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close this bookLearning: The Treasure Within (UNESCO, 1996, 48 p.)
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentLooking ahead
View the documentTensions to be overcome
View the documentDesigning and building our common future
View the documentLearning throughout life: the heartbeat of society
View the documentThe stages and bridges of learning: a fresh approach
View the documentGetting the reform strategies right
View the documentBroadening international co-operation in the global village

The stages and bridges of learning: a fresh approach

By focusing its recommendations on the concept of learning throughout life, the Commission did not intend to convey the idea that by such a qualitative leap one could avoid reflecting on the different levels of education. On the contrary, it has set out to reassert some of the major principles advanced by UNESCO, such as the vital need for basic education, to urge a review of the role of secondary education and to examine the issues raised by developments in higher education, particularly the phenomenon of mass higher education.

Quite simply, learning throughout life makes it possible to organize the various stages of education to provide for passage from one stage to another and to diversify the paths through the system, while enhancing the value of each. This could be a way of avoiding the invidious choice between selection by ability, which increases the number of academic failures and the risks of exclusion, and the same education for all, which can inhibit talent.

The foregoing in no way detracts from the excellent definition of basic learning needs produced in 1990 at the World Conference on Education for All (Jomtien, Thailand):

These needs comprise both essential learning tools (such as literacy, oral expression, numeracy, and problem solving) and the basic learning content (such as knowledge, skills, values, and attitudes) required by human beings to be able to survive, to develop their full capacities, to live and work in dignity, to participate fully in development, to improve the quality of their lives, to make informed decisions, and to continue learning. (World Declaration on Education for All, Art. 1, para. 1.)

This is certainly an impressive catalogue, but it does not necessarily imply an overloading of curricula. The teacher-pupil relationship, the learning available in children's local environment, and an effective use of modern media (where they exist) can in conjunction contribute to the personal and intellectual development of each pupil. The 'three Rs' - reading, writing and arithmetic - are given their full due. The combination of conventional teaching and out-of-school approaches should enable children to experience the three dimensions of education - the ethical and cultural, the scientific and technological, and the economic and social.

To put it another way, education is also a social experience through which children learn about themselves, develop interpersonal skills and acquire basic knowledge and skills. This experience should begin in early childhood, in different forms depending on the situation, but always with the involvement of families and local communities.

Two observations which the Commission sees as important should be added at this stage.

Basic education should be extended, worldwide, to the 900 million illiterate adults, the 130 million children not enrolled in school, and the more than 100 million children who drop out prematurely from school. This vast undertaking is a priority for the technical assistance and partnership projects carried out as part of international co-operation.

Basic education is of course an issue in all countries, including the industrialized ones. From this initial stage onwards, educational contents should be designed to stimulate a love of learning and knowledge and thus develop the desire and provide the opportunities for learning throughout life.

This brings us to one of the major problem areas in any reform, that of the policies to be applied to the period of adolescence and youth, between primary education and work or higher education. To coin a phrase, secondary schools cut rather a sorry figure in educational thinking. They are the target of considerable criticism and they provoke a considerable amount of frustration.

Among the sources of frustration are the increased and increasingly diversified requirements, leading to rapid growth in enrolments and overcrowded curricula - whence the familiar problems associated with mass education, which the less-developed countries cannot easily solve at either the financial or the organizational level. There is also the distress felt by school-leavers who face a shortage of opportunities, a distress increased by an all-or-nothing obsession with getting into higher education. Mass unemployment in many countries only adds to the malaise. The Commission stresses its alarm at a trend that is leading, in both rural and urban areas, in both developing and industrialized countries, not only to unemployment but also to the under-utilization of human resources.

The Commission is convinced that the only way out of this difficult situation is a very broad diversification of the types of study available. This reflects one of the Commission's major concerns, which is to make the most of all forms of talent so as to reduce academic failure and prevent the far-too-widespread feeling among young people that they are excluded, left with no prospects.

These various types should include both conventional education, which focuses more on abstraction and conceptualization, and approaches that alternate school with work experience in a way that brings out additional abilities and inclinations. In any event, there should be bridges between these approaches so that errors - all too frequent - in the choice of direction can be corrected.

The Commission also believes that the prospect of being able to go back to education or training would alter the general climate by assuring young people that their fate is not sealed forever between the ages of 14 and 20.

Higher education should be seen from this same angle.

A first point to remember is that, side by side with universities, there are other types of higher education institutions in many countries. Some cream off the most able students while others were set up to provide specifically targeted, high-quality vocational training, lasting between two and four years. Such diversification undeniably meets the needs of society and the economy as manifested both at the national and at the regional levels.

Increasingly stringent selection in order to ease the pressures brought about by mass higher education in the wealthiest countries is neither politically nor socially acceptable. One of the main drawbacks of such an approach is that many young people are shut out from the educational process before they have been able to obtain a recognized diploma; they are therefore in the desperate predicament of having obtained neither a formal qualification nor a training appropriate for the job market.

The evolution of enrolments therefore needs to be managed, but it can be kept within limits as a result of secondary education reform, along the broad lines proposed by the Commission.

Universities would contribute to this process by diversifying what they offer:

· as scientific establishments and centres of learning, from where students go on to theoretical or applied research or teaching;

· as establishments offering occupational qualifications, combining high-level knowledge and skills, with courses and content continually tailored to the needs of the economy;

· as some of the main meeting-places for learning throughout life, opening their doors to adults who wish either to resume their studies or to adapt and develop their knowledge or to satisfy their taste for learning in all areas of cultural life; and

· as leading partners in international co-operation, facilitating exchanges of teachers and students and ensuring that the best teaching is made widely available through international professorships.

In this way, universities would transcend what is wrongly held to be the conflict between the logic of public service and the logic of the job market. They would also reclaim their intellectual and social vocation as, in a sense, guarantors of universal values and the cultural heritage. The Commission sees these as cogent reasons for urging greater university autonomy.

Having formulated these proposals, the Commission emphasizes that these issues take on a special significance in poor countries, where universities have a decisive role to play. In developing countries, universities must learn from their own past and analyse their countries' difficulties, engaging in research aimed at finding solutions to the most acute among them. It is also incumbent on them to propose a renewed vision of development that will enable their countries to build a genuinely better future. They must provide the vocational and technological training of the future leaders and the higher- and middle-level education required if their countries are to escape from their present treadmills of poverty and underdevelopment. It is particularly necessary to devise new development models for regions such as sub-Saharan Africa, as has already been done for some Eastern Asian countries, on a case-by-case basis.