Education in the future. Submission to UNESCO. 2020
Home > Blogs > Education in the future. Submission to UNESCO. 2020

Education in the future. Submission to UNESCO. 2020

UNESCO issued a consultation on Education in the Future. This is our submission to that consultation.

Education in the future has to make dramatic changes. It is not fit for purpose. A major error is the notion that education means institutional learning – generally in a school, college or university. It also assumes that most useful learning occurs via a process called teaching and that covering a curriculum in an institution somehow automatically produces educated people. If teaching was so effective then every child would pass every test that was imposed on them. The fact that this process is very inefficient is largely ignored within the educational establishment.

I have spent most of my working life supporting learning in organisations. (Only recently have I been involved in the learning of young people in what we call Self Managed Learning (SML) College.) In my role as CEO of a European business school I gathered together a team of experienced researchers to look at learning in organisations. We researched many thousands of managers and professional people across organisations around the world. We wanted to know what makes them effective at work. They all talk about things that they have learned but very little reference is made to education, training, colleges, universities, courses etc. Indeed, not just from our research, but that conducted by a number of universities in the UK and in the USA has shown that the maximum contribution of education and training to the performance of a professional person is about 10 to 20%. (See Burgoyne and Reynolds, 1997; Cunningham et al., 2004; Eraut, 1998; Eraut et al., 1998; McCall et al, 1988; Wenger, 1998.) Most of the useful learning that we gain comes from what tends to be dismissed (by officialdom) as informal learning, such as from peers, family, travel, reading, etc, etc. In our own research we have identified over 80 useful learning modes outside schooling. Some of these are summarised in Cunningham et al, 2004.

This evidence can come as a bit of a shock to people in the educational world. One reason for the shock is that by and large educational institutions do not follow up the people who have attended them to find out what impact that education has had on their lives. We started from the opposite end, which was to find out what made adults effective and particularly what learning had helped them to become effective.

In our research we questioned people about what particular processes had helped them to become effective. The most often mentioned word was ‘experience’. When we pursued in greater depth, through extensive interviews, what people meant by ‘experience’ the answers were many and varied. Reference was made to having had challenging projects, having had a good boss to work to, travelling to other countries, getting help from a coach, and so on. There was no obvious pattern to these answers – people varied enormously in terms of those experiences that had helped them to learn to be effective.

This research has been in the world of work. When I have done sessions with adults outside the world of work asking them about their wider life, including family and community, the value of education and training drops to an even lower figure. For instance, parents often comment on all sorts of ways that they learn to be a parent. These include having role models, reading books, watching TV and films, talking to other parents, and so on. I ask these adults about their role in the wider life of the community, with friends or sports teams. Then things get mentioned such as their own friendships that have helped them to understand how to get on well with other people or how they have learned to take up leadership roles through being mentored by somebody.

Solutions to the problem of institutional education

Notions of the future are problematic. We cannot predict the global situation even a year ahead – witness the pandemic. What is apparent is that the ability to learn to deal with new and unpredictable situations is a sine qua non for homo sapiens. Learning to learn is not, though, about more formal courses, which only trap people into a false complacency about their preparedness for the future.

In SML College our main aim is to equip our students (aged 9-17) with the ability y to manage their own learning. We do this by starting with the person – understanding them and their current needs – and then helping them to learn what they need. This means that there is no formal teaching, no imposed curriculum and no imposed timetable. Students learn to make decisions for themselves. The evidence of independent research on past students shows that they deal with new situations better and that they can take charge of their own lives. This is the most important learning in a world with unknown futures.



Burgoyne, J. and Reynolds, M. (eds.) (1997) Management Learning. London: Sage.

Cunningham, I., Dawes, G. and Bennett, B. (2004) Handbook of Work Based Learning, Aldershot, Hants.: Gower:

Eraut, M. (1998) ‘Learning in the workplace’, Training Officer, Vol 34, No 6, July/August, pp172-174.

Eraut, M., Alderton, J., Cole, G. and Senker, P. (1998) Development of knowledge and skills in employment, Research Report No. 5, University of Sussex Institute of Education, Brighton.

McCall, M. W., Lombardo, M. M., and Morrison, A. M. (1988) The Lessons of Experience, Lexington: Lexington Books.

Wenger, E. (1998) Communities of Practice. Cambridge: University Press.


Ian Cunningham, 2020