Conrad Hughes
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When I was a boy growing up in Apartheid South Africa, I went to an all-boys private Catholic school. I hated school with a passion. Every morning when my parents would drive me to assembly under the open African sky, I would start to become nervous because I had not completed my homework or was not ready for a test.

The teachers would hit us. It was called getting caned or jacked. This was in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In most countries, corporal punishment in schools was illegal, yet in South Africa we would get the cane.

One of my teachers was a small, dark-haired man. He had bright blue eyes that would bore into your soul when he spoke to you. He smelled of cigarette smoke mixed with musk and would work his way up and down the aisles of his Afrikaans lessons with an aura of power. His cane was called “Bliksim”, which in Afrikaans means lightening. When he caned us, he would spend time aiming the stick correctly and incisively across the buttocks and then bring Bliksim down with a clean whipping sound that cut through the crisp morning air of Johannesburg with a singular purpose. “Sheuuw” … “Whack”. The boys would tense up, fear darting all over their freckled faces, and then they would go back to their seats with tears invariably welling in their eyes. I was in deep fear of that teacher, and I remember more about him than anything we learned in school.

Whenever I was caned – and it happened a lot – the physical pain was not what stayed with me; it was the humiliation and the feeling that some terrible injustice was being done and that no one cared or would stop it. The billowing cumulonimbus clouds strewn across the Highveld horizon looked down at our corporal punishment in commiserative silence. The only ointment to address the pain and dry the tears was the dry heat of the copper rays of the sun.

My driving forces were, on the one side, my ongoing hatred of school, its teachers and the cane Bliksim, and on the other, the rhythm of life that came out of the pounding vinyl albums of Zulu rock. I would listen all weekend instead of doing my homework.

I’ll come back to Bliksim later.

I’m the headmaster of a school. Every day, when I look at a wayward student, a disciplinary case, when I need to reign in one of our students, I remember how I would get the cane at my own school, and I make sure that everything I do with our students keeps their confidence intact, protects their dignity, honours their souls and the development of their values.

Teachers can do damage to young children at school, and you don’t need a cane to do it. All it takes is to look at a young person with an expression that signifies judgement and disbelief. All it takes is to strip them of their confidence, tell them they will not succeed, that they are bad. Much damage can be done. It can happen unconsciously, the throwaway phrase or action, the unthoughtful gesture. We need to be careful of young children and adolescents the way we would bathe an infant or hold a newborn to our chest. A good teacher empathises with her students, a bad one treats them as registration numbers.

You have to love your children as parents, and you have to want the best for your students as teachers, because the meaning that they give to their lives and the way they will construct themselves comes directly from the picture you draw of them, the picture you draw on the sketchpad of their minds. It does not take a lot to damage a child’s self-esteem. A single statement or scornful look can sear the hippocampus – the part of the brain where we store the deepest memories – and remain there like a scar for life.

But the tricky part is that, as we all know, character is formed by adversity. We have to care for our children and care for our students, but we must not spoil them. To spoil a young person today will not prepare him or her for a world that is more complicated than it has ever been in human history. In fact, to spoil young people will prepare them for a life of depression and low performance. Since they will be competing with children who have gone through hell and high water to gain their place in the sun, our children need to be challenged. How do we round that square? What is the balance between an education that strengthens young people and equips them to take on the world and an education that crushes their confidence?

My job is one of the most complicated but also one of the most rewarding imaginable. Education is the most exciting professional area of the twenty-first century, not just because it is diverse, but also because you are dealing with the engine of the future: youth.

This is a book about education. However, it is not a book that can only be read and understood by specialists in education. This is for two reasons.

The first is that the research and references, the studies and the theory that substantiate what I say, I packed into endnotes. I did this so that you don’t have to read through long in-text citations and academic references to get the point. I go straight to the point. For the academically inclined, however, the endnotes are thorough. They back up what I say with evidence.

The second reason, more important than the first, is that everybody is, and should be, interested in education, not just teachers, heads of institutions and researchers in education. Your life is a long education, and the people you are in any way responsible for will seek some sort of education from you no matter who you are or what your job is. If they do not, or if you do not feel that you are an educator as a parent, supervisor, aunt or uncle, big sister or brother, then think again. It takes a village to raise a child. Education goes beyond school and university, and everybody should feel connected to education.

Before we dive into the heart of the matter, let’s stand back and ask ourselves some big questions about the purpose of education.

Big Questions

Where do we come from and where are we going?

What is it we should do to our children and to ourselves to ensure that the lives they, and we, lead are productive, happy, beautiful and purposeful?

What of the world we are living in? How are we to carry the cultural and intellectual legacy of ten thousand years of history on our fragile shoulders? As the world gets older and the means of communication expand, there is more to know and more to transmit. How do we ensure that young people carry the past into the present?

At the same time, how do we prepare young people for the opportunities, openings, extraordinary diversity, threats and challenges of our times?

These questions linger, and many scramble for answers, some turning to the past, others to the future; some design experiments (never an easy thing to do with the complexities of living, in-situ human beings as they learn); others page through theory; while others, still, rely on the media, on hunches, intuition and hearsay.

These big questions raise various wormhole-like additional questions, most ending soon after they have started. These include myths, neurotrash (findings in neuroscience that are half-baked or are not telling us anything specific about education), sales pitches, cheap speculation, dramatic conference keynotes by academic pop stars and attention-seeking politicians, sound bites gone viral, unfounded research claims and bestsellers putting a spin on old ideas, often platitudes and tautologies.

At the end of their taking or considering these various pathways, each person has formed an opinion on education and an idea of what we should be doing to prepare young people for the future. None is entirely complete; none is without contradiction or error. In the twenty-first century, there is enough information out there to confirm just about anyone’s bias, and most people have a fixed idea of what an education is and will not venture all that far from it no matter what they encounter.


An increasingly common assertion – one that has in fact now become banal – is that education needs to change to meet the complex needs of the twenty-first century. Whereas science and technology, medicine and travel, multinational corporations and economic development have all followed revolutionary trajectories in the last decades, in most instances the world of education, most especially in schools, seems to have stayed the same.

Different sources point to different global megatrends, involving urbanisation, the creation of wealth, resource scarcity, planetary problems. The world has changed incommensurately in the last century: the world population has quadrupled since World War II (from two billion to nearly eight billion); artificial intelligence now effectively has the computing power of a human brain; we are exhausting over 150% of the planet’s biocapacity; while globalisation and social media have made the world far more accessible than ever before. At the same time, increased and increasing income disparity and new forms of terrorism have created further division and polarisation within the planet’s population.

The world of today is one of VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity). Our great-grandparents would find society unrecognisable (at least in its technical aspects). And the intuitive response is that the education we are providing for young people should therefore change radically. We are now in the fourth industrial revolution, commonly known as Industry 4.0. It is characterised by exponential change, the Internet of things and highly developed artificial intelligence. Human beings no longer merely use technological tools; they interact with, and in, intelligent systems.

Over the last few decades, there have been major changes in the planet’s political, social and environmental landscape, and experts suggest that change will be even more pronounced over the decades to come.1

There is a need to re-evaluate education. It would be absurd to put our heads in the sand. This does not necessarily mean that everything should be changed; it might be that older strains of education need to come back into focus, that other strains need to remain as they are or experience further emphasis. Change for the sake of change is the error that comes from a lack of serious analysis. Often systems are in place, and have been for a long time, for good reason.

Indeed, one curse of educational reform is the pendulum effect created by constantly rewritten legislation that reflects political agendas and belief systems that vary from one government to the next. Education becomes the ever-morphing target of leadership hyperactivity.

It is true that in schools children tend to still be grouped by age and are still subject to a knowledge-based learning experience with little in the way of transdisciplinary, project-based, relevant learning that prepares them directly and explicitly for the challenges of our time. A tired, overused statement is that the classrooms of today resemble the classrooms of yesterday, that between the nineteenth century and the twenty-first century, schools are still essentially identical in layout and in terms of what young people learn.

This assertion is almost always meant as a criticism. It expresses the idea that education should be moving with the times, not frozen in the past. However, anyone who knows anything about the history of education knows that for the majority of human beings’ collective experience over the last few thousand years, the whole idea of education has been strongly traditional and conservative. The idea has been that the primary purpose of an education is to transmit history and culture to young people, to make them knowledgeable about the past and to ensure that a transmission of skills, knowledge and wisdom is at the centre.

And any parent knows that a good upbringing goes back to old-fashioned principles: children need to be taught to respect their parents, to be polite and kind to those around them; they should not be spoilt or simply left to do as they please. At the same time, parents across the globe are struggling to cope with social media, new technologies and what exactly they should be doing to prepare their children for a complex, challenging world and unknown future. Are we getting it right? Will our children find, once it is too late, that we did not equip them with the right values and approaches to life to be successful?

If we focus on schools, however, the traditionalist view seems far from the normative discourse in education today: the convergence of lines of thought all promoting the pressing need to reform schooling has become something of a cliché.

Of course, many schools and examination boards, universities and colleges will claim that they are not locked into the past and that there are tangible examples of educational philosophies and institutions that have changed the shape of instruction and learning quite emphatically.2

What this “winds of change” frenzy has led to is a collection of overused words, phrases and ideas in education. Here are some better-known examples:

  • The jobs of the future do not exist yet, and therefore the educational experience must somehow prepare young people to be able to enter a number of different professional fields rather than one narrow area.

  • Schools of the past focussed on content, whereas the schools of the future will focus more on skills.

  • Social media and the rise of technology have revolutionised knowledge acquisition to the point where learning facts is fairly pointless, as students can access facts directly through the Internet, essentially without teachers.

  • Good teaching is not about teaching, it’s about learning: what is important is not what is being taught but what is being learnt.

  • Neuroscience allows us to understand the biology of learning in such a way that practice can, and should, reflect contemporary scientific developments rather than non-scientific ideology.

  • Children learn when they are emotionally engaged and see the relevance of what they are learning.

Whilst some terms that have currency include:

  • flipping the classroom (meaning that you frontload knowledge at home and go over what you have learnt in the classroom);

  • group work;

  • project-based learning;

  • critical thinking;

  • creativity;

  • character;

  • collaboration;

  • entrepreneurship;

  • student advocacy;

  • social and emotional intelligence;

  • digital literacy;

  • STEM;

  • grit;

  • relevance;

  • mindfulness;

  • kindness;

  • self-agency or decision-making.

On the other hand, words, phrases and ideologies that are less appealing and will perhaps be held up as examples of nineteenth century bad practice tend to include the following:

  • lecturing;

  • facts;

  • rote-learning;

  • punishment;

  • humiliation;

  • manners;

  • dictation;

  • multiple-choice tests;

  • pure theory (without relevance);

  • lack of emotional intelligence on the part of the teacher.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

E. D. Hirsch, a bold and perspicacious force in education, has pointed out that much of this ideological shift is nothing new: it started towards the last quarter of the twentieth century and was influenced by a change in thinking about education at the turn of the twentieth century.

In fact, for the better part of the twentieth century, we lived with reforms and intended reforms that were rooted in an essentially similar romantic, naturalist perspective on learning – inspired first by the eighteenth century philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau and embraced by his successors (Dewey, Montessori, Piaget and Vygotsky). These thinkers collectively promulgated the idea that what matters in education is how you work around the psychology of the learner.

What appears new and contemporary is in fact rather tired. The recent additions to this romantic, naturalist, constructivist approach are scientific and technological shifts, which have accelerated the discourse but not actually changed it fundamentally.

The discourse of the early twenty-first century is thus not actually markedly different from that of the twentieth century. We are still in a dualist controversy, which opposes an academic, insensitive and content-heavy approach, that cliché of a Dickensian nineteenth century, to a learner-centred, constructivist, skills-based approach that aims to motivate students and make them feel comfortable to be more creative in their thinking.

What has changed is a sense of urgency to change the classroom and the now widespread belief that education can change the world.3

Parents also realise that what is important is not just what their children know and how well they understand what they know, but also the development of character, lifelong learning, confidence, a strong work ethic and interpersonal skills (knowing how to negotiate with other people, listen to them, work together).

Part of what I do in this book is examine some of these modernist discourses (modernist, not postmodernist, because they are not particularly new). I point out that the less-politically-correct, comfortable assertions about education relating to discipline, hard work and well-established traditions (content learning and the importance of classical subjects such as history and philosophy, for example), are not to be thrown out simply because they are old. I will, on the contrary, argue that in many ways they are needed more now than ever.4

Central to the discussion is the unavoidable and timeless truth that a good education comes from the person learning more than from the subject being taught or even from the style of the person teaching it. Perhaps we have fallen too deeply into the trap of obsessing over what should be taught and how it should be taught when, in truth, what is important is the passion, intelligence and dedication of the student, no matter what is taught.

Even the simplest of messages can be used to extract great meaning if the student is motivated to learn deeply,5 hence a plethora of writings on motivation, “mindset”, character and what have you.

Furthermore, education is not a monolithic entity or a static field. It is in constant evolution and development, responding to changing times and contexts. It is ongoing, never stops.

For these reasons, among many others, education remains the most stimulating and fascinating, but also the most frustrating and inaccurate practice of human beings. We search, we probe, we hope and we dream. Sometimes we react angrily and assert. But we never reach the bottom of the rabbit hole; it just gets deeper.

While most education experts and researchers agree that grading systems are not effective, schools continue to grade students, creating aggressive grade-centred competition, a lack of interest in comments on performance (the grades wash out the effect of the comments) and a “grade junkie” ethos. We know now that homework in the primary school years does not add any real gains to learning, but most schools continue to drown their students in homework. While many are pointing out that the purpose of education should be to be intrinsically rewarding, rather than a mere means to an end, many parents pressure their children to simply use school to get the best scores, get into the best universities and secure high-status jobs.

It is as if we want the best of two very different worlds: excellent academic performance, the type one usually associates with high levels of stress and rote learning, and at the same time a compassionate, creative and student-friendly way of facilitating learning.

What Challenges of the Twenty-First Century should Education Address?

The question in this book is this: to what exactly we should be directing education? Which challenges should education address?

The challenges I discuss in this book6 span divers fields: they bring together some of the major tensions and problems the planet is facing.7

This book outlines seven areas that I believe are important to the world we are living in and towards which we are moving.8 These areas represent a summary configuration of some of the trends and strains elaborated by various voices in the world of education as well as those of social commentators, journalists, scientists, sociologists and philosophers.

Whether you are a parent, a scholar, a teacher or a head, this book is for you, as we need to think together about what an education for the world we are living in should comprise.

Areas to be Tackled

For over a decade and a half, I’ve been researching the theme of exactly what types of knowledge we should be learning in the twenty-first century, seeking a pattern out of a myriad of seemingly endless statements, examples, experimental research results, naturalistic research results, positions, hypotheses and arguments.

I feel ready now, in 2018, to finally answer the question through this book.

What should an education in the twenty-first century entail? The response to our question relates to subjects, domains, tasks and assessment. I have divided this response into seven chapters that investigate critical areas of human planetary activity, as follows.


In many so-called developed countries and in most schools, human beings are complaining about high levels of stress, as they carry out their lives in hyperactive lifestyles that can become unhealthy and compulsive. This problem has led to a number of responses, especially in schools, in the area of mindfulness. What are schools doing, and what should they be doing, to promote happy, focussed, calm and appreciative people? And how well does the mindfulness movement stand up in this respect?

Singularity (Artificial Intelligence)

The machines that humans have built and the algorithms that drive them are challenging the uniqueness of some of the essential constituents of human intelligence. Human beings, including young people, appear increasingly attached to devices and dependent on them. What are the implications for education?


International terrorism, particularly that related to Islamic fundamentalism, has become a global problem. Few societies feel completely sheltered from the risk of attack, whilst a climate of fear, mistrust and xenophobia grows in response. How can schools work with young people to face the problem of terrorism and, hopefully, reduce it?


The planet’s biocapacity is being depleted at an exponential rate, and if current behaviours do not stop soon, our planet’s resources will have been exhausted and humans will be faced with a scarcity of resources that will make life intolerable, if not impossible. What can schools do to slow down this time bomb?

Post-Truth Politics

Political developments in the middle of the first quarter of the twenty-first century have led some to argue that truth does not mean what it used to, that we are entering a type of post-truth era in which communications strategies are more important than the verity of what is being discussed. I argue that whilst it is true that twenty-first century democratic politics seem saturated in a number of areas, at their core things have not changed much; rhetoric, oversimplification and mendacity have been standard tools for political gain as far back as we can think. We should, nonetheless, be careful about how we grapple with information in the twenty-first century: there are approaches to knowledge construction that are essential in an age of sound bites and alternative, often false, positions broadcast on social media.


Because of new technologies and the way that knowledge is made available and distributed in the twenty-first century, some believe that we need to rethink entirely what is taught in school and perhaps teach less content, opening up time and opportunities for skills development. This debate is becoming more and more acute. I grapple with it by pointing out some essential features of knowledge that cannot be given short shrift. I argue that knowledge in the twenty-first century is more necessary than ever and that skills-over-knowledge proposals, depending, of course, on how they are construed, tend to be misguided.


At the core of any response to the global challenges that face us is the age-old question of a person’s character: the moral fibre that will determine the scope and style of their response. Today’s world is fast-changing and uncertain and therefore requires a particularly developed level of resolve and sturdiness. Character can be determined through six core concepts: mastery, discipline, respect, beliefs, confidence and adaptability. These are fleshed out in this chapter.


All these chapters suggest choices that schools can make to ensure that students learn to grapple with these seven issues in age-appropriate, informed ways. Each area is looked at in detail first from personal and professional perspectives and then in relation to existing theory and research.

The final chapter brings my positions together in a framework, made up of summarised suggestions for educational institutions. The points in the framework can be adapted and adopted according to context.

The Fate of Bliksim

I need to come back to my own primary schooling and what eventually happened to Bliksim, the cane that whipped our young hides.

I stole it.

One day when the master was not in the classroom, and with a friend of mine on the lookout, I took it from its cabinet, threaded it into my right trouser leg and carefully made my way to the car park to be picked up, walking as if I had a wooden leg. Because the cane could bend (the teacher used to make each end touch, in order to demonstrate its flexibility), I managed to bend my leg in the passenger seat of the car without the cane being noticed by my father.

I kept the cane at home for a number of years, eventually cutting it into smaller sections to use in an art project. My parents knew I had taken it but were on my side. Eventually I left the school and went to an institution that was completely different: co-educational, multiracial, open-minded. There teachers did not cane the students, and we learnt about how we could live together in peace. There I learned not to hate school but to love it. That changes everything.



Current planetary goals can be well summed up in the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. The fourth, on education, focusses on lifelong learning and access to quality. Visions of the near future of education point to loosely related directions: The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has developed a 2030 “learning compass”, which focusses on self-agency and well-being; Singapore’s 21st Century Competences Framework focusses on values; whereas UNESCO International Bureau of Education’s “future competences” include lifelong learning, self-agency, interacting with others and interacting in and with the world.


Universities are in a slightly different situation – after all, universities are there to contribute to knowledge and should therefore be leading the dance. Many technical subjects, such as STEM, are evolving at an extraordinary pace with the development of technology, whilst a number of well-respected universities are experimenting with different types of online learning platforms. However, I would argue, the average university is still rather staid and traditional, with large amphitheatres in which lecturers speak for hours on coursework that has not evolved significantly over the last 60 years. I include among the institutions that are changing the forward-looking examination boards, like the International Baccalaureate with its emphasis on educating the whole person while focussing on values; the United World Colleges movement with an emphasis on service learning; High Tech High with its interdisciplinary approach; and the Whittle group of schools with a focus on actualising every young person’s passion. I could add a mention of the phenomenon of online learning that has swept through a number of universities, such as MIT and the University of California. In fact, many education institutions are trying to change if they are not trying to get on the bandwagon of change.


“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world” (Mandela, 2003).


I should add that there is something ironic and contradictory in the fabric of modern education-speak, for at the same time that constructivist discourses continue to proliferate, extremely academic and content-heavy approaches – in many ways extremely traditional – are celebrated too. This schizophrenic tendency can be seen through references to international tests such as the OECD’s PISA, which celebrates high scores from countries such as South Korea, where it is by no means unheard of for students to work till 11 in the evening in order to achieve superhuman results in mathematics and the sciences (Chakrabarti, 2013).

As the great Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu said in his Tao Te Ching:

The superior student listens to the Way

And follows it closely.

The average student listens to the Way

And follows some and some not.

The lesser student listens to the Way

And laughs out loud. (Lao Tzu, 41,, 2018)


I came to the number seven not for any particular reason. One might be tempted to see a resonance with mystic, religious or historical numerology, but this is not the case. These areas are fundamental, and, while they might not cover everything that an education should do, they address issues that affect many other areas of the development of young people, issues that cannot be put to the side in contemporary society. Seven is also a number that the human mind can hold onto easily, as we know from cognitive psychology.


I should point out that the premise of this book is that the purpose of an education is threefold: it should fortify the individual and group with a body of knowledge, for knowledge leads to an appreciation of culture, beauty, truth and goodness; it should empower the individual and group with a set of skills that can be used in a variety of contexts, professional, social and physical. Finally, but perhaps most importantly, a good education should provide the individual and the group with a set of values and belief systems that give life direction and any decision a clear moral purpose. One might call these three overlapping areas three types of knowledge, as Gilbert Ryle did in 1946 (Ryle, 1971), namely declarative knowledge, procedural knowledge and dispositional knowledge. I believe that these three areas can be related to the objectives of any educational experience in the world, modified only by context and specific application: all educational institutions are trying to develop character, competences and knowledge.


I have already written on the topic of prejudice and how education can respond to it (Hughes, 2017). This is one of the overarching challenges of our time, for no sooner do we believe that a certain set of prejudices has become a historical archaism and left behind us than it re-emerges, creating conflict and even war. As I write this, right-wing extremists have driven a car into a crowd of protesters in Charlottesville in the United States, while thousands of Americans rally behind the Black Lives Matter movement – this half a century after the Civil Rights Movement. Prejudice is a massive educational challenge that deserved a monograph all to itself, which is why I wrote Understanding Prejudice and Education: The Challenge for Future Generations.


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