Upgrading Education for the 21st Century: A Review of Education Ideologies

Upgrading Education for the 21st Century to Create a Sustainable World

Updated: Jan 10

Education ideologies have a long and varied history in the UK and more generally. The prevailing ideology during any given time frame informs national education policy decisions which, of course, sets the sails for the whole education system and wider society. It is very important that we consider education ideologies in order to understand the current thinking which informs the way our education system works, and this means considering the wider context through social, political and economic factors.



"What future do we want for our children and our society? Whatever the answer, education is the key to successfully meeting the challenges of the 21st Century in a world with increasing uncertainty and globalization."

The goal is to develop a strong vision and consensus on the future of education designed to prepare children for the 21st Century. Children today face a very different world to the one their parents and grandparents inherited. As a society, we must adjust the sails of our education system from time to time to successfully prepare the next generation for the future that awaits them. Reflecting on educational ideologies is a healthy exercise, and it also informs the role and objectives of wider learning beyond the classroom too.


Welfare State Education


Following World War II, 1946 saw the growth of state intervention after the poverty of the 1930s. This was driven by the belief that state (government) has an important role to play in the wellbeing of society. By providing welfare support for those disadvantaged by social circumstances (in the UK this meant a free National Health Service, free education for all, a state pension and equality of opportunity etc.), the accepted belief was the state has the responsibility to remove or reduce disadvantage.


Initially, this meant selective education (Grammar, Secondary Modern or Technical) until being replaced by non-selective Comprehensive schools in the 1960s-1970s. The ideology of Welfare State Education was to create equal opportunities for all children in education so that they can go on to play a useful role in society as suited to their interests and abilities.


Neoliberal Education


Over time, the prevailing education ideology moved away from Welfare State Education and towards what is known as Neoliberal Education. The societal view guiding neoliberalism is that human nature is essentially competitive and this is how the world works. The rationale behind this ideology is each person maximizes their own personal benefits and that economic rationality (i.e. competition) will bring appropriate benefits for all in society. The role of the state should be minimal and not interfere in the free market process. By definition what is 'private' is seen as good and what is 'public' is bad.


From the perspective of education, this requires preparing students to fit into the existing neoliberal view of society and provide an internationally competitive workforce. It legitimizes this dominant view of society and its structures by reinforcing that the role of the state should be minimal. In neoliberal thinking, education is performance driven and demonstrates its effectiveness by results. There is a focus on 'surface' learning (i.e. being good at passing exams) with stress on competition by results (e.g. SATS and league tables) based on a mechanistic or behaviouristic view of learning based on transmission. The teacher is largely an instructor and transmitter of knowledge with a focus on hierarchical and directive modes of working.



Many of the educational aspects of neoliberalism can be observed in UK and other countries today. Schools that reflect this worldview tend to be formal and standardized with adherence to a formal curriculum. While some features of Neoliberal Education are very explicit, others are more implicit and hidden within schools and education institutions. The marked shift away from state intervention towards neoliberalism can be seen in almost every aspect of our society and its structures today in the UK and much of the Western world.


Education for Sustainability


Historically, post-war education ideologies have swung from Welfare State Education to Neoliberal Education in recent decades. But is it time to re-evaluate education and change the direction of the sails?


In the 21st Century, we are now facing unprecedented challenges due to rapid technological changes (including artificial intelligence) and existential threats, such as climate change and ecological collapse. What education ideology we choose to adopt now will have wide-reaching impacts for our children and our whole society. So the question we should be asking is: What kind of future do we want for our children and our society? Whatever the answer, education is the key to successfully meeting the challenges of the 21st Century in a world with increasing uncertainty and globalization.


"It is very important that we consider education ideologies in order to understand the current thinking which informs the way our education system works, and this means considering the wider context through social, political and economic factors."

In the Education for Sustainability worldview, the ideological footing is very different. There is a realization that humanity and the natural world are inextricably interdependent with each other. Practices which cause damage to people or the environment are unsustainable. In a sustainable society, human and environmental wellbeing are enhanced with the understanding that free market 'rationality' causes serious harm to people and the biosphere. This requires transition from a high-carbon to a sustainable low-carbon economy.



The purpose of Education for Sustainability is to critically analyze damaging and unsustainable practices in society to contribute towards building a more just, equitable and sustainable world. There is a recognition of our interconnectedness with the biosphere: our life support system. Additionally, it equips students with the skills of active and participatory citizenship. Learners become actors in the local and global community with a commitment to studying the social, political and economic changes required to create a more just, equitable and low-carbon world. Learners become critical thinkers, problem solvers and agents of change.


The focus is on recognizing that all knowledge is socially and culturally constructed with an emphasis on collaborative and participatory social, environmental and political action within the school and in the global and local community. Teachers facilitate learning and critical reflection on life, society, economics, and environment while building key 21st Century skills (e.g. technology, critical thinking, problem-solving, etc.). Students still learn to read, write and count, although this is through the lens of an issue-orientated curriculum with a focus on human and ecological flourishing. Participatory democracy is practiced in each classroom and lesson and there is a collaborative and cooperative ethos within both the school and community.


What Comes Next?


Whichever education system we choose to prepare the next generation for the future, it is time we think carefully about the knowledge, skills, attitudes and values we want our children to develop and how we want our society to look in 50 or even 100 years from now. The future of humanity is what is ultimately at stake.



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