The United Nations General Assembly has proclaimed that 24th January is to be International Day of Education. This recognises the importance of education in achieving many of the UN’s goals and ambitions, including peace and sustainable development. The resolution about the day stresses the importance of achieving inclusive, equitable and high-quality education for everyone. 

 We often see education as a goal in itself: we say that everyone has a right to an education, so we should facilitate that. However, we also need to recognise that the value of education is actually where it leads us next. As a spokesman from UNESCO’s New York office pointed out, education is, effectively, a facilitator. It gives us the means to achieve the things that we want, from poverty eradication through improved health outcomes to achieving sustainable development. 

The need for a broader approach

In many ways, however, International Day of Education is fairly narrow in its focus. The language itself is interesting. The use of the word ‘education’, for example, rather than ‘learning’, tends to celebrate formal education: schools, colleges, and universities. However, most of us will acknowledge that we have probably learned far more since leaving formal education than we ever learned within it—and also that we continue to learn every day.

The rapid development of artificial intelligence (AI) makes this even truer. There are suggestions that around half of children now in school will be doing jobs that do not exist at present. How can we expect their formal education to teach them the skills that they will need when we do not even know what those skills will be? Most children entering secondary school this year will leave formal education within 10 years. They will, however, work for perhaps 50 years beyond that. Nobody can really say that they will not need to change and develop over that period.

Perhaps we need to take it slow and acknowledge that this is only the second year of an International Day of Education, but are we using the right term? Should we even be thinking in terms of education, or should we be discussing learning, skills, and change? 

The tyranny of metrics

One reason for the focus on formal education is that it is easy to measure. We know how many children are attending schools, how many are at university, how many graduates, with what degrees, all around the world. This information is published: we can, for example, see at a glance how many people in each country have a degree. We can look at educational attainment at multiple levels, and with several different measures. We can do all kinds of analysis to look at how the level of education is related to other things: gross domestic product, for example, or employment, or even level of happiness.

It is much harder to measure informal learning. Businesses can, of course, measure how many people go on training courses, and on what subjects. They can even measure things like mentoring relationships: their quantity, perhaps, or the number of meetings per year between mentoring partnerships. However, it is much harder to quantify the benefits of this kind of learning, or of learning on the job more generally. It is also challenging to quantify what people have learned, and how they have applied it. 

Does it matter if we can’t measure it? In one sense, it doesn’t really matter at all. The important thing is surely that people are learning, not whether it can be quantified. In any case, the value of education is in where it takes us, so we should perhaps be thinking more about measuring the desired outcomes, rather than inputs. The difficulty with that, of course, is that it is much harder to connect a downstream output or outcome like ‘reducing the level of poverty’ or ‘increasing the level of innovation’ with something as specific as ‘increasing informal learning in the workplace’.

Is what’s measured all that counts?

What this tells us is that we need to move away from a sense that what counts is what’s measured. We know what’s important here. We know that we all need to learn and develop as a way to understand and use AI to its full (and our full) potential. We don’t need to measure it. We just need to do it—and focus on what it achieves. As AI becomes more ubiquitous, every day must be an international day of learning, for everyone.

To help understand the reality of readiness, we are gathering perspectives from a cross-section of practitioners who are driving change. Stay tuned for our next update.


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