to modify existing knowledge and create new knowledge. Education systems have a fundamental role to play in fostering these skills at an early age.”  

What advice do you have for the youth of today wanting to create a better future for their generation?

“I have two pieces of advice. Firstly, it is critical that we all develop a much greater appreciation for our common humanity. Today’s greatest challenges increasingly transcend national boundaries so we cannot live in silos, oblivious to the bigger picture and oblivious to the plight of our neighbours and those whose lives differ from our own. To create a better future, youth must behave as though their every action will affect a thousand people for generations and generations to come because increasingly, it will.

“Secondly, sceptics or cynics cannot solve these great challenges. Climate change, nuclear war, global terrorism, financial crisis will continue to threaten our lives and the lives of generations yet to come, unless we develop the capacity to think differently and to dream of things as they never were. This is the great power of ideas to change the world.

How would you describe your values or vision for change?

“As one who has worked in the area of education policy making and planning for almost three decades, I continue to dream of a world where every child, no matter where they were born and no matter what their circumstances, is able to receive a quality education. I believe that education provides the most basic insurance against poverty. Not only that, it empowers individuals to shape a better future for all. If you want to bring about technological change you have to educate. If you want to bring about peace you have to plant the seeds of peace in the minds of men and women, to borrow part of the UNESCO preamble, through education. If you want to preserve world heritage, tangible and intangible, you have to educate people about the importance of heritage of all kinds so that they can pass this on to future generations.

“We began with a question about the power of ideas. I would say that education is the source of ideas. Ideas shape our life and education shapes ideas. That is the vision I have and I hope that in my role, I can help contribute to improving education policy and practice in our Member States, so that we can continue generating new ideas that will enrich the lives of all.”

Interview by Rachel McCarthy, UNESCO Bangkok

 

UNESCO Bangkok Press Release 2013