Knowledge and education for the future.

Edgar Morin’s seven lessons for the future.

When the French sociologist Edgar Morin was asked by UNESCO for his thoughts on education for the future, he organised his proposals around seven key aspects of human knowledge and understanding.

In his introduction to Morin’s text (1999), the then Director-General of UNESCO, Federico Mayor made the case for change:

When we look to the future, we confront many uncertainties about the world our children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren will live in. But we can be certain of one thing: if we want this earth to provide for the needs of its inhabitants, human society must undergo a transformation. The world of tomorrow must be fundamentally different from the world we know… We must strive to build a sustainable future. Democracy, equity, social justice, peace and harmony with our natural environment should be the watchwords of this world to come… at the base of our way of living, of governing our nations and communities, of interacting on a global scale.

Education in the broadest sense plays a key role in this because it is one of the most powerful instruments of change. One of the greatest problems we face is how to adjust our way of thinking to meet the challenge of an increasingly complex, rapidly changing, unpredictable world. We must rethink our way of organizing knowledge. We have to redesign our educational policies and programs. And as we put these reforms into effect, we have to keep our sights on the long term and honour our tremendous responsibility for future generations.

Edgar Morin did not propose a curriculum framework or educational blueprint, his suggestions are in effect a response to the question of ‘how to adjust our way of thinking’. His aim was to identify key challenges that educational programmes should try to address if they are to better equip us for the future.

Edgar Morin’s suggestion is that these aspects of knowledge should be included in educational programmes and adapted for different cultures and societies. His starting point is that the knowledge on which we base our understanding of the human condition is always provisional and open-ended, leaving us with many uncertainties and unanswered questions and leaving room for philosophical and cultural interpretations.

In summary, Morin’s seven perspectives on knowledge for the future are:

  1. Knowledge and error: The purpose of education is to transmit human knowledge but also to teach what knowledge is; its structures, its weaknesses, and its capacity for error. Knowledge cannot be treated as a ready-made tool to be picked up and used without some understanding of its nature. We need to know about knowledge if we are to confront error and illusion and be armed in the fight for lucidity. We need to study the properties and processes of human knowledge as well as the psychological and cultural conditions which make us vulnerable to error and illusion.
  2. Knowledge in context: Our learning needs to help us grasp the broad, fundamental problems and also to situate partial, circumscribed knowledge within these. A fragmented learning divided into disciplines can prevent us from connecting parts and wholes. We need learning that can see subjects in their totality, their context and their complexity. We need to develop our capacity to place information in a context, within a whole, using methods which help to show the connections and influences between the parts and the whole in a complex world.
  3. Teaching the human condition: The human condition should be a key subject of education. Humans are physical, biological, psychological, cultural, social and historical beings. Separating this complex unity of humanity into disciplines can make it harder to understand what it means to be human. We need to become aware of both our complex personal identities and our shared identity with all other human beings. Can we assemble and organize the knowledge dispersed in natural and social sciences, literature, philosophy and art in a way that shows the interconnections, the unity and the diversity of all that is human?
  4. A global identity: The future survival of the human species is a global challenge. An understanding of rapid global developments and a recognition of our global citizenship is now indispensable for all of us. We need to teach global history, and this should include the ravages of oppression and domination, past and present, and an understanding of how all parts of the world have become so interdependent. We need to teach about the complex configuration of global crises and show how human beings share common challenges and a common fate.
  5. Confronting uncertainty: Science has helped us achieve much certainty, but it also reveals new kinds of uncertainty. We need to learn to navigate the sea of uncertainty which flows around our islands of certainty. Education should include the study of uncertainty, whether in the physical, biological, or social sciences. We should teach about dealing with the uncertain and the unexpected and help people develop strategies to respond to new information and to manage risk.  History shows how unexpected many major events and accidents have been and how unpredictable the course of the human journey. This should prompt us to be ready to confront the unexpected and educators should work at the very outposts of our uncertainties.
  6. Understanding each other: Understanding each other is both a means and an end of human communication. Our global survival calls for mutual understanding in all directions. An education for the future needs to develop mutual understanding among human beings at all ages and levels. This also means studying the nature of misunderstanding from its roots to its effects, including the origins of racism, xenophobia and discrimination of all sorts and their relationship to the exercise of power. This should also form the basis for an education for peace.
  7. Ethics for the human species: Education should address the three dimensions of the human condition: the individual, the social and the global. An ethics for the human species requires both control of society by the individual and control of the individual by society, ie: democracy. It also calls for global citizenship. This ethics cannot be taught through moral lessons, it needs to take shape in people’s minds through a growing awareness that we are simultaneously individuals, members of a society and members of a species. Every one of us carries this triple reality within them. Any truly human development must include a blend of individual autonomy, community participation, and sense of belonging to the human species. Education should not only contribute to an understanding of our home planet, it should help this find expression in the will to realize our global citizenship.

(I have paraphrased Edgar Morin’s own summary, any additions or misinterpretations are mine)

Two decades on, as we face a health emergency, a climate and environmental emergency, multiple global crises, conflicts, inequalities and injustices as well as the distortions of fake news and the threat of authoritarianism, Morin’s seven perspectives provide us with a good starting point for any educational project which aims to prepare us for the future. More than ever, we need the continuing commitment of UNESCO and others to an education which addresses global challenges and which places human rights, sustainability, peace and democracy at the centre. It falls to today’s educators to apply these perspectives to shape an education fit for the future and our current predicament should only serve to inject a greater sense of urgency into this work.

See also:

Seven Complex Lessons in Education for the Future (UNESCO, 2001)

An A-Z for a world which has to change (March 2020)

Decarbonising education (March 2020)

Edgar Morin on ‘Thinking Global’ (August 2017)

A global crisis requires a global politics (March 2017)

The global economy of care (May 2016)

About Eddie Playfair

I am a Senior Policy Manager at the Association of Colleges (AoC) having previously been a college principal for 16 years and a teacher before that. I live in East London and I blog in a personal capacity about education and culture. I also tweet at @eddieplayfair
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1 Response to Knowledge and education for the future.

  1. nivekd says:

    And how ironic that a government (in the guise of Gove and Cummings) is able to institute a rigorous programme of testing and tracking (for innocent schoolchildren) at risk of a decent education but (in the guise of Gove, Cummings, Johnson and Hancock) is unable to do the same for a blameless population at risk of a pandemic


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