Today, on January 24, the world celebrates the International Day of Education. Proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly’s Resolution in 2018, its purpose is to celebrate the many ways learning can empower people, preserve the planet, build shared prosperity and foster peace.
Education is a basic human right, but access to it is still one of the most pressing developmental challenges. According to UNESCO, 258 million children and youth still do not attend school, 617 million children and adolescents cannot read, and less than 40% of girls in sub-Saharan Africa complete lower secondary school. Making quality education accessible and affordable for these girls and boys may be the only opportunity they have at getting a decent job and living a healthy and fulfilled life.
I can’t help but realize what a privilege it is to be raised in a European Union country with universal access to primary education. High-income countries are fortunate with school completion rates at 100% for primary education, over 91% for secondary education and 77% for tertiary education.
However, even advanced countries have a long way to go in order to improve the quality of education. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which has become a global measure for comparing quality, equity and efficiency in learning outcomes across countries, shows significant variation among OECD and partner countries involved in it. According to the results of the 2018 PISA test, on average around one quarter of all 15-year-olds did not attain a minimum level of proficiency in reading or mathematics. Developed countries too are part of the challenge towards reaching the UN Sustainable Development Goal for education, by 2030.
These figures made me wonder what quality of education actually means and to what extent our emerging needs from education are being reflected in the curricula of schools. For example, is quality education about a better preparation for future jobs so that we earn more and increase our efficiency? Or is it a more holistic approach, encompassing knowledge and skills that go beyond success at work and towards better preparation for life in general, with all that it may bring? Recent reforms of Austria’s education have focused on promoting digital teaching and learning content. While no one can question the relevance of digital skills in the twenty first century, what other life skills should we prioritize?
In search for an answer, I decided to reach out to friends and family and ask them directly what quality education means to them. The exact question was not about education per se but about their own experiences as follows: “What would you have loved to learn at school, and why?”. I asked “why” because I wanted to get a sense of how them not learning a particular piece of knowledge or skill has affected their life. Also, I was looking for the first idea that came to their minds, simply because I believe that people already know what they are missing without having to think too much about it.
I collected about forty answers, sometimes with explanations, sometimes without. I think all of them are worth sharing as we need ideas ranging from simple easy-to-implement suggestions (i.e. teach typing skills) to truly bold propositions potentially transforming traditional curricula (i.e. teaching meditation skills could be an example for some people). Many of us would love to see a shake up in our countries’ educational systems so that younger generations can have an easier time growing up. The long list below seems like a good start.
Below, I am sharing the responses. A caveat to bear in mind is that the sample of respondents was by no means meant to be representative of society (30-60 year olds, mostly with a University degree). For some answers, one could claim that certain skills should be taught at schools, while others at home or just later in life. Point well-taken, but we need to start the discussion somewhere. I am very grateful to everyone’s contribution, and decided to anonymize answers to protect their privacy.
Learning about people and the planet:
- “I wish I could have learnt more about world religions and spirituality. Also, about peace studies and peace-making.”
- “Sports science. When I was younger, there was no such option. I was also interested in sociology, but it was more for girls than boys…”
- “Psychology, because it would have helped me understand myself and other people better.”
- “I would have liked to have learned more about nature and ecology broadly. Unless we specialize, it’s basically non-existent (or at least was).”
- “Astronomy, because it interests me.”
Learning how to choose a career and succeed in it:
- “How to strategically approach your career and life, and how to choose a profession based on what you actually like doing.”
- “Public speaking, because it would have helped me improve my self-esteem and my career journey much more than Latin for instance.”
- “Job interviewing skills. How to “sell” yourself. Self-branding.”
- “Communication and presentation skills! It doesn’t matter how great your work is if you cannot make other people interested. I have been taking some courses recently on presentation skills, including the body language one must use and I find it fascinating what a difference that can make.”
- “Communication. You only learn indirectly by being put in a class with 20-30 other kids but there is so much that could be taught about how to communicate well, if I think about how much I learned from all the experiences over the years. And it’s such a crucial thing for work as well as personal relationships. For example, you can have a super skilled person at work but if they don’t communicate well, they are basically useless and often even harmful to the rest of the team.”
- “I wish schools would focus a lot more on the development of soft skills, like empathy, communication and teamwork.”
Learning about self-development, self-care and resilience:
- “How to actually learn, because by the time I figured it out my studies were over.”
- “The US approach of doing things” just do it and don’t be afraid of failing. If you do it’s okay.”
- “Yoga and respect for ourselves and nature.”
- “Meditation: because our mind is our most important muscle!”
- “How to live a happy life. I think that if you teach kids early on to not to be afraid of failure but rather embrace failure as something good that is part of the process, that you can learn from. To not to be afraid of change and always try new things. To know how important meaningful relationships are for happiness and to nurture them, to be able to self reflect, once in a while taking a step back to look at if what you are doing is still what you want or not. And the importance of mental health which often is a taboo topic that you cannot talk about but affects so many people.”
- “Mindfulness-based stress reduction because this would help children a lot.”
- “How to control emotions, especially anger. There is a quote in Japanese that says: ”the person who can manage anger is stronger than anyone else.” Knowing what you think and how to react is the most important action in your life, right?
- “Entrepreneurship, relationship skills and boxing.”
- “More about self-management, relationships, ethics, psychology, stuff you actually need to manage life!”
- “I wish I had been told that teachers are only human beings and that they can be wrong too, sometimes.”
- “That there are as many ways to be successful and find happiness in life as there are people on this planet.”
Learning how to stay healthy and listen to the body:
- “I wish I had learned more about how nutrition and sports affect our physical and mental well-being, and how to build robust routines.”
- “How to eat well and about food in general. As a kid, your body is very forgiving but as you grow older food has such a huge impact on how you feel, your energy throughout the day and of course your health and life expectancy.”
- “That it is important to listen to the signals that the body is sending you. This would have helped me build more resilience.”
- “Better sex education. With better education in this field, I think one can better understand and respect their own needs and boundaries, just to name two things out of many!”
Learning how to navigate contracts and finances:
- “How to do taxes, because it’s damn useful!”
- “Basics of law and finance every citizen should know in order to manage their life.”
- “It would have been useful to learn about personal finance. It is super important and nobody ever mentions it.”
- “Deeper understanding of “adult” stuff like rent contracts, employment, insurance, household budgeting, among others. I have worked with a lot of kids who didn’t have parents present and they never really learn this from anywhere.”
Other practical skills and tips:
- “Practical understanding of basic home/auto repairs.”
- “How to find a mentor.”
I love this list because there is not one single point that I disagree with. On the contrary, it is really exciting to imagine schools that would teach all these subjects and skills. Picture it for a moment, how much better prepared would we be for life? What would the world look like?
One observation that emerges from this mini experiment is that for many people, the quality of education is not about preparing children for a more lucrative title or a higher pay. It is much more than that. It is about preparing them for career choices that feel right to them and where they can accentuate their talents. It is about helping them to be seen and heard, and to have an impact. It is about teaching them how to be resilient and healthy as long as possible, both physically and mentally. It is about teaching the meaning and ways to a fuller life, but also how to survive the hard times and crises. And sometimes, it’s just about giving them some basic tips about personal finance, contracts or crafts.
So, what do I wish I had learned at school? For starters, I wish there was a serious curriculum devoted to a person’s “inner world”, such as mindfulness, meditation and creativity. I think that this is a key gap in our society and the reason for why many of us are still driven by what is expected as opposed to what is right for us. As for the “external world”, I would have loved to have learned how to communicate better, and how to deal with uncertainty and difficult people because both can be major consumers of our precious life energy.
What would be your answer?