Artwork by Gudskull in the Frideericianum during Documenta Kassel

Gud­skull, Doc­u­menta Fif­teen 2022, Kas­sel, Germany

Future literacy in education: some proposals

by Jan Peeters and Peter Paul Gerbrands |

Within the cur­rent set-up of our edu­ca­tion sys­tem, the knowl­edge and cor­re­spond­ing skills are well taken care of. A large group of other human skills are only par­tially, and cer­tainly not fun­da­men­tally, included in edu­ca­tion. In our view, these are pre­cisely those skills that we, as human­ity and the world, des­per­ately need.
A lot is hap­pen­ing in edu­ca­tion, inno­va­tion and broad­en­ing are a great asset. “21st Cen­tury Skills” cause a shift from con­tent to the skills needed to acquire knowl­edge and com­pe­tences to be able to work together. The increas­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties for stu­dents to put together an indi­vid­ual learn­ing route also show that it is rec­og­nized that more dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion is needed.
It is pre­cisely in these very hope­ful move­ments that we want to draw atten­tion to a num­ber of deeper-lying prin­ci­ples that should also be included in the renewal. It is good to adapt edu­ca­tion to mod­ern means and needs, it is even more con­tribut­ing when we under­stand the fun­da­men­tals of what is being asked. This is our attempt to map them.

Proposal 1: Perceiving and understanding the world from its context.

To under­stand, in recent cen­turies, sci­ence has pretty much dis­as­sem­bled every­thing that exists. Tak­ing things apart is use­ful to under­stand how some­thing works and what parts it con­sists of. But not very help­ful to care for and mend com­plex sys­tems. It is high time that we started to piece together again so that we can rec­og­nize how every­thing is con­nected and how every­thing inter­acts with each other.

Edu­ca­tion can make an impor­tant con­tri­bu­tion to this. It can do so by the way it is taught and by mak­ing spe­cific con­tent available.

We are cur­rently repair­ing a lot. Fix­ing the neg­a­tive effects of what we’ve come up with. Whether it’s plas­tics and PFAS that have entered our bod­ies or the over­pro­duc­tion of food in a del­i­cate nat­ural envi­ron­ment that can’t cope.

What we want to make pos­si­ble is that peo­ple can be trained from an early age in look­ing, think­ing, design­ing and act­ing sys­tem­i­cally. That way, we pre­vent future inven­tions from hav­ing unwanted effects on our environment.

Take plas­tics, for exam­ple, if they were invented from a sys­temic per­spec­tive, then they should also be able to be reduced to their ele­men­tary build­ing blocks. Or agri­cul­ture would not have become inten­sive if we had real­ized ear­lier that the earth can­not give infi­nitely. We would have found other ways.

We think it is nec­es­sary to ask two ques­tions for every sub­ject that is paid atten­tion to in edu­ca­tion when design­ing a learn­ing environment:

  • Is the entire sys­tem, of which the sub­ject is a part, suf­fi­ciently included in learn­ing about it? (A whole sys­tem is a sys­tem that can func­tion on its own.)
  • Are the actors involved in the sub­ject within the sys­tem suf­fi­ciently involved in learn­ing about it?

Sys­temic look­ing, think­ing and act­ing will become an essen­tial part of edu­ca­tion if we want young peo­ple to be able to start con­tribut­ing to the future. Sys­temic look­ing and act­ing will have to be a com­mon thread through­out the learn­ing jour­ney. It is per­haps most needed in sec­ondary, higher and uni­ver­sity edu­ca­tion, where teach­ing is still often focused on spe­cial­ism and exper­tise. Young peo­ple are often not yet prac­ticed see­ing the con­nec­tions between parts by them­selves; the learn­ing envi­ron­ment will have to help them do that.

That way, we will need to fix less in the future because we have already thought about the con­se­quences and impli­ca­tions of an inven­tion in the design and assem­bly process, within the dynamic sys­temic equi­lib­rium where the inven­tion will be used.

Result: I learn to see much more than lin­ear con­nec­tions and what the impact of my actions or inac­tion is on the other per­son, the world around me and the whole liv­ing system.
Kid on a pile of books looking over a wall

Proposal 2: Observing and stimulating uniqueness

Noth­ing on earth is exactly the same; not a grain of sand, paper clip nor human being. That is not for noth­ing, it is pre­cisely this unique­ness that makes it pos­si­ble to make unique and essen­tial expres­sions, by unique indi­vid­u­als or by groups of unique people.

Yet, our edu­ca­tion sys­tem is still not very well-equipped to develop this unique­ness. Because there are still too many aspects in edu­ca­tion that pro­mote con­for­mity. Think, for exam­ple, of study­ing to “pass” a propaedeu­tic (or foun­da­tion) year or a course. The mark­ing of acquired com­pe­ten­cies or skills is a higher goal than one’s own learn­ing path and originality.

This starts with the idea that we think we know what knowl­edge a young per­son needs to have a suc­cess­ful (work­ing) life. How­ever, the most authen­tic and fun­da­men­tal dis­cov­er­ies have been made by peo­ple fol­low­ing their own fas­ci­na­tions in their learn­ing path. Before you say: “Some kids don’t have that!”, you are right, some don’t. The real­ity is, they do not have those capac­i­ties because they never had the oppor­tu­nity to dis­cover and to prac­tice them.

For­tu­nately, there are all kinds of devel­op­ments in edu­ca­tion in which pupils are shap­ing their own learn­ing path, based on the learn­ing ques­tions they encounter while study­ing a sub­ject. How­ever, learn­ing facil­i­ta­tors (in what­ever role) in these new move­ments often still lack prac­tice in rec­og­niz­ing and encour­ag­ing unique­ness. In addi­tion, it is impor­tant to remem­ber that these tutors work in an envi­ron­ment where the oppor­tu­nity to develop unique­ness is lim­ited, even for themselves.

Our social capac­ity, at its best, is able to see the unique­ness of each per­son and relate to it. It takes prac­tice to learn to dis­cover another person’s orig­i­nal­ity, but if we enable such a process with our atten­tion, we can look for­ward to the beauty that arises when some­one cre­ates some­thing out of authenticity.

Result: I am learn­ing to appre­ci­ate diver­sity. I also learn to see dif­fer­ent kinds of being, think­ing and act­ing as a vital con­tri­bu­tion to the whole. I become aware of my iden­tity through the other person’s feed­back on my actions.
Balancing Stones by Paul Harnischfeger

Bal­anc­ing Stones, Paul Harnischfeger

Proposal 3: Restoring the healthy balance between expression and impression

One of the impor­tant providers of infor­ma­tion is the body and its senses. But in cur­rent edu­ca­tion, the focus is often still on the head. Edu­ca­tion should have more empha­sis on the train­ing of the body as an instru­ment for infor­ma­tion gath­er­ing and processing.

This has mainly to do with the fact that man is innately an expres­sive being. Every­one wants to express them­selves and con­tribute. The way in which and the direc­tion of the expres­sion is unique for each per­son. But when we look at the course of the learn­ing jour­ney from pri­mary school to uni­ver­sity, we see that as it pro­gresses, more adap­ta­tion to form and stan­dard is required. Infor­ma­tion is brought in and checked for ade­quate mas­tery and han­dling. There is lit­tle room for orig­i­nal­ity in the sys­tem, and rec­og­niz­ing and encour­ag­ing this depends entirely on the qual­ity of the teacher.

Much less atten­tion is paid to the expres­sion side of learn­ing, and by that we do not only mean expres­sion sub­jects such as draw­ing or music. As a result, many young peo­ple, when they come out of the edu­ca­tion sys­tem, are “expres­sively” untrained. They have only lim­ited ways in which they can express them­selves. In addi­tion, the con­tent of much edu­ca­tion is based on gen­eral assump­tions about what a young per­son should learn, and how. That makes it very dif­fi­cult to prac­tice one’s own way of expres­sion, both in doing things and express­ing your­self in your own way. And that, of course, also has con­se­quences for being able to rec­og­nize the unique­ness of others.

We see that the bench­mark of young peo­ple then becomes more lim­ited; any­thing out­side the group stan­dard must be con­demned, and peo­ple think they see some­thing unique in an extreme form of expres­sion. Both are marks of untrained expres­sion skills. We become less human from less expres­sion and more con­form­ing from exces­sive impres­sion. As a result, we increas­ingly go and have to adapt to an unimag­i­na­tive norm.

Devel­oped expres­sion is obtained through exer­cise of the senses and requires the use of the whole body. The mark of trained senses is non judg­ment, the mark of untrained senses, alas, the oppo­site. We acquire awak­ened senses by observ­ing expres­sive­ness in our envi­ron­ment: sport, art, behav­ior of oth­ers, coop­er­a­tion and intel­li­gence. The senses, how­ever, are not exer­cised in a state of pas­siv­ity. View­ing Insta­gram and Tik­Tok mes­sages do not increase expres­sion skills, record­ing and post­ing dances online does. Too lit­tle expres­sion leads to depres­sion and to a self-knowl­edge that comes from reflec­tions rather than experiences.

The impres­sion teach­ing method mainly teaches us what is already known, while the expres­sion devel­ops a skill that feels at home in the unknown, unpre­dictable and uncertain.

But the most impor­tant thing about the out­ward nature of the expres­sion is that the con­nec­tion to the world is made through activ­i­ties (on which I nat­u­rally reflect) rather than reflec­tions. I stay con­nected to the real­ity of the world and my fel­low human beings, and I don’t get trapped in my own bubble.
When I’m well prac­ticed, I see the things out­side of me that I don’t see when I’m too busy with myself and my own world. I no longer look out­side to find what I am look­ing for, but to see what is there.

Result: By express­ing myself, I become more vis­i­ble to oth­ers and I get to know myself through the other person’s feed­back. I am learn­ing to look more closely at the expres­sion of “that which is”.

Art­work in the gar­den of the Astrid Lind­gren house (Vim­merby, Små­land, Swe­den) by Patrick Dougherty

Proposal 4: Introducing “future skills”

Mak­ing con­tact with the future does not hap­pen by col­lect­ing more knowl­edge and knowing.

Our view of edu­ca­tion is in itself also a view of learn­ing that is strongly shaped by how we view the future. In this view, learn­ing has to do with prepar­ing a per­son for and help­ing them move with the world as we have arranged it. In fact, the under­ly­ing view is that the future con­sists of what we have not yet learned and will learn by build­ing on what we have already learned. In that sense, learn­ing there­fore con­sists of tak­ing in, in your own way, what we as humans and human­ity have already heard, devel­op­ing an atti­tude to keep doing this and then devel­op­ing it further.

The ancient Chi­nese insights already warned us about the mis­con­cep­tions involved: we believe that the accu­mu­la­tion of wis­dom makes the future, while the insights of the Tao (as opposed to those of Con­fu­cius) made clear how wis­dom and the future are mutu­ally exclu­sive. If we fol­low the path of wis­dom, we can­not con­tribute to the future.

The “future” that builds on what we have learned is progress, and that means under­stand­ing more and more by using the same insights, the same basic assump­tions. In the view of the Tao, this is an extended present, some­times help­ful and some­times not. The point, accord­ing to the Tao, is that we under­stand when to use our pow­ers of wis­dom and when to use our pow­ers of ignorance.

Because the future is made by what we don’t know, don’t under­stand yet, what we haven’t seen yet and what we don’t have a clue about. These are aspects of our abil­ity to learn that our cur­rent edu­ca­tion sys­tem barely focuses on.
And yet, many stu­dents are more inclined towards this way of learning.

Learn­ing to per­ceive what is not yet, what we do not yet know, where unfa­mil­iar­ity and uncer­tainty play a major role, means being pre­pared for being human, soci­ety, and the world in an entirely dif­fer­ent way.

The plea­sure of mak­ing an effort before we under­stand some­thing, work­ing hard before you get through it, being com­pletely alone in unknown ter­ri­tory, research­ing with­out aim­ing for a result: these are great experiences.

Being able to per­se­vere while you don’t see the point yet, expe­ri­enc­ing it com­pletely dif­fer­ently from oth­ers in a group, being able to appre­ci­ate even an oppo­site point of view: all these are skills that are greatly under­val­ued in our cur­rent cul­ture and in any case unprac­ticed. And we need those skills to get out of the stalled views of the cur­rent sys­tem. And there are quite a few sta­tic opin­ions, that keep us look­ing for solu­tions within the under­ly­ing assump­tions of the same view of the world that caused the problems.

Peo­ple have learned to per­se­vere with prob­lem-solv­ing because then you know the prob­lem, and you work towards a con­crete solu­tion. But they haven’t learned to per­se­vere when it’s not help­ful or seems point­less, when we can’t see lin­early ahead or when it’s not in our best interest.

Learn­ing to work with unfa­mil­iar­ity and uncer­tainty makes it pos­si­ble to really tread new paths, instead of call­ing “new” what is actu­ally an inno­va­tion of the exist­ing. For that, we will have to train our unfa­mil­iar­ity and uncer­tainty mus­cles. And not be too quick to look for the known path and reject what is different.

It lit­er­ally means for teach­ers and edu­ca­tional sys­tems that the method­ol­ogy, tech­nique and con­tent of learn­ing must be devel­oped at the moment of learn­ing. And that the out­come, and what it will lead to, will only be known later in time. This learn­ing has no pur­pose until the pur­pose man­i­fests itself. Not an easy thing for the use­ful­ness prin­ci­ple (it serves some­thing, you do some­thing so that it leads to results) of our school system.

All peo­ple have these “wis­dom” and “future” learn­ing abil­i­ties, but each has a unique pref­er­ence. By its very nature, cur­rent edu­ca­tion has a strong pref­er­ence for “wis­dom”, both in con­tent and in approach. Con­se­quently, there are many who are left out or risk their tal­ents and unique­ness and even health by try­ing to develop within the cur­rent sys­tem anyway.

It is not a prob­lem of the stu­dents (and all their “ills”), it is a prob­lem of our con­cep­tion of the future.

Result: I learn to see what I don’t know and can do and what the other per­son doesn’t know and can’t do as a pos­si­bil­ity. I learn to expe­ri­ence uncer­tainty as a pleas­ant state of being.
Herman Kahn quote Future

Phenomena as clues instead of deviations

The main obsta­cle here is that we put so much trust in our knowl­edge and abil­ity to know that we look at the world and our­selves through the glasses of wis­dom. Instead of observ­ing what is there, we teach our young peo­ple to look at what they want to see and inter­pret the infor­ma­tion within the lim­its of what we already know. Some­thing that can­not be explained within that is quickly deemed unim­por­tant, inap­pro­pri­ate or an anom­aly. And those rejec­tions are pre­cisely the most fre­quently heard com­plaints from pupils and stu­dents within our edu­ca­tion system.

The per­sonal expe­ri­ence of dis­com­fort, impos­si­bil­ity or ill health is seen as an inabil­ity of the pupil or stu­dent rather than as an indi­ca­tion of a one-sid­ed­ness in the sys­tem. And thus we pro­vide all the help and sup­port to adapt the indi­vid­ual to the sys­tem, in the form of coach­ing and tutor­ing, label­ing (as ADD and ADHD) and even med­ica­tion. We don’t doubt the best of inten­tions and the exper­tise of these inter­ven­tions, but we do not agree with the world­view that lies behind it. For that says, you can only move into the future if you adapt your­self to the sys­tem and its con­di­tions. The same sys­tem, mind you, whose under­ly­ing world­view has cre­ated many of the chal­lenges we are cur­rently facing.

The edu­ca­tion sys­tem, by its cho­sen foun­da­tion and habits, excludes those who have dif­fer­ent gifts and skills from those expected by our con­cep­tion of devel­op­ment. And since edu­ca­tion is merely a rep­re­sen­ta­tion of soci­ety, those who fit in eas­ily are also those who main­tain the same basic assump­tions. And thereby take the same or sim­i­lar social, eco­nomic and envi­ron­men­tal steps for­ward and then con­tinue to cre­ate prob­lems in the belief that they are actu­ally help­ing to solve them.

Every per­son has a dif­fer­ent way of learn­ing. If you really want peo­ple to learn as much as pos­si­ble, then in addi­tion to the skill of mov­ing along and adapt­ing, they will also have to prac­tice the abil­ity to adapt as lit­tle as pos­si­ble. That means you might need as many as 30 method­olo­gies in a group of stu­dents. Not method­olo­gies that have already been devel­oped, but method­olo­gies that, as we wrote ear­lier, are devel­oped at the time of learning.

For the future, it is impor­tant that we see the mean­ing of mal­ad­just­ment, resis­tance and ail­ments that our chil­dren show: whether it is ADHD, tele­phone addic­tion or no longer want­ing to par­tic­i­pate in society.

We can regard them as symp­toms of ill health, or as indi­ca­tions that we need to pro­vide fun­da­men­tally dif­fer­ent edu­ca­tion in which these devi­a­tions turn out to be skills: in which the behav­ior of our chil­dren indi­cates what edu­ca­tion should add to what it already has to offer. Edu­ca­tion appro­pri­ate to what the future demands of us, and less edu­ca­tion that thinks it knows what the future demands of us.

If you believe that edu­ca­tion should pro­vide secu­rity, then by all means keep using and inno­vat­ing the cur­rent edu­ca­tion system.
If you want to cre­ate a learn­ing envi­ron­ment to prac­tice con­tribut­ing to the future, then you facil­i­tate that young peo­ple can eas­ily deal with the uncer­tain, the unknown and the unpredictable.

Not only edu­ca­tion, but also par­ents, car­ers, fam­ily, friends and social insti­tu­tions play an essen­tial role in help­ing young peo­ple become famil­iar with the prin­ci­ples we present here.

If you would like to know more about it, share things with us or if you want to get started with it within your own edu­ca­tional insti­tu­tion or orga­ni­za­tion, please do not hes­i­tate to con­tact us. You are most welcome.
Jan Peeters,
Peter Paul Gerbrands