Global trends and the future of education

What impact will climate change have on our educational institutions in the next decade? Are our research and innovation systems prepared for an era of global, open and internet intensive science? What does it mean for schools that our societies are becoming more individualistic and diverse?

Trends Shaping Education is designed to support long-term strategic thinking in education. It provides an overview of key economic, social, demographic and technological trends and raises pertinent questions about their impact on education.

Examining the future of education in the context of global trends has two main goals. First, it is necessary to better prepare education for the transformations underway in economic, social and technological spheres. Education must evolve to continue to deliver on its mission of supporting individuals to develop as persons, citizens and professionals. A better understanding about the ways our world is changing is a key first step in this direction.

Second, observing ongoing trends helps us reflect about the potential of education to shape them. By providing the competencies needed to operate in the modern world, education has the potential to influence the life outcomes of the most disadvantaged. It can help combat the increasing fragmentation in our societies, and empower people to realise change in their communities.

The first edition of Trends Shaping Education was published in 2008 and subsequent editions appeared in 2010, 2013, 2016 and 2019. The 2022 edition contains 25 trend areas each illustrated by two figures. This content is organised in five chapters: growth, living and working, knowledge and power, identity and belonging, and our changing nature.

While all the trends included are relevant to education, not all relevant trends are in this resource. The criterion for selection has been the availability of internationally comparable, through-time evidence from OECD and other robust data sources. The focus is primarily on OECD countries, though broader global data are included when available. While long-term trends were prioritised for inclusion, in some cases the trends are charted over a shorter period – for instance, for rapidly changing technological trends.

This work does not give conclusive answers: it is not an analytical report nor is it a statistical compendium, and it is certainly not a statement of OECD policy on these different developments. While the trends are robust, the questions raised for education in this book are illustrative and suggestive.

Trends Shaping Education is aimed at policy makers, researchers, educational leaders, administrators and teachers. It will also be of interest to students and the wider public, including parents. We invite users to look further and to add to this basic coverage examples of trends from their own countries or regions. Importantly, the future is always in the making. We hence invite readers to consider both the set of trends as well as the different ways they might evolve in the future.

Opinions differ on historical developments and, even when there is agreement, the future is rarely just a smooth continuation of past patterns. Moreover, we do not know in advance which trends will continue and which will change course, or in what context. Sometimes, we can just be plain wrong.

“Television won’t last because people will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night”.
- Darryl Zanuck, film producer, 1946  

Similarly, it is not guaranteed that the trends that were important in the past or seem so now will remain influential; emerging trends, barely visible at the moment, may become crucially important in the future.

“Remote shopping, while entirely feasible, will flop”.
- Time Magazine, in 1966  

In the absence of any concrete facts or evidence about the future, the only way to meaningfully understand the future is through dialogue. The future cannot be passively observed. It must be actively discussed in order to learn from it. These learnings can then be used to identify and agree upon actions for today.

The Trends Shaping Education series is designed to provide creative fuel for reflection on the long-term strategic future of education. It has been used in Ministries, international organisations, professional and student organisations and other civil society groups as part of strategic planning exercises. It has been integrated into teacher education curricula, used in classrooms by teachers, and harnessed by school boards and parents for future-thinking exercises.

This work is most valuable when used as a tool and adapted to the specific context of the user. In order to do this, key questions include:

How relevant is this trend in my context?

Context matters. Ageing populations, for example, may be a bigger challenge in rural than in urban areas or concentrated in certain parts of the country or districts in a city. The impact of most trends will depend on geographical, historical, political or cultural circumstances.

What is the speed and impact of this trend?

Some trends develop slowly (global temperatures went up around 0.8˚C in the last 100 years) while other trends are more dynamic (the number of active Facebook users went from zero to 1 billion in eight years). Slow trends allow more time to think about what they mean and how to respond but they may also be difficult to change. Climate change may be slow, for example, but its potential impact is enormous, possibly threatening life on our planet.

Can we influence this trend?

Even if trends are not predictable, it is often possible to influence them. Small individual steps from parents and peers can make a difference in rates of cyberbullying in schools, for example. Broader coordinated action from multiple players, including school boards and government, can change cyberbullying policies and regulatory frameworks. All of these elements are important to reduce the prevalence of this harmful trend.

Can we react to these trends?

Creating the flexibility to react to the unexpected is important. For example, emergency planning to handle extreme weather events in cities will include a variety of scenarios, each of which may or may not be deployed in the event of a major crisis. The key is to maintain flexibility and responsiveness even under unforeseen circumstances.

Are there other trends to take into account?

In a word: yes. The trends in this book are a snapshot of our changing world. To be useable, the book is necessarily brief, and there are certainly other trends that are just as important to consider. All five previous Trends Shaping Education publications present complementary trends that are still relevant, and we encourage the fans of this series to explore those too. Hint: if you are interested in democracy and ageing, have a look at the 2019 edition. If cities and biotech, see the 2016 edition. If skills and well-being, the 2013 edition has a special section on this.

Much of our thinking of the future is linear, based on extending currently existing trends. But not all trends are created equal. Some trends, for instance those related to population growth or climate change, lend themselves easily to long-term planning. Others are less predictable, such trends in technology or youth culture. Trends slow, accelerate, bend and break. And as the COVID-19 pandemic reminds us, unforeseen events can disrupt even long-standing trends.

This volume departs from previous editions by incorporating two new elements:

  • It highlights some of the unexpected ways in which COVID-19 has and is still disrupting global trends, with a special section for each chapter.

  • It connects each chapter theme with a mini-scenario exercise, stimulating readers to reflect on how the future might differ from our current expectations.

Connecting to the four OECD Scenarios for the Future of Schooling

In the face of fast-changing trends and unexpected events, using scenarios allows us to explore the implications of multiple alternative futures. The four OECD Scenarios for the Future of Schooling have been constructed in a time frame of approximately 15-20 years: long enough for significant change to occur beyond immediate political cycles, but not so far off as to be too remote for anyone except futurists and visionaries.

Each of these alternative futures is elaborated in the last two pages of this introduction, structured around four common design principles: i) goals and functions, ii) organisation and structures, iii) the teaching workforce, and iv) governance and geopolitics. The Reader is invited to use these scenarios with the corresponding exercises at the end of each chapter to explore alternative futures in a structured way – for schooling, certainly, as well as for other levels of education and its institutions.

Future thinking is designed to foster reflection and discussion. Above all, we hope that the different users of this report will ask the question: “What might this trend mean for my work, and are we prepared for the different scenarios?”. Or better still, “How do these trends and scenarios, taken in combination, redefine the context in which I am making decisions?”. This can help gauge our preparedness for different possible futures, and prepare now.

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