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Northwestern Buffett Institute for Global Affairs

UNESCO Futures of Education Report with Noah Sobe, PhD

Education is a basic human right and the foundation for peace and sustainable development according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). UNESCO recently released the Futures of Education report: "Reimagining our futures together: a new social contract for education." Noah Sobe, PhD, worked on the creation of the report for more than two years as Senior Project Officer for UNESCO’s Futures of Education Initiative. In this episode, Sobe explains what is in the report and how education must be reformed to create the futures we all want.

Noah Sobe

The challenge for the world is to make sure that schools are not places of competition for scarce resources. They need to be places of shared abundance. We need to treat knowledge and learning as global common goods, because they really are inexhaustible resources. And in fact, the more knowledge that's shared, the more valuable anyone's knowledge becomes.”

– Noah Sobe, PhD

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Read the transcript of this show below

Annelise Riles [00:00:03] Welcome to the Breaking Boundaries podcast. I’m Annelise Riles, executive director of Northwestern University's Roberta Buffett Institute for Global Affairs. The Northwestern Buffett Institute is dedicated to breaking through traditional silos of expertise, geography, culture and language to surface novel solutions to pressing global challenges. Today we're talking about SDG 4: quality education, and we're also talking about one of our favorite subjects at Northwestern, Buffett, which is intergenerational justice. And our guest today is Noah Sobe from Loyola University, Chicago. Noah, as a scholar who thinks about education in a global perspective, how education shapes culture and is shaped by culture, how trends in education circulate globally. He's a professor, but he's also helped to lead on a major global report for UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization called “Futures of Education.”  It's a massive project that has involved over a million thought leaders all around the world coming together to think about how education must be reformed to create the futures we all want. Welcome, Noah. Thank you so much for being here.

Noah Sobe [00:01:28] Thanks, Annalise. It's a real pleasure.

Annelise Riles [00:01:30] Your work is so fascinating, Noah. It's at the intersection of education, geography, culture, history. You've done research all over the world. What initially got you interested in thinking about education from a global perspective?

Noah Sobe [00:01:47] To be honest, I had some very formative experiences in East Central Europe in the early 1990s, where I worked in several elementary schools and eventually ran workshops for teachers. So, I grew up in the United States and was fascinated by the ways that the schools I was seeing in places like Poland, Slovakia, former Yugoslavia were both very similar and very different from the schools I knew from my own experience. So this led me to the field of comparative and international education, to my graduate training in this also in the history of education, first at Teachers College, Columbia, and then at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where I did my Ph.D. And one of the things that's always struck me is that there's a tendency to view education as a kind of derivative space, a place of social reproduction, where the compromises and arrangements that have been worked out in other domains are implemented. Now, instead, I think that we need to see education as a space of cultural production. And this has led me over the last 15, 20 years as an academic to study the ways that education makes up people, makes up societies and social relations in a variety of settings. So, whether it's world's fairs, progressive pedagogy, the politics of educational research, teacher and student study tours, post socialist transformation. I’ve really written about too many things. I'm definitely more a fox than a hedgehog. If you know the contrast that Isaiah Berlin carved out. But I think this prepared me well to work at UNESCO's, where over the past three years, as you mentioned, I was on the Future of Learning and Innovation Team and helped to lead on a flagship futures of education project.

Annelise Riles [00:03:22] So, tell us what it was like being at UNESCO's. I know your office right now is down the street from us here in Chicago. I imagine it's pretty different being at that magnificent building in Paris, working with leaders from around the world.

Noah Sobe [00:03:36] The Paris headquarters of UNESCO's share is beautiful. Well, one interesting aspect was to realize that both the university and UNESCO's in particular are knowledge producing and knowledge mobilizing organizations, of course, in different ways. So alongside the work in science heritage preservation that UNESCO does, it's also the UN's principal agency for Education. And in Education, UNESCO does a lot of work on standards, setting technical capacity building. It has a clearinghouse function, and it also sees itself as a laboratory of ideas. And that's the section that I got to work in. You know, of course, UNESCO has delegations from over 190 countries, and this adds a fascinating layer. And I suppose I went into UNESCO thinking that this geopolitics level would interfere. And for sure it can be frustrating and maybe even debilitating at times. But in many ways it's actually the real business at hand of forging agreements, working out arrangements so that people coming from very different places can take initiatives forwards together. And I actually knew from your work, Annalise, just how important the circulation and citation of previous texts was, and I'm thinking of your book, The Network Inside Out, which I've sometimes said is the best preparation someone can have to go to work with an intergovernmental organization. So that piece, that piece was not a surprise, but one thing that was a surprise and I probably should have known this is the emphasis that's placed on consensus building. So, in fact, in UNESCO's general conference and executive board sessions, it's considered a collective failure if a vote needs to be taken, because otherwise everything is decided unanimously. Now, the idea there is that in matters of cultural preservation, science, education, that these are goods of all of humanity and not not matters of national politics. Now, of course, these are all highly political matters, but I do think the vision is noble and quite worthy. So the work I supported, which was the preparation of a report from an international commission chaired by the President of Ethiopia, Her Excellency Sahle Work-Zewde. In that work, I think we managed to successfully walk that fine line between a really meaningful, substantive call for change, you know, that lots of different people can get behind and also avoid the reduction of things to a watered down lowest common denominator.

Annelise Riles [00:05:54] So tell us a little bit about what is in the report. What were some of the key findings?

Noah Sobe [00:05:59] The report is titled Re-imagining Our Futures Together A New Social Contract for Education. And in there, the most important word is probably together. But let me first say that I had the privilege of being involved in a once a generation visioning and foresight exercise that UNESCO's undertaken basically to reflect on the state of the world, the state of education, and what should be done. The first of these was the 1972 four Commission report Learning to Be, which you could argue helped to put lifelong learning on the global education agenda. The second was chaired by Jacques Taylor and led to the 1996 report Learning the Treasure Within, which came out at a time when there were strong arguments in international development to focus on education, to build human capital. And I think the Deltour report was an important reminder that we also need education to serve a rich set of objectives. One of the most important of which is helping us learn to live together. Helping on the third iteration of these hugely significant reports was a pretty daunting task for all of us. And I think one thing that's important is that the report takes a very proactive approach to the features of education. You know, a key idea in it is that education cannot only react to a changing world, but needs to be a key force in shaping a changing world. We did extensive expert and public consultations, and overall about a million people shared their hopes, fears and ideas and all this fed into the work of theSahle Work-Zewde Commission. And one of the repeated messages that we got is that too many people, things feel out of balance. So one of the major calls in the report is to rebalance our relationships, our relationships with each other, also to rebalance our relationships with the natural world, the living planet Earth of which we are a part and our relationships with technology. And I think the overarching message of the report is that we need to build better individual and collective capacity to work together, to work together better, to build the kinds of futures that we want.

Annelise Riles [00:08:04] So when you talk about needing to work together better, what do you see as some of the major challenges.

Noah Sobe [00:08:13] Whether we're talking about the environment or even security issues, energy issues, food issues, these are problems that certainly cannot be solved by any one individual or group of people, but they need to be collectively and collaboratively tackled. So I think building that capacity, which is strong in some places and weak in others, is the major challenge in front of us.

Annelise Riles [00:08:36] The report talks about a new social contract for education. What does that mean exactly?

Noah Sobe [00:08:42] This call for a new social contract is something that we do see cropping up in a number of places. The UN secretary general has used this idea in his Our Common Agenda, the World Economic Forum, Davos has also used it. And I think what's happening is that a lot of people are tapping into that broadly held sense that I mentioned earlier, that that we are at a historical juncture as a as a planet where we need to rebalance things. And part of that is reexamining how we set up and distribute opportunity in our societies. So for the Sahle Work-Zewde Commission, their proposal to build a new social contract is actually less a transactional proposal and more a use of the social contract metaphor to call for something that's that's relational.

Annelise Riles [00:09:26] I want to go back to something you were talking about just a few minutes ago. You were explaining about how decisions get made at units, go by consensus and bringing together this magnificent collection of viewpoints, over a million people to a point at which the group can move forward in some meaningful way and yet do so unanimously. I'm just wondering, as you reflect on this now and the report is finished, how you think yourself about multilateral institutions and their role in a space like education. What is their role? What can they do? What can they not do?

Noah Sobe [00:10:07] The power of UNESCO, like many similar organizations, is in its convening power. It's absolutely extraordinary the ways in which UNESCO's able to bring people together to connect civil society with government. It plays a major role and we know we saw that in our own work, both in the development of this report and in what's happened subsequently. One of the major initiatives underway right now, actually just completed in New York. I don't know if you followed the Transforming Education Summit that the Secretary-General convened for us. It was really a really wonderful opportunity to continue the futures of education, work around a multistakeholder conversation that again was convened by the secretary general, but was across the U.N. cross-agency endeavor. We hosted a pre-summit in Paris at the end of July, and then, as I mentioned, that just concluded in New York. The power is to bring people together, which is exactly what the report calls for, you know, reimagining our futures together.

Annelise Riles [00:11:03] Can you tell us a little bit about how you bring this stuff home? You and I met at an event here in Chicago where you were talking about the relevance of this report for the issues facing our community right here locally. How do you think this report is going to impact education, say, here in Chicago?

Noah Sobe [00:11:23] Chicago is honestly very similar to the situation in many places around the world, which is that our current ways of organizing education, what you might call, you know, our current social contract in education is not serving us as well as it needs to. And I think one of the principal problems is that we focus too much on on producing individual accomplishment and not enough on enhancing our ability to work together. Our current educational approaches, certainly in the United States, but in many places globally, are built on selection, on the fare, recognition of merit and its development. Meritocracy invites us to be very interested in leadership and in expertise, and I think these two things remain absolutely essential leadership and expertise. But we now live in a world, and when we envision the possible worlds ahead, it's clear that we need leadership and expertise to be much more broadly distributed. So the challenge for Chicago and it's the challenge for the world is to make sure that schools are not places of competition for scarce resources. They need to be places of shared abundance. You know, we need to treat knowledge and learning as global common goods because they really are inexhaustible resources. And in fact, the more knowledge that's shared, the more valuable anyone's knowledge becomes. And I can go into detail, I think, in how this plays out in some of the key dimensions of education. So, for example, when you think about pedagogy, you know, the way we set up the relationships between learners, teachers, knowledge, the world. There is in in many places and parts of Chicago for sure, a focus on teacher driven lessons, despite the fact that we're bring groups of learners together in the same spaces. Our our efforts are largely directed at individual accomplishment. So the report proposes that in a new social contract for education, pedagogy should be organized around cooperation, collaboration and solidarity when it comes to curricula. In many places, curricula are basically bureaucratically organized as a grid of social school subjects, and the call in this UNESCO report is to shift to an emphasis on ecological, intercultural, interdisciplinary learning. And if you think about it for a second, you know, what draws those three different things together is that they invite us to focus more on connections than on categories. And surely that's a key step for moving forward when we think about teaching in many places. Teaching is considered an individual practice, something that occurs behind a closed classroom door. Instead, we really need to sort of shift the organization of education so that teaching is seen as a collaborative endeavor, that our professionalization efforts focus on that, where we're supporting the autonomy and freedom of teachers, and they also become valued participants in public debates. Schools became global institutions across the 20th century. You know, with that, some universal models, both in terms of architectural and procedural norms, were imposed at the same time as we need to change the schools, we also need to safeguard them because schools are also under threat. So that's an important line to walk. And just the final point I would make is that the existing ways we organize education, we tend to relegate it to a specific set of institutions and a specific set of ages. And I think we all need to start thinking much more broadly about the wider learning ecosystems, you know, so that we assure that in addition to schools and other training, education institutions, we think about welcoming and expanding learning opportunities in all social, cultural and professional spaces.

Annelise Riles [00:14:56] Wow. You're talking about something really quite different, I think, than, as you say, than the way we think about education, at least in this country. And I'm wondering, the report uses language of human rights and talks about the human rights of learners. What are some of the consequences for our children if we don't take the route that you describe and thinking? In the United States? We're facing such an epidemic of mental health issues now in our schools with kids who are so driven by these standards of evaluation and selection. That you've been talking about in the individuation of excellence. Are there other kinds of issues that you see in other countries, or is this really a global challenge or what are the consequences of a current system that make this a human rights issue as well as an issue of sustainability?

Noah Sobe [00:15:45] What you're describing is, unfortunately common. And clearly, one of the things that we need to do and my my hope is that the UNESCO's work moves us in this direction, is put issues like wellbeing. You mentioned the mental health crisis. We need to put wellbeing in the forefront. Learning without attending to well-being is not going to be meaningful learning. The two need to go hand in hand. You know, that clearly gets back to how we think about education as a human right. It's not just access to knowledge, but it's becoming acquainted and able to use knowledge. And I would add to that also an ability to create knowledge and to many of our education systems around the world merely focus on receiving and repeating and moving to that. Creating and contributing aspect, I think actually means that we'd be delivering on much more genuinely, authentically and certainly effectively on the idea of education as as a human right.

Annelise Riles [00:16:41] Well, you've certainly been creating and transforming knowledge yourself in this work. I think one of the things that's so inspiring about, you know, is that you've taken this tremendous academic learning that you have and found a way to move it into a space of international institutions and to have this impact globally. And it's just such a model for us of what the university can contribute at this moment. And I'm just wonder if you have any advice for other scholars or students who may be listening to this, thinking, I would love to contribute outside of the traditional academic space. How do I go about doing that, or where are places where I could think about making a contribution? What have you learned from this work for others that you might want to share?

Noah Sobe [00:17:26] I think it's valuable for everyone on on all sides for for people to have these experiences of moving between institutions and trying to bridge. So the first thing that struck me in ASCO was actually the the intense reliance on academic knowledge production. Sometimes people can publish things and it's sort of like sending something out into the void and you don't know where it's going to land. But I have plenty examples of studies and literature reviews that people were conducting in ASCO that were they were using knowledge produced in the academy. So that's that's an important thing, not to forget specifically if you're a student, an undergraduate or graduate student, there's a lot of opportunities to intern with U.N. agencies and other international organizations. And I think that's a great way to to make contacts and connections that can lead to many years of of fruitful exchange. There's also a lot of consulting opportunities for people to bring their expertize in. I would also say that organizations like UNESCO's the UNESCO does this reasonably well, but maybe not all U.N. agencies do it as well. I think, you know, we need some movement from that side as well. Some reaching out to academia, more involvement in academic research conferences and so forth would be really valuable. Just a small example. I was not aware, as aware as I wished I'd been of the amazing work UNESCO's done on on protecting indigenous languages and using indigenous languages in instruction. And it's sort of a loss for everyone when we're not making those connections.

Annelise Riles [00:18:55] I really want to congratulate you and your 1 million co-creators and for this incredible work. We'll put the full report in the show notes. I hope everyone will download it and read it because there's a lot in there. Noah I just want to end by asking you the question that I ask all my guests, which is, as you think about the near future, what keeps you up at night? What are you most worried about and what are you most hopeful for?

Noah Sobe [00:19:22] Like many of us, I do worry about some of the nightmare futuristic scenarios that some imagine as ahead of us that Hollywood certainly gives us today. We're surrounded by so many dystopian futures, and they're useful to an extent because they remind us about what we don't want and maybe offer some suggestions for how to get there. So one of my worries is that actually we're going to get incapacitated by our dystopian futures, our pessimism, and that we're going to lose sight both the possibility and the necessity actually, of imagining more positive futures and doing some of that, let's say utopian, visiting together. What is it? What is the world that we want? Having seen the ways that that did become possible, that windows for that kind of thinking opened up in an organization like in UNESCO makes me really hopeful for the future.

Annelise Riles [00:20:13] Thank you so much, Noah. It's great to have you with us.

Noah Sobe [00:20:15] Thanks very much, Anneliese.

Annelise Riles [00:20:20] For more information on this episode and on the Northwestern Buffett Institute for Global Affairs, visit us at