Kyushu University UNESCO Chair

HOME > Events > Events > Seminar on UNESCO's Futures of Education report (in Fukuoka, Japan)


Seminar on UNESCO's Futures of Education report (in Fukuoka, Japan)


On January 13, 2024, the UNESCO Chair at Kyushu University hosted a seminar to discuss the report of UNESCO’s Futures of Education Commission, ‘Reimagining our futures together: A new social contract for education’ (2021). The seminar took the theme: ‘Challenges to Realising a Transformative Vision of Education: Asian Perspectives’.

In late 2021, UNESCO’s International Commission on the Futures of Education issued its report, Reimagining our futures together: A new social contract for education (2021). The report highlighted challenges facing societies and education systems around the world today – from climate change to social inequality, ‘democratic backsliding’ and inequities related to gender, culture and ethnicity. It indicated how education should adapt or respond to such problems, so as to help bring about a ‘transformation’ of our societies – and our planet – and deliver a sustainable, liveable future for all. But that report was inevitably light on specifics, and loosely related to very different political, cultural and social contexts in various global regions. 

This seminar, part of a planned larger series, was a response to the ‘invitation to contextualise’ held out by the authors of the UNESCO report. Taking the theme of Challenges to Realising a Transformative Vision of Education: Asian Perspectives, it featured talks by a number of distinguished scholars with expertise on East Asia – specifically Japan, China and South Korea. The speakers discussed how far the report’s findings resonated with the situation in this region, and what they saw as the principal challenges facing educators and policymakers here. The seminar concluded with a round table discussion amongst the speakers, when they also took questions from the audience.

The event began with a speech by Keith Holmes of the ‘Future of Learning and Innovation’ section at UNESCO’s Paris headquarters, summarising the report’s key findings. He emphasised the importance of gathering responses from educators worldwide so as to refine and contextualise the ideas set out in the report.

Professor Shinobu Yume Yamaguchi, Director of the Institute for the Advanced Study of Sustainability at the United Nations University in Tokyo, showed how the world is ‘not on track’ for achieving the educational goals that the international community has adopted. Focusing on the Asia-Pacific, she highlighted the challenges raised by climate change, specifically as regards human displacement, and the ways in which education needs to respond.

Offering a specifically Japanese perspective on the Futures of Education report, Professor Miki Sugimura of Sophia University drew attention to key educational initiatives that Japan’s government has sought to sponsor through UNESCO. These include Education for Sustainable Development, the promotion of a ‘culture of peace’, and efforts to advance international understanding, such as the UNESCO Associated Schools Project, in which Japan is especially active.

The goal of promoting international understanding through education was also a key theme of the talk by Professor Soon-Yong Pak of Yonsei University in Seoul. South Korea has for some years taken a lead within UNESCO in promoting ‘Global Citizenship Education’ (notably through the UNESCO-APCEIU Centre). But Professor Pak noted how accelerating globalisation and unsettling technological change complicate the pursuit of international understanding – across East Asia and beyond. He underlined the need to ensure that technology is adapted to human needs and priorities, rather than the other way around.

Drawing on her extensive research on ‘shadow education’ in China, Professor Zhang Wei of East China Normal University spoke of the pathology of intense educational competition. The intensity of exam-preparatory cramming and the competitive pursuit of credentials is particularly severe across much of this region, critically undermining the capacity of schools and teachers to deliver the more expansive, humanistic and sustainable vision of learning that UNESCO advocates.

Returning to the theme of education for sustainability, Professor Hiroki Fujii, holder of the UNESCO Chair on Education for Sustainable Development at Okayama University, pointed to the very mixed record of East Asian societies with regard to climate change education. He identified teacher education as an area in particular need of reform, and also provided concrete examples of initiatives and projects in climate change education that he and his colleagues have helped devise.

Edward Vickers, holder of the UNESCO Chair on Education for Peace, Social Justice and Global Citizenship at Kyushu University, sought to provide an overview of the challenges to delivering a ‘transformative’ vision of education across East Asia. Addressing in turn each of the key themes in the Futures of Education report, he reflected on how these might appear from a regional standpoint. He particularly highlighted the salience in this region of issues of gender equity, challenges related to the handling of diversity, and ideologies of deference to patriarchal, hierarchical structures of authority. Alluding to references made in the UNESCO report to ‘decolonisation’ and ‘Western’ hegemony, he questioned their relevance to the East Asian context. Education systems in this region, he suggested, might need more urgently to address threats to learners’ and educators’ dignity, autonomy and agency from sources much closer to home. And in a region where the imperatives of ‘collectivism’ and loyalty are often invoked to suppress individual agency, the report’s emphasis on the need to enhance an ethos of ‘interconnectedness and interdependency’ might need to be rethought.

The concluding session, chaired by Chen Sicong of Kyushu University, featured further discussion among the speakers about the challenges facing climate change education in East Asia. Professor Fujii cited a survey of students’ attitudes to climate change conducted across the region, which seemed to show that Chinese students were the most ‘aware’ of the need for them to ‘lead’ on this issue. But other participants suggested that such survey results might be skewed by the very different political contexts of societies such as China, Japan and South Korea. The need for caution in generalising about a region as vast and diverse as East Asia was stressed by several speakers. 

Opinions differed regarding how – or how far – existing systems of competitive public examinations ought to be reformed, although the intensity of educational competition was recognised as a crucial problem for all the region’s societies. A lively debate emerged over how far we should hail the potential of education to transform society, or stress the need for social conditions to change in order to make a transformative vision of education possible. Participants generally agreed that transformation of education and transformation of the broader social, economic and cultural context must be considered in tandem. 

In response to a question about what we should seek to ‘unlearn’ – an interesting concept featured in the report – it was suggested unlearning ‘tribalism’ was a key challenge for education systems across East Asia. But while forms of tribalism related to exclusionary narratives of national belonging may be prominent across East Asia, the same can be said of many other societies around the world. Countering those narratives remains a key shared challenge for educators worldwide.