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Fred van Leeuwen: The universal goals of learning | Pt. 2

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Fred van Leeuwen Fred van Leeuwen JIS Photo
The following is Part II of a three-part edited version of a presentation by General Secretary of Education International Mr Fred van Leeuwen, who was the keynote speaker at the Jamaica Teachers’ Association Education Conference held in Montego Bay, April 18-20, 2017.

In 1966 UNESCO presented a ground breaking report by Jacques Delors, a former president of the European Commission, a report many of you are familiar with – entitled “Learning: The Treasure Within”. This report, written by Jacques Delors, threw the spotlight on the future of education in the 21st century. It still is considered just as important today as it was 21 years ago.

The report is built upon four pillars, it distinguishes four goals of learning: Learning to Know; Learning to Do; Learning to Be; and Learning to Live Together. These four pillars were designed as the basis for successful learning in what the report referred to as ‘a rapidly changing world.’ Well, we are living that world today. But when I look at these four pillars, I am afraid that we are falling far short on two of them.

For all that education teaches us to know and how to do – the practical skills that help us navigate life - it also holds the immense importance of passing along the values on which our cultures and societies are based. And I am afraid that when I look at the current situation in the world and when I look at rising extremism, at the suffering of the people of Syria, Iraq , Yemen, Somalia, Eritrea, at the many millions of forcibly displaced persons, at the suppression of democratic freedoms, at the growing inequity across the world, it appears to me that two of those four pillars, Learning to Be, and Learning to Live Together, which help establish identity, tolerance and cohesiveness, need some serious maintenance.

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Anyway, we run the risk of all four pillars, which stand for a holistic and life-long learning approach to education, crumble and be declared a UNESCO’s world heritage site, when the teaching profession, which is to bring Delors’ concept to life, will continue losing its strength, losing its attractiveness and losing confidence.

The ILO/UNESCO recommendation on the status of teachers which is a set of international standards for the teaching profession, adopted by the international community in 1966 when the world’s population was half of what it is today, and we were still three years away from stepping foot on the moon. Although written in a bygone era its foundation remains true to this day. If you do not know the recommendation, you should download it from UNESCO's website.

The recommendation is far more than the text printed on the page. Greater than the sum of its parts. It first of all affirms the transformational role that teachers play in the lives of children, their families and in their communities.

Last year I visited a school in Berlin that opened their doors to refugee children. Children, in spite of the trauma from all that they had been through, were given a taste of a better future and a little bit of hope. I asked the principal: "How many refugee students do you have?” She said: “I do not know. We don’t count them.” This response, I think, may be the essence, if not the very soul, of the teaching profession. The desire to build equity - in the classroom, in the school, and yes, in society at large.

Being a teacher is about moral purpose; about a commitment to making a positive difference in young people’s lives. And that commitment is on full display every day around the world.

It is about helping to ensure that young people are able to support themselves, to contribute to society as a whole, whether as employees, entrepreneurs, professionals, artists, yes even politicians. The transfer of basic and advanced knowledge and skills is at the core of our mission. And there is another, perhaps even more essential task: Imparting shared values, human rights values, democratic values.

Franklin D. Roosevelt said “Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education.”

Some wonder whether today’s education and the teaching profession are still Roosevelt’s safeguard of democracy, or are we gradually becoming the safeguard of markets, shaping future consumers, rather than citizens of the future; active and critical citizens able to assert ones’ own rights while respecting the rights of others.

Not so long ago I received an email message. “Are you the Mr. Van Leeuwen who was my teacher in the sixth grade in 1976? I have tried to find you for many years”. I confirmed my identity. Then I received a long message informing me of what had happened since he had left my class. That note brought back memories of a small, ten-year-old white South African boy, Jacques, who had moved to the Netherlands with his parents. His father was a visiting professor at the university. One day, students stormed into the classroom after gym class pushing a sobbing Jacques towards my desk. They told me that the coach had said that he came from an “evil country”. Anger about the coach’s insensitivity prompted me to spend the rest of the morning talking about apartheid and that children could not be held responsible for it. “On that morning my life changed,” Jacques writes me 30 years later. “I decided that apartheid should be opposed.”

Jacques completed his secondary education in a whites-only system that he resented. At university, he was elected to the leadership of the South African white student union which became an unexpected source of opposition to the minority regime of (former president Frederik Willem) De Klerk contributing to the release of Nelson Mandela, the end of apartheid and the creation of a multi-racial democracy.

Two years ago at a UN meeting in NY, I received a text message: "Look behind the South African Education Minister". I looked and saw Jacques waving and laughing. Today, he leads South Africa’s national people’s integration programme.

This story is not about me or my student, Jacques. Many of my colleagues are able to share these kind of experiences. It is about the professional space, and autonomy teachers need to motivate, enlighten and inspire their students.

Although the recommendation is promising us all of that, too often teachers are boxed into situations that reduce them to content delivery agents and test score attendants rather than educators. What is too commonly referred to as ‘personalised learning’ is often no more than scripted learning. Not personal at all. And, the “whole child” is, in effect, sliced into pieces. De-professionalization of teaching and the decline of terms and employment conditions are among the most important challenges confronting our profession.

To be continued...

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