The significance of and challenges to open society are today more apparent than ever. The Arab Spring, the Occupy Movement and other protests highlight some of these challenges in their calls for greater participation by a wider cross-section of society, the quest for a voice for marginalized groups, including women, indigenous peoples and LGBT communities, demands for greater transparency in government, and the calls for economic justice and environmental sustainability. The importance of open society is also emphasized in ongoing efforts by local, national and international organizations to strengthen democratic practices, protect human rights, and promote respect for the dignity of all peoples.
One of the central concerns of the Education Support Program’s Critical Thinking and Quality Education Initiative is “How to educate people for open society?” This means not only educating people for a more just and equitable society but also understanding education as a means of empowering individuals to transform their local, national and global contexts. If education is to serve these larger ambitions, of transforming society and preparing people for open society, then centers of education must be fit for purpose. Learning institutions (formal and non-formal) and the learning spaces within them must be recognized as microcosms of society, reflecting the values and practices we seek to achieve in the wider world. In other words, issues of political, economic, cultural, and environmental justice, equity, and critical engagement with one’s environment must be practiced and facilitated through approaches to learning and teaching.
To be clear, “critical thinking” within this approach cannot simply refer to the enhancement of teachers’ pedagogical skills, the active engagement of learners in their learning spaces, or improved cognitive skills of learners. Similarly, “education quality” cannot be reduced to preparing learners to perform well on basic literacy and numeracy assessments. Improved cognitive skills and numeracy and literacy, while important, are not enough to develop learners into active citizens at local, national, and global levels. If our aim is to educate people for critical engagement within their society and facilitate the change and transformation that bring about open society, our approach must target teacher preparation and support, curriculum and materials development, the culture and structure of learning institutions, and the relationship between learning institutions and the communities they serve. Such an approach recognizes the interconnectedness of learning institutions with other groups and institutions in society for example families, communities, civil society organizations, governments, religious institutions, and corporations.
In practical terms, this holistic approach—understanding education as part of something larger, comprising many interconnected parts—aimed at promoting critical thinking and quality education, would include, though not be limited to, the following elements:
- curriculum that is highly relevant to the daily lives of learners and that integrates the richness of learners’ and their families’ local history, knowledge and experiences;
- class sizes that are sufficiently small to allow learners to receive personalized attention and experience highly individualized learning with extra attention given to learners who need it to reduce the incidence of failure and drop out;
- learning that is facilitated by highly competent, qualified and appropriately compensated teachers who are well-prepared and supported by a robust system that provides on-going support and professional development;
- lesson planning and classroom discussions that engage with public issues of common concern, including injustice in local communities and wider society, and explore how power and inequality shape education and other aspects of learners’ lives;
- learners, teachers and parents/community members who have a voice and participate in governance of the learning institution in a meaningful way;
- learners who have a say in what they learn and how they learn it;
- rigorous and thoughtful attention paid to all subjects—not just those that are the focus of national and international tests and assessments—so that learners spend time engaged in Art, History, Physical Education, and Music, for instance;
- assessment that is used to constantly improve learning of both teachers and learners rather than as a punitive or competitive measure.
Many of these elements are incorporated in existing initiatives for example Escuela Nueva or The Rishi Valley Institute for Educational Resources (RIVER). So achieving these objectives on a wider scale and in multiple contexts is by no means impossible.
What is required is coordinated and consistent engagement of multiple actors, including governments, ministries of education, universities, civil society, school districts, administrators, teachers, teacher organizations, parents, students and communities. Within the coming months, the Critical Thinking and Quality Education Initiative will engage with these issues. We look forward to working with our partners and grantees in the contexts we serve to promote a vision of education that prepares all learners to function as active global citizens who can promote and participate in open societies.