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Secondary Education as a Bridge to Lifelong Learning

Armoogum Parsuramen

Division for the Renovation of Secondary and Vocational Education
UNESCO, France

Paper Presented at the European Conference on Educational Research, Lahti, Finland 22 - 25 September 1999


Education is society’s means of communicating and holding what is felt to be of particular value. It is also the means of preparing for the new, the unexpected, the unintended, the unpredictable. In that vision, the educated person is not the one who has achieved a particular standard but rather the person who is committed to learning as a part of life. Three initiatives are under consideration in UNESCO. It has undertaken, first, a Review of Secondary Education recommended by the Delors Report and further commended by the Asia-Pacific Conference on Education for the Twenty-First Century in Melbourne. It will be a co-operative endeavour involving the major international agencies concerned with education, including UNDP, UNICEF, the World Bank and OECD. The review will be a substantial endeavour through revisiting of the purposes of education for the secondary-education age-group, in the light of both global trends and local cultures. The Review, while centred in UNESCO, will need to draw on the best information and research available. A second initiative involves case studies of reform in various countries and institutions intended to provide information on innovations, with their reasons for success and failure. UNESCO, with its world-wide contacts is in a unique position to supply information and provide opportunities for connections and visits between centres with mutual interests. A third initiative will be the gathering together of research relevant to the area and to the process of reform. In this task UNESCO will again be greatly assisted through co-operation with the major international bodies which have parallel interests and have built up their own knowledge and networks. Other globally fundamental issues of reforms are related to the curriculum, world citizenship, teachers, teaching and learning, teaching and technology, and changes in teaching and learning. These and other patterns for school improvement have persuasive arguments to back them but they lack a strong research validation.

The Division for the Renovation of Secondary and Vocational Education in UNESCO focuses on secondary education and particularly on the reform of secondary education. It is a special pleasure to address this topic together with your group in Lahti, whose concerns are similar but who approach it from the viewpoint of researchers seeking to understand where we are as a basis for deciding where to go next.

The Changing Society

Some changes in education come from internal considerations, for example from seeking further efficiency. The changes which dominate our attention now come from external considerations. As the world changes, we are faced with new demands at work, new technological possibilities, new challenges for living together harmoniously, new issues as people seek to make personal choices for their lives.

For those involved in research, as well as for those involved in the sharp realities of reform, an understanding of the complexities of our society is necessary. So, too, is a feeling for the world we are trying to create.

The UNESCO Constitution was proclaimed in 1945 just a few months after the end of a world war, as nations combined to seek better ways to shape their future. Beginning with the declaration that "it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed", the Constitution defines the purpose of the Organisation as encouraging peace and security by promoting collaboration among the nations through education, science and culture in order to further universal respect for justice, for the rule of law and for the human rights and fundamental freedoms which are affirmed for the peoples of the world without distinction of race, sex, language or religion (UNESCO, 1945).

This UNESCO commitment to peace and security has remained unchanged ever since. However, in another sense the Constitution demands from the Organisation a willingness to engage in continual re-thinking as the world scene develops entirely new challenges, opportunities and problems. The changes in the past decade have foregrounded the continuing relevance of the UNESCO Constitution and of the Declaration of Human Rights. It is impossible to fulfil the Constitution or to make the Declaration a reality without making an effective education available to all. The Declaration proclaimed that "everyone has a right to education" and that education is to be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms (UN, 1950, Article 26).

Such education, to be effective, requires a reformed and revitalised secondary education. As the title of this talk indicates, secondary education acts as a bridge; a bridge to work, to further education, to social participation, to personal autonomy. All these needs imply the necessity of lifelong learning as the builder of capacity for an effective role in our society.

The changes in modern society which are particularly relevant for education have brought with them much uneasiness. This is a deep uneasiness, as old certainties are clouded and new ones do not yet appear. The loss of old certainties is as threatening as the developing uncertainties. That feeling of uncompleted change is still with us. The Czech playwright and current President, Vaclav Havel, expressed this well.

Today, many things suggest we are going through a transitional period when it seems that something is on the way out and something else is painfully being born. It is as if something were crumbling, decaying and exhausting itself, while something else, still indistinct, were arising from the rubble.

He linked this feeling with a new achievement of technology.

This is the first civilisation in the history of the human race that spans the entire globe and firmly binds together all human societies, submitting them to a common global destiny. It was this science that enabled man, for the first time, to see Earth from space with his own eyes, that is, to see it as another star in the sky. (Havel, 1994)

His comments are significant. Not only are we the first human generation to see ourselves from outside. This is merely a symbol that we have become a global society: many people of different backgrounds and interests but subject to "a common global destiny."

The links he makes are significant. It is social change which brings out the sense of uneasiness, the desire for a more stable and certain world. Havel is saying that this social change is secondary, that the dynamic for change is technological. As we examine the changing aspects of our society we can see that this is true, that we are part of a major current in history.

Consider three examples, population change, occupational change and technological development. The world population was a mere 10 million in 5000 BC, rising to 1 billion by 1750, after almost 7,000 years. In the next 200 years, the population rose to 2 billion and in the next 50 years, up to our own time, the numbers trebled, to the current 6 billion. It is the acceleration of this change that is striking.

People’s work patterns have shown the same accelerated change. For a long period, more than 50,000 years, humanity was a small, scattered society of hunter-gatherers. The essential occupations were hunting, tool-making, food-gathering, creating shelter and personal care. Work and training for work were indivisible, both carried out in small groups, developing a specific and stable set of skills. Most people were prepared for all aspects of work, generalists rather than specialists. Work was the requirement for survival and thus was highly meaningful.

For the next period of about 7,000 years, given the technological capacity to produce crops, agriculture was the dominant occupation. As with hunting, work was still generalist in character, but more diverse and requiring more skills and longer training. Work was still directly meaningful, determining plenty or scarcity and, while centred on the home, could involve many sites. Whole families were involved in work and were the locus of training. Other dependent occupations began to arise, trading, transport, banking, clerical work, defence and security, arts and crafts. For some of these, specialised training was involved. The 200 years from 1750 have been described as the Industrial Revolution because of the heightened pace of change, caused almost entirely by human inventiveness. The development of transport and mass production of goods were both the symptoms and causes of this revolution. The tasks of the assembly-line worker were routine, repetitive and specialised, usually with each worker performing one small task and not seeing the final product. The looked-for result was a pay packet rather than food or directly useful products. The inventiveness of a few people led to reduced opportunities for creativity and learning for the many. Mass production led to massive urbanisation. Education and training also became mass exercises, based for the first time on universal primary education, delivered in a factory-like setting. The occupational pattern of the pyramid of unskilled, skilled and managerial work was paralleled by the pyramidal pattern of primary education for all, secondary education for a selected few and higher education for an elite.

The "second industrial revolution" or "human resources revolution" (Kravetz, 1990) has been much more rapid, lasting less than 50 years. Technology is again the key to change, with information technology dramatically increasing productivity so that jobs were lost in heavy industry and gained in service and information industries. That pace of occupational change continues.

The same acceleration is obvious as we look at the way in which new ideas become practical realities. For the camera, there were 112 years between the idea and its implementation. For the radio, that gap shrunk to 56 years. For nuclear fission, 6 years elapsed between the scientific paper and the Hiroshima bomb. For the micro-chip that period was only 6 months. This increased rapidity of application has particular implications for education.

It is not too dramatic to call this a revolution. But here the revolutionaries are not warriors or politicians but technologists. The results of their imagination are changing our world. And they are changing it in unpredictable ways. The technologists cannot predict beforehand what the outcomes of their work will be. The following quotes from specialists in particular fields show the difficulty. This failure to see ahead concerns the technological aspects, the side of things most open to prediction by the technologists.

This ‘telephone’ has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us. (Western Union, Internal Memo, 1887).

I think there is a world market for maybe five computers (Thomas Watson, Chairman of IBM, 1943).

There is no reason for any individuals to have a computer in their home (Ken Olsen, President & Chairman of Digital Equipment Corp, 1977).

In terms of the social implications, it is the unintended consequences that are most striking. If we think of the car or television, they have transformed society in ways quite different from their developers’ intentions. In some regards, the consequences of change are even more disturbing. There are events where unthinkable results have followed from the wrong use of technology: the gas oven at Auschwitz, the rapid-fire guns for "ethnic cleansing" in Bosnia or motiveless murders in US high schools.

This is the nature of the revolution with which education must help us to deal. It has delivered enormous powers - for good or ill. The choices are multiplied: in number and in impact. But they still remain our choices. Is this something where education can play a part? In which ways does this global revolution alter the agenda of education: In its scope? In its purposes? In its process?

The Knowledge Society

There are many things we cannot say with confidence about our future society. Yet a reflective observation of the past and the present does give us important indications. A major part of current change is its impact on the nature of work. Figure 1 indicates some of the likely characteristics of what is known as post-industrial society.

Post-industrial society involves:


a new global economic order;

the decline of the manufacturing sector, and growth in the service sector, especially in informa- tion services;

a continuing decrease in the availability of employment, leading to:

a pool of the unemployed; OR

some redistribution of employment;


a rapid change in technology, requiring:

a continual updating of knowledge; AND

a continual renewal of social institutions.

Figure 1. Post-Industrial Society.

In this post-industrial society, as Drucker has pointed out, knowledge plays a key role.

The acquisition and distribution of formal knowledge will come to occupy the place in the politics of the knowledge society that the acquisition and distribution of property and income have occupied in the age of capitalism (Drucker, 1995).

A society in which knowledge is the major resource is very different from the past societies, where money or material products were the valued items. Knowledge is to some extent a storable resource; on paper, on tape, on film, or on disc. In its most precious form, it resides in human minds: as memories, as impressions, as information, as concepts, as understandings, as capacities. In this form, it is not transferable without the consent of its possessor. It is precious but difficult to contain. It cannot be put in a bank, or a safe or a filing system. Access to such knowledge depends on the willing assent of the person.

It is also likely to be limited. Knowledge is increasingly specialised. The omnipotent surgeon is omnipotent no longer: the surgeon needs the physician, the anaesthetist, the pathologist, the theatre nurse, the ward nurse, the machine operators, the lab technicians, the therapists - these and others compose the team on which the surgeon’s specialised skills depend. The universal knowledge of a Leonardo da Vinci was rare in his own times - it is now much more so. As in surgery so in teaching, where the application of knowledge involves the linking together of specialised knowledge bases in a planned manner, through teams specially devoted to the purpose. Any large-scale application of knowledge involves the work of many teams, in a school as much as in a hospital. The knowledge society thus has a greater need of organisation, the planned co-ordination of teams. The manner in which this is done is of crucial importance. This is where we come to the nature of education. Are there particular implications for organisations and processes which have as their core business the promotion of learning?

Now, in Finland and elsewhere, those communities of need are no longer geographic. They must be created. Our global society with its world-wide connections is also looking to establish supportive local environments, with enough meaningful consensus to provide harmony as well as sustenance. In the past we lived in mostly self-sufficient communities. They were communities which could provide the essentials of food, shelter and protection: communities of need. We are seeing in Rwanda, in Bosnia, in Serbia and elsewhere extreme examples of this search, as groups form together on the basis of ethnic background, not only to support one another but to exclude others. Negative as these particular forms of community may be, they represent a need which is more general, as pointed out by Robert Reich:

We are living through a transformation that will rearrange the politics and economics of the coming century. There will be no national products or technologies, no national corporations, no national industries. There will be no national economies, at least as we have come to understand that concept. All that will remain rooted within national borders are the people who comprise a nation. Each nation’s primary assets will be its citizens’ skills and insights. Each nation’s primary task will be to cope with the centrifugal forces of the global economy which tear at the ties binding citizens together - bestowing ever greater wealth on the most skilled and insightful, while consigning the less skilled to a declining standard of living. (Reich, 1992)

Reich sees the global society, not merely as neutral to the sense of community, but as actively disrupting that sense. We can see that tension between nations, in the so-called North-South or First World-Third World divide, the gap that exists between the developed and the less developed countries. Within countries, the tension still exists as technological progress, with all its benefits, affects different groups very unequally.

In this situation, globally, nationally and locally, we seek an education which can help build the consensus of which Reich speaks, in other words an education that can create community. But - a special sort of community. A community which supports and enhances its members, providing both care and challenge, but without engendering hostility to others.

Education as a Bridge Builder

Education is society’s means of communicating and holding to what is felt to be of particular value. It is also the means of preparing for the new, the unexpected, the unintended, the unpredictable. For those purposes, the central focus of schools is on learning. Our new society has created a new vision of education, not as a stage to complete but as a process to continue. In that vision, the educated person is not one who has achieved a particular standard but rather one who is committed to learning as a part of life.

A good education is one which embodies those concepts and builds a community to enhance them. Recent research shows the benefits of such an approach. (MacMullen, 1996) It identifies two key aspects of improved learning. One is the necessity for an unremitting emphasis on learning as being the central task of schools, a task to which all other characteristics are directed. The other is the need for the development of a sense of community, as the background against which such learning occurs. That concept requires shared values, an agreed common agenda and an ethos of caring.

The issue of education as a means of individual and of peaceful social development is taken so seriously that it is an issue for international agencies, such as UNESCO. Given the global nature of the issues facing education there is a strong case for national systems and international agencies to co-operate in such an endeavour. Three initiatives are under consideration.

A World-Wide Review

UNESCO has undertaken a Review of Secondary Education recommended by the Delors Report and further commended by the Asia-Pacific Conference on Education for the Twenty-First Century in Melbourne. It will be a co-operative endeavour involving the major international agencies concerned with education, including UNDP, UNICEF, the World Bank and OECD. Thus the review will be a substantial endeavour, based on careful study and wide discussion as it has the potential to make a global contribution to policy and practice in secondary education. This does not mean a monolithic pattern but a thorough revisiting of the purposes of education for this age group, in the light of both global trends and local cultures.

The Review, while centred on UNESCO, will need to draw on the best information and research available. A suitable start will be to assemble the necessary information to guide the extensive discussions which will be required while still leaving key decisions to the individual countries.

Case Studies of Reform

A second initiative involves case studies of reform in various countries and institutions intended to provide information on various innovations, with their reasons for success and failure. Given that we can rarely take a pattern directly from one setting to another, we can learn greatly from detailed studies of what is happening and how and why the results emerge as they do. UNESCO, with its world-wide contacts, is in a unique position to supply information and provide opportunities for connections and visits between centres with mutual interests. From the reports made to UNESCO a variety of examples can be drawn. In Asia, there is already a reservoir of experience which can be drawn upon. Countries such as China, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and the Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong all offer examples whose study would be illuminating. There is much discussion as to what factors are universal in application and which are culturally bound. Without genuine exchange, such views are untested and of limited value.

Research on Reform

A third initiative will be the gathering together of research relevant to the field and to the process of reform. Such sources include bodies such as ACEID, the Asia-Pacific Centre of Educational Innovation for Development, a network of 200 major institutions in 60 countries throughout the region and one which can harness substantial resources. In this task UNESCO will again be greatly assisted through co-operation with the major international bodies which have parallel interests and have built up their own knowledge bases and networks. Taken together, even in terms only of what already exists, these constitute an enormous resource. Given what continued effort can provide and the power of information technology to make interconnections, this resource will be even further enhanced. Research and the exchange of information on experiences has never been more important. There are many patterns of change being adopted in the search for reform. These include such concepts as:

decentralisation of decision-making;

community participation in the operation and/or policy of schools;

re-engineering, that is, reconsidering the whole process of schooling;

the implications of different organisational patterns;

the learning characteristics of groups of different sizes and compositions;

implications of school size;

the effects of different patterns of school-community interaction;

the evaluation-curriculum interaction; and

school quality.

These and other patterns for school improvement have persuasive arguments to back them but lack a strong research validation.

Other Initiatives

In addition to what might be done through collaboration internationally, there are fundamental issues of concern to us all.

The Curriculum

One of them will be the effort, in every nation, to develop a secondary education curriculum which meets both social and personal needs.

Michael Barber comments on this need:

.... perhaps for the first time in educational history, it is possible to arrive at a curriculum that satisfies this dual need magnificently. The economy and democratic society demand increasing levels of educational achievement from everyone, while the multiple threats to the continued existence of the planet give that drive the ultimate justification. The agenda for education, therefore, could hardly be more motivating. Meanwhile, information technology will provide new and exciting ways of teaching and learning. Moreover, we have, at last, a theoretical understanding of children and young people that will assist teachers in their task. (Barber, 1996)

As mentioned above, to do this task effectively requires a more active approach, a more explicitly values-oriented approach than schools have customarily used. The concept of a learning community offers quite new opportunities. Two separate trends are of value here and seem to offer a promise of synergy, given sufficient creativity and good will. One trend is the wish of young people to be involved in constructive and worthwhile activities, such as environmental conservation or service to others. There is a strong, idealistic approach by many young people to many public issues such as the environment, help to the deprived, service to the community. The second trend is the interest of many countries, as mentioned, in developing citizenship as a means of improving the harmony and coherence of their societies. Citizenship that contributes to such purposes involves much more than teaching about history or institutions or respect for others, although these aspects are helpful. It involves creating a culture of commitment to the community, of service and helpfulness. Young people could, in the same set of activities, carry out useful tasks of value to the environment or of service to the elderly or infirm, gain valuable experience and knowledge and contribute personally to the development of a community culture.

World Citizenship

The concept of world citizenship is a vital aspect of the growing interest in citizenship as a concept with which to build healthy societies. It is now impractical in the extreme to think that peaceful societies can be built in isolation. The relationship with others is as important beyond national borders as it is within them. A vital interest of UNESCO as of the whole UN system is the promotion of peace and the development of harmonious and constructive international relations. These are purposes to which young people can be deeply committed and for which valuable networks can be constructed. It will be important for the success of this work that existing organisations and institutions are fully involved.

Teachers, Teaching and Learning

There is no more important area for attention than the people who will be the major means through which any reform will be delivered. Yet the setting in which teachers and students work and the patterns for that work have not changed fundamentally since the introduction of mass schooling with its adoption of an assembly-line approach to the organisation of schools. That industrial model has never been appropriate for schools and is now no longer felt to be so even for industry, whose patterns of operation and organisation have changed fundamentally with the use of technology. Technology is not the main reason for changes in schools, but it can provide significant help to approaches which are based on the need for more effective learning and which are prepared to adopt quite new patterns of organisation

Many countries are considering the formation of a Teachers’ Council to initiate and supervise the concept of professionalism. Given the key rôle that teachers play in the reform process, they require strong support for the task. The wider recognition of standards of capability and of ethics could enhance both the quality and the status of teachers. When so many people presently teaching are inadequately prepared for the task, even by current accepted standards, it may seem reckless to embark on a course which will involve a more exacting preparation and a more coherent continuing education. An improvement of the status of teachers, however, is a necessary accompaniment to the achievement of better education. Pre-service and continuing professional development provisions are central to this achievement.

Teaching and Technology

Considerable hope is invested in the concept that technology will open up new horizons of opportunity: in reaching the distant or isolated; in making links between specialists and learners; in providing unequalled access to information; in producing a whole new range of learning media and opportunities. Technology can deliver possibilities; however, personal interaction is required to realise those possibilities. At the moment the introduction of technology into schools is very uneven, threatening further the opportunities of the disadvantaged, between nations and within nations. The process also usually concentrates on the hardware policies, neglecting the necessary involvement and preparation of teachers.

Changes in Teaching and Learning

The new technology and the availability of more information means an extra, rather than a diminished, demand for high-quality teaching. Further, new approaches to the concept of intelligence open up new ways of learning and pose new challenges to teaching. Of all the world resources available for the future, the largest untapped area is in human abilities. Neurological studies confirm that, in all people, most of the brain cells remain undeveloped. Other studies begin to offer hope that we may learn to recognise and develop a wider range of human abilities. H. Gardner, for example, has identified eight areas of human intelligence:

linguistic intelligence; logical-mathematical intelligence; spatial intelligence; musical intelligence; body-kinesthetic intelligence; interpersonal intelligence; intra-personal intelligence; and naturalistic intelligence ... In my view the purpose of school should be to develop intelligences and to help people reach vocational and avocational goals that are appropriate to their particular spectrum of intelligences. People who are helped to do so will, I believe, feel more engaged and competent, and are therefore more inclined to serve society in a constructive way. This view leads to the notion of an individual-centred school, one geared to optimal understanding and development of each student's cognitive profile. (H. Gardner, 1997)

Whether or not we accept Gardner's educational prescription, the concept of multiple abilities in each person awaiting development is educationally rich. Gardner's approach opens up quite new possibilities in teaching strategies as well as in the purposes of teaching. It is clear that future initiatives will have to recognise the value of developing a wider range of human capacities at a time when our need is so great for imaginative approaches to solving endemic problems.

Sometimes we find the challenge of fundamental reform too intense. The words of John Gardner are relevant here, speaking to the hope and resilience in each one of us.

I know that there is in each of you a flame that will not go out. I know that sometimes it burns low, that at times it is almost smothered by weariness and defeat - but I know it springs back to life. I know that each of you has more power to do good than you have ever used, more faithfulness than has ever been asked of you, more strength than has ever been tested, more to give than you have ever given. (J. Gardner, 1984)


Barber, M. (1996). The learning game. London: Gollancz.

Drucker, P. (1995). Managing in a time of great change. San Francisco: Hutchinson.

Gardner, H. (1997). Fostering diversity through personalised education. Prospects, Vol XXVII, No 3.

Gardner, J. (1984). Engagement of values in public life. Harvard Divinity Bulletin, October-November 1984.

Havel, V. (1994). Post-modernism: The search for universal laws. Liberty Medal Ceremony Speech, Philadelphia.

Kravetz, D.J. (1990). The human resources revolution. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

MacMullen, P. (1996). Taking stock: The impact of reform. Paper presented at the AERA Conference, New York.

United Nations. (1950). Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Final authorized text. New York: Author.

UNESCO. (1945). UNESCO Constitution.

Appendix 1

Percentage ratio of 6 – 14 year olds to the population aged 15-64









More developed regions




Transition countries




Less developed countries






Estimated illiterate population (millions ) aged 15 and over.






More developed regions and countries in transition




Less developed countries





Enrolments (millions) and gross enrolment ratios (GER) in primary education















More developed regions





Transition countries





Less developed regions






Enrolments (millions) and gross enrolment ratios (GER) in secondary education















More developed regions





Transition countries





Less developed countries





Enrolments (millions) and gross enrolment ratios (GER) in tertiary education















More developed regions





Transition countries





Less developed countries






Number of teachers (all levels) per thousand population in the age group 15-64







More developed regions



Transition countries



Less developed countries




World Education Report 1998, UNESCO pp 105 -108

This document was added to the Education-line database 24 September 1999