21st Century Transitions: Opportunities, Risks and Strategies for Governments and Schools


Download article (.pdf) | By Riel Miller | Published in What Schools for the Future?, OECD/CERI, 2001


Based on findings of the OECD International Futures Programme, R. Miller suggests that the daily life by the third decade of this century will seem radically different for large parts of the world's population when compared to the last decade of the 20th century. While major transitions of socio-economic change are in train, the challenge of governments is to nurture concerted efforts to bring the unfolding reality of these transitions into line with people's ideas of what is desirable.  To orient policy directions, he sketches opportunities and risks that might arise during the 21st century transitions.


Technology: Opportunities - Information technology could advance to the point where the result of global knowledge-sharing is seamless, from business to culture, transforming when, where, and how people work and interact together, and creating a more equitable world.  Biotechnology could provide powerful new tools for fighting diseases and for reducing ecological footprints of industries.  Risks - On the other hand, social capacities to manage the invention of new tools, products and organisational forms into positive changes for all might not be sufficient. Some fear that transition costs are too high: Traditions and values might get lost; high-tech tools and products might enhance schisms of "haves" and "have notes"; society might lose control of new inventions and experimentation, leading to misuse.


Economy: Opportunities - Three broad developments open potential to grasp opportunities: 1) The shift to a knowledge-intensive economy could boost productivity by transforming the organisation of methods of production and consumption; 2) Globalisation and integration could induce a virtuous circle of investment and growth as knowledge, capital and trade flow freely; 3) A transformation in humanity's relationship to the environment could give rise to an investment boom in more ecological products. Risks  - Failing in above-average productivity gains to encourage technological, economic and social dynamism will compromise the availability of adequate resources to address pressing socio-economic needs and to find effective "win-win" solutions for conflicts.


Society: Opportunities - Changes in demographic structure, shifting income distribution, erosion of traditional cultural reference points, increases social diversity and might fuel the creativity needed to make the most of new technologies, economic change and social transformation.  Risks - If social diversity is ill governed, unacceptable inequality will emerge in income, wealth and health, deepening the segregation of disadvantaged groups. In case the backlashes of cultural diversity triumph, uniformity can dovetail with intolerant forms of nationalisms or religious fundamentalism.


Governance: Opportunities - New departures in governance will break with static allocations of power embedded in fixed structures and hierarchically senior positions. New forms of governance are likely to be fundamental for revitalising democracy and for taking advantage of technological, economic and social change. It will ensure that people in both public and private sectors have the capacity to exercise their liberty and manage constraints. Risks - If not fully participatory, attempts to create new forms of governance can meet resistance and create institutional inertia and conflict between different interest groups, and thereby stifle efforts for transformation.


Government policies and implications for schools: R. Miller goes on to suggest key issues and directions of government policies to encourage desired pathways, and emphasises that reaping benefits and minimising risks of 21st century transitions requires strong policy leadership at all levels. He groups policies into those that represent a continuation of existing approaches, those of significant reform, and those that break new ground.


The broad socio-economic developments of the 21st century will put schools into a very different context from their origin in the industrial era, R. Miller writes, with schools undergoing significant changes in adapting to the contexts and needs of learning societies.


He uses three figures to explain the possible directions of changing goals, roles, and methods of schooling. For example, the transition to a learning society might involve schools moving away from "mass-era" approaches that use norms and common culture as the basis for forging identity and making decisions toward the goal of equipping children with identities derived from diverse, specific communities and self-generated choices.


Societies may stop considering school and educational institutions as the sole authorities for recognising individuals' competencies, and schools may take on new roles and methods to validate what people know. To make use of specific competencies, non-traditional education from many sources will be taken more into consideration.


Finally, it is clear that traditional classroom teaching methods will continue to undergo important changes as experience is gained with new modes of engaging the minds of students of all ages.


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