Our future demands critical and creative thinking skills

In a fast-changing environment, one marked by increased globalisation and internationalisation (for example, expansion of human rights, increased global competition, mass urbanisation, climate change and technology change), educational leaders not only struggle to respond to these changes, but they must also, at the same time, seek innovative ways to envision and shape the future of education.

Balancing the present needs with the emerging future needs is no small task for educational leaders.

Global education is at an inflection point in world history. Prior to the first Industrial Revolution, basic and higher education were not a priority for countries. In 1800, the global average life expectancy was less than 30 years of age. During that time, most people still lived on farms and in rural areas where their main goal was to survive.

The idea that all children should receive publicly supported schooling, regardless of race, ethnicity, nationality, social class, gender, religion or any other factor, did not gain traction until after the effects of the first Industrial Revolution became more widespread, circa 1850s.

During the 19th century, widespread opposition to the idea of public schools had to be overcome, such as the mindset that the education of children was not needed or that the education of children should be left solely to the family.

The demands of industrialisation

However, as societies became more industrialised and advanced, it became increasingly apparent that compulsory public schooling was needed to ensure that all children became literate and prepared for the demands of industrialised society.

People gradually came to the realisation that educating all children served the political, economic and social interests vital to the community and nation. By the turn of the 20th century, common schools had in fact become common.

As the world moved further into the 20th century, the world experienced continued industrial and technological revolutions, putting additional pressure on society to produce better educated citizens.

For instance, the high school movement in the United States was an era from 1910 to 1940 where secondary schools emerged rapidly across the nation. In 1910, fewer than 20% of children in society were enrolled in secondary school and fewer than 10% of those enrolled graduated. By 1940, the percentages increased to 75% and 50%, respectively.

Currently, the secondary graduation rate is about 85% with similar trends across most nations. During the 21st century, participation rates in tertiary education have experienced similar trends.

The world today is changing at an unprecedented pace, and the world is experiencing a paradigm shift worldwide with the digital transformation of higher education. It would perhaps be unwise to assume that COVID-19 will be the last global emergency of its kind and that there will be no need for future generations to learn the lessons of the pandemic.

The evolution of higher education

The pandemic crisis allowed humanity to reflect on itself. In a short period, the world has found itself apprehensive about the future of the world and, more specifically, of education. While the central role of education, at all levels, in the political, economic and social spheres is well understood by the general public, it is now time to see how higher education can evolve stronger from this worldwide change.

In a meta-analysis of universal values, financial security and employment security ranked as two of the most influential values that drive human behaviour. Students come to university with these values in mind.

The nature of work has been shifting dramatically, and employees are required to change and acclimatise to new demands and a more fluid labour market. Digital up-skilling, for instance, must be integrated into the curriculum in order to develop a digitally literate workforce needed for the 21st century.

The education sector plays a vital role in incorporating these advanced skills. Overall, higher education is in line with worldwide digital trends, but it is uncertain whether or not graduates are meeting the knowledge and skill expectations of employers.

A paradigm shift must take place in the global education system worldwide by narrowing the education-industry knowledge and skill gap. The focus has shifted from employment to employability; that is, educating students so they are capable of evolving and adapting to any changes that may arise. This is no small task but one that higher education is well-suited for.

This will require input from students, faculty, employers and government authorities. Part of this paradigm shift entails shifting the focus from a competence-based learning model to a lifelong-lifewide learning model, which is critical in an intensely competitive and highly fluid knowledge-based economy and society.

One of the major goals of any higher education institution is to make their students employable so that they can successfully survive the labour market of the future. However, this requires that higher education institutions focus on preparing students for continuous learning (that is, lifelong-lifewide learning).

The soft skills required to survive in the labour market of the future include resilience, critical thinking, creative thinking and green skills, among others. To this end, curricula should be updated to reflect this reality.

A changing social landscape

Another major challenge for higher education is the changing social landscape. The continually shifting tectonic plates that underlie the social landscape put stress and strain on higher education’s ability to adapt to the emerging social and cultural trends sweeping across the world.

In this fast-changing and highly fluid world, providing inclusive and equitable education for all is an important aspect of modern educational systems. Indeed, providing lifelong-lifewide learning opportunities for all is one of the cornerstones of the 2030 Agenda, as embodied in Sustainable Development Goal 4.

While globalisation and internationalisation provide higher education institutions with more opportunities to provide a richer multicultural learning experience for students, navigating sociocultural differences is often challenging for students.

However, proactive and innovative approaches could make higher education institutions a place where sociocultural differences provide learning opportunities for students to develop a global mindset.

Information systems and digital enhancement in the post-COVID era have accelerated the process of internationalisation, making higher education more accessible to anyone, regardless of where they live. Higher education institutions should use this opportunity to enhance the curriculum to provide multicultural contexts for learning.

Educational products should be developed to fit into the needs of the modern era. Incorporating intercultural dimensions into the curriculum will enhance cultural sensibility. For instance, developing international electives to facilitate the concept of learning across borders can provide a multidimensional approach to learning.

Adapting an international curriculum and encouraging staff and student mobility will help institutions mitigate the sociocultural gaps among students and will inculcate more positive attitudes towards international learning.

A changing technological landscape

Educational institutions worldwide are redesigning their learning spaces to make room for new models of education where technology pervades all aspects of learning.

This revolution began in earnest with the internet in the mid-1990s. According to the Telecommunication Development Bureau’s 2019 report, 53.6% of the world’s population of 7.75 billion had access to the internet; 86.6% of the population of the developed world had this access and 47% of the population of developing countries had this access.

The synthesis of various technologies in knowledge production is the fundamental aspect of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR). The majority of higher education institutions have not made the shift to cater to the 4IR.

Nevertheless, developed countries are once again at the helm of 4IR, with institutions, such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, allocating multi-million-dollar funds to experiment with new teaching innovations, and Sandbox Collaborative, an incubator where audio-visual and IT technology tools for the 21st century are woven together, offering students an enhanced learning experience.

In order for us to have a sustainable future, we must transform higher education and rethink our educational aims, methods and institutions.

Technology has the capacity to eliminate barriers to education imposed by space and time and expand access to lifelong learning. Modern technologies are also changing the concept of higher education institutions where there is less of a need for capital-intensive bricks-and-mortar infrastructure.

Even so, it seems that the developing world will once again lag behind in the 4IR. Economic crises, hunger, war and the inequitable distribution of resources will inhibit the majority of the world’s population from taking full benefit of these advancements.

Therefore, to take full advantage of the technological revolution, governments of developing countries should provide widespread digital infrastructure. If this infrastructure is provided, the knowledge flow from the developed to developing countries will not only be easier, but it will provide a more fertile ground for harvesting a sustainable future.

To this end, the developed world, being the torch bearers of the 4IR, should make sure that there is a smooth flow of knowledge from the developed to the developing world.

Lifelong-lifewide learning

The world has progressed to the point where a high school diploma is now considered, in many countries, merely a starting point to function successfully in society.

Most jobs now require some form of post-secondary education and training, whether it be at a vocational-technical (trade) school, community college, business college, liberal arts college, engineering college or research university, among others. As a result of the growing premium placed on post-secondary education, the number of people attending post-secondary institutions is at an all-time high.

Lifelong-lifewide learning has become so important in today’s world that some countries have now reached mass or universal status. One of higher education’s chief aims is to build the capacity to learn in students. This not only requires that students develop critical thinking skills but also creative thinking skills.

Knowledge without the creative application of it has limited usefulness. As such, students must not only be consumers of knowledge, but they must be producers of knowledge. They must be able to think in rigorous and innovative ways in order to solve the world’s most intractable problems.

Patrick Blessinger is president and chief scientist for the International Higher Education Teaching and Learning Association, USA. Abhilasha Singh is vice-president for academic affairs at the American University in the Emirates, UAE. Amudha Poobalan is a senior lecturer in public health at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland. Sarwat Nauman is associate professor at the Institute of Business Management, Karachi, Pakistan.