Published on Arab Voices

Education is even more important in a world that is “flat and fast”: Thomas Friedman and Education for Competitiveness

Students on university campus - Shutterstock l Zurijeta The world is fast. The three biggest forces on the planet—globalization, Mother Nature, and Moore’s Law (the exponential growth of computing power and, so, of digitalization)—are all surging so fast at the same time that the most critical challenge for the planet now is knowing how to plan for them.

This was the idea that Thomas Friedman discussed during a surprise appearance at a recent World Bank course, Strategic Choices for Education Reform in Arab Countries: Education for Competitiveness, held in Kuwait at the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF’s) Middle East Center for Economics and Finance. Friedman is a big picture thinker, the bestselling author of The World is Flat (a book on globalization), and a Pulitzer prize-winning contributor to the New York Times. He dropped in to talk and listen to the 33 education specialists, planners and policy makers from 13 countries across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) who were participating in the course.

Friedman’s newest ideas are an extension of his earlier works. The world is not only “flat”, that is, levelled by globalization, but now it is also “fast”. That is, when changes in the market, the climate, and technology all become so vertiginously rapid, opportunities and stresses abound.

Many of these ideas—which he explained in amusing and thought-provoking anecdotes (Friedman is a great storyteller)—intrigued members of the group on the course. Most especially his principal conclusion, because it paralleled a principal concern they had: if the world is indeed changing so quickly, how can we prepare for it? More specifically, how can education systems in MENA prepare their countries’ youth for the challenges of tomorrow? 

This challenge is especially acute in the region for a couple of reasons. While governments have made significant financial investments in education, the achievement of students from the region in international standardized tests is still not up to par. Youth unemployment continues to rise and graduates often lack the skills necessary to compete in the job market. So, building fair, accountable, and responsive education systems will be central to providing high quality education and meeting the region’s social and economic needs.

Transforming Education in MENA

The Education for Competitiveness Initiative (E4C), the latest collaborative venture between the World Bank and the Islamic Development Bank, conceptualizes education within three domains: (i) Building foundations for learning and skills acquisition through improved quality of inputs, innovative approaches and improved governance – Education for lifelong learning; (ii) strengthening school to work transition through more relevant skills and preparing students for the labor market – Education for employability; and (iii) developing 21 st century skills and values that promote creativity, innovation for competitiveness as well as wider social awareness and engagement  – Education for transformation.

As part of a series of human development-related courses held at the IMF Center, the course in Kuwait introduced its participants to education policy seen from this unique, new E4C angle. The training addressed some of the key problems facing education systems in the region and outlined the many solutions available by drawing on global evidence, experiences, and good practice. It emphasized that achieving the three E4C goals will require government ministries and others involved in education to go about their work in truly new and innovative ways.

Pillar one, life-long learning is essential and begins by building a solid foundation so that children are ready to learn throughout life as student and adults. Education that interests students, which leads them to learn how to learn and to become independent active thinkers, allows them to become the agents of their own future. Now more than ever, there is a need to learn and relearn throughout life—it is not a luxury but a necessity.

Pillar two, education for employment, seeks to ease the school to work transition. It not only recognizes the role education and training can play in fostering cognitive and socio-emotional skills, as well as the job-related skills graduates need to succeed in the labor market, but also the lack of information they face about the labor market. 

Finally, education systems must address the other pillar, Education through transformation. Education systems in MENA currently do little to promote 21st century skills , which are critical for success in today’s interconnected world. 21 st century skills refer to a set of knowledge, skills, attitudes, values and ethics that are believed to be critically important to success in today’s world. The objective of this intervention is to support and strengthen the delivery of educational services that produce graduates with these important skills.

Can MENA keep up with Thomas Freidman’s fast changing world? Perhaps through education reform , which might be its best chance.


Simon Thacker

Education Specialist

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