Rethinking the social contract

Neerja Singh

As we move towards 2030, we must prepare ourselves to answer new questions that will be running ahead of us.

What will be the nature and state of the world our students will live in? Are we readying them for the jobs and skills they will need to not just survive but thrive in that new world? Do we understand the degree of the knowledge gap that a forward-looking education system will be expected to bridge? How can students and educators team up for the future?

When the pandemic upstaged us by proving our fragility, it also framed our essential connectedness. The looming threat forced us to begin to reimagine our future with collaboration at its centre. And the push came from UNESCO’s report titled Reimaging our futures together: a new social contract for Education*. The report proposed that – education could be viewed as a social contract in which there is an implicit agreement among members of a community, particularly the educators and their students. It was argued that given the power of education to bring about profound change, a new social contract for education could repair all the past injustices while transforming the future.

This new social contract presented education as a public endeavour and a common good. However, the visions, principles, and proposals were put forth as just a starting point of a vital conversation. Born of a global consultation involving more than one million people, the new social contract for education was envisaged to help build a peaceful, just, and sustainable future for all.

COVID has fundamentally and undoubtedly changed our educational experiences and notions of leadership. The new social contract in education tweaked the relationships between teachers, students, and knowledge, for instance. And one of the most succinct definitions of this new educator-student role came from Professor Yong Zhao of the School of Education at the University of Kansas and Dr Jim Watterston of the Melbourne Graduate School of Education in Australia. They said: “Teachers no longer need to serve as the instructor, the sole commander of information to teach the students content and skills. Instead, the teacher serves other more important roles such as organizer of learning, curator of learning resources, counselor to students, community organizer, motivator and project managers of students’ learning.”

Zhao and Watterston also argued: “It is incumbent upon all educators to use this crisis-driven opportunity to push for significant shifts in almost every aspect of Education: what, how, where, who, and when. In other words, Education, from curriculum to pedagogy, from teacher to learner, from learning to assessment, and from location to time, can and should radically transform.”

UNESCO’s report clearly and firmly placed educators at the centre of education, but what about the roles and responsibilities of the student in the social contract? Would ‘student-centered learning’ continue to be a passive concept, or would there be a redefining of a student’s functional role in the same? How could an educator lead an educational change that encouraged and supported students in playing a pro-active role in learning? Did we even need the traditional classroom?

Adventurous, captivating, and flexible. These three words describe what education is expected to be in the future which is upon us. A paper$ co-authored by Zhao and Watterston identifies three major changes that should happen in education in the era of machine learning and AI integration.

The first emphasizes that content should highlight creativity, critical thinking, and entrepreneurship, rather than gathering and hoarding information. Humans cannot thrive by competing with machines, they need to be more human instead.

The second advocates greater control over their learning for the students. The teacher’s role will then shift from instructor to curator of learning resources, counsellor, and motivator. This is the spot where “active learning” would kick in, with a growing body of research suggesting that comprehension and memory are better when students learn in a hands-on way – through discussion and interactive technologies.

The third proposal insists that learning should change – “from the classroom to the world”. With digital tools, it is no longer necessary for students to learn at the same time as each other. Imagine blended learning or a mix of online and face-to-face learning, also called the flipped classroom, where students read or watch lectures in their own time and solve problems in the presence of their teacher and peers.

The time has come perhaps for the decoupling of learning time and school time. And those involved are adjusting as students speed up their lectures, or lecturers begin dividing up their presentations into 5-10 minute video segments. This could be the start of the end of the 45 minutes period or the 50 minute lecture.

But what about those who don’t have the luxury of digital tools yet? The digital divide is not a new problem nor has it put a brake on change, “because the digital world moves faster in providing access than the physical one”.

As a matter of fact, the only way United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal 4, which is to provide quality education for all by 2030, will be realized is if teachers in disadvantaged areas receive tools and materials digitally – perhaps via massive open online courses – and then pass them on to their students in the traditional way.

So, there you have it. If even the digital divide won’t hold back the coming revolution, it seems unlikely that the classroom will ever look the same again.


$The changes we need: Education post COVID-19 February 2021

The author is a former teacher/journalist, published author and professional speaker on generational diversity with a background and training in media, having worked in advertising, public relations, documentary film making, and feature journalism. She is a TEDx speaker and represents the Professional Speakers Association of India on the Global Speakers Federation Board. She can be reached at

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