Dr Doug Cole (Nottingham Trent University) and Victoria Pendry (The Curriculum Foundation) discuss a human-centred approach to education.

Redefining education for work, life and the future.

Key Ideas: 
A Framework for Learning – an integrated approach
Future Facing, Human Centred Education
Transformative Learning
Supercomplexity and Liquid Modernity
Lifelong and Lifewide Learning

Education needs to become more human-centred to support the future world of work and critically, success in life more broadly, anchored in learning across multiple dimensions. Given the current pandemic, this shift in focus becomes even more important. To successfully achieve this shift requires a new principle-based approach to learning, one that is holistic and research informed, inclusive and flexible, whilst still supporting consistency at scale. There is an urgency behind the need for this revolution in order to integrate learning and expertise from across multiple and disconnected disciplines and levels to tackle what is effectively a global challenge.


The ideal platform to launch this exploration is presented by UNESCO (2020:1) in their Visioning and Framing the Futures of Education paper, which states:


…the key question before us is: what do we want to become? This is a question to be asked and answered through education.


More commonly in education this is framed quite differently as, ‘What job do you want to do?’ In a metric obsessed world, policy, strategy, practice across all levels of education is dominated by numbers and league tables (Bridgstock, 2009, Cole and Hallett, 2019). Taking employment rates as a significant measure of success sits at the heart of this challenge, but this dominant quantitative focus runs contrary to the desire for a more humanistic approach. This dilemma demands an urgent shift in what we potentially value in the future and as a result, what we measure.


What kind of world is 2050 likely to be? Barnett (2000) and Jackson (2011) ten years ago described the future as ‘supercomplex’. Bauman (2000) even twenty years ago referred to a ‘liquid modernity’, a condition of constant mobility and change in relationships, identities, and global economics within society. In 2020 these views and conditions have been amplified further through increased globalisation, the use of technology and the current pandemic.

How can we learn to thrive in this supercomplex world? We argue for the need for a more structured, yet flexible approach, creating scaffolding within which a wide range of organisations could potentially operate. Rooted in transformative learning (Mezirow, 2000) this perspective aligns with the principle-based world-class curriculum developed by the Curriculum Foundation. Nottingham Trent University, UK are currently piloting a new taxonomy for learning called Employability Redefined which is built around these very principles.


This framework for learning is presented in full as an animated 3D model (please view the link here https://vimeo.com/413211412).  This taxonomy incorporates the following three distinct layers of learning:

*Lifelong and Lifewide

*Resilience and Self-Efficacy

*Knowledge, Experience, Identity, Interpersonal / Intrapersonal and Transformative Reflective Practice.

Employability Redefined argues that all learners should experience opportunities across each dimension included in the taxonomy above, each one being equally as valuable as the other. The specific learning outcomes contained within each of these three dimensions  should be owned, defined and shaped by those stakeholders involved. This ensures that this is not a restrictive one size fits all approach. An underpinning rationale and flexible scaffolding of this nature  can be applied at scale across all levels of education. From this perspective we argue that there is an urgent need to reflect on how our current models of education map to this scaffolding. How can we best support learners across each of these dimensions so that they are able to flourish in an uncertain and complex future?


Critically, this new taxonomy aligns with underpinning research from across a number of different disciplines (Cole, 2019, Dacre Pool and Sewell, 2007, Fugate et al., 2004, Jackson, 2011 and Tomlinson, 2017), something that is not clearly evident at a policy, strategy and practice level currently. The potential application of this new organising framework across the lifespan of education may just deliver on our aspirations for this more human centred, future facing approach to education for 2050. The focus becomes the needs and demands of tomorrow, not only for the now.


Reflecting on the question raised by UNESCO (2020) earlier, Barnett (2000) 20 years ago stated that the question of ‘who am I?’ is critical to the development of learners. This still remains at the heart of the challenge to our education systems today, and requires us all to ask questions of where, when and how this is effectively being addressed with our learners. The importance of identity  needs to become much more of a central consideration in any future approach to learning for both work and life more broadly. Fugate et al. (2004), Hinchcliffe and Jolly (2011), Holmes (2001) and Tajfel and Turner (2004) have all explored identity and the world of employment, yet this valuable research again has largely failed to have an impact on education, the focus for learning or on our curriculums in practice.

In this ever-changing world, Bauman (2000) and Barnett (2011) make the case for the need for all of us to be able to reflect, adapt and transform what and how we learn. This is certainly a more fluid and advanced perspective in comparison to the current dominant mantra promoting a more linear and static view, commonly articulated in lists such as the 21st Century skills, which somehow when possessed are seen as the solution.

Globally we need to embrace these more diverse and richer aspects of humanity and learning that increasingly connect us. We should recognise the value of existing cultural philosophies such as Ubuntu from South Africa (I am because we are) and the Maori philosophy of Whakapapa (To define a person’s position in respect of others, ancestors in particular). Both of these examples align with the academic research highlighting the importance of interpersonal and intrapersonal learning in the taxonomy, supported by the work of a number of authors including Cole (2019), Cole and Hallett (2019), Dacre Pool and Sewell (2007), Fugate et al. (2004), Gardner (2003), Mayer and Solovey (1997), Sternberg et al. (2000), Tajfel and Turner (2004) and Tomlinson (2017).

Subject knowledge and understanding remains core to any future educational offer. However, the narrative needs to diversify to also include other aspects of our sense of being, attitudes, behaviours, values and character. In addition, the overly simplistic notion of ‘skills’ cannot continue to be viewed as just being concerned with what we can functionally do as individuals, it has to also be about who we are as human beings, regardless of age, gender, ethnicity or background. Without looking through this more holistic and inclusive lens, we will simply continue to invest millions in skills development, training people for jobs that we know they will leave (Hawkins, 1999), for reasons that likely have nothing to do with their technical capabilities.

This more inclusive view of how we should approach education in the future needs to also recognise and acknowledge the strengths we have as individuals, no matter in what form these are demonstrated. Whilst technology continues to advance, we need to keep apace, however we must equally continue to focus on other more human dimensions for learning as highlighted here and within the Employability Redefined taxonomy. In so doing, we strengthen our chances of developing a more connected, supportive, collaborative and compassionate society in the future, capable of adapting within the turbulent and ever changing world we live in, truly embracing the concept of both lifelong and lifewide learning. We must ensure we can remain both technically and psychologically capable of thriving in the future, both in the workplace and beyond.

The new Employability Redefined taxonomy seeks to reposition thinking and practice around employability and education to develop a sharpened focus around the combination of several dimensions for learning (Cole, 2019). Many of these may currently be evident in places, but their true value commonly being implicit, hidden from the learners themselves and not explicitly connected and addressed in practice, at scale and across all levels of education. In part this again stems back to what the government and media currently value and the way success is measured.

In summary, this new taxonomy forms the basis for a more integrated approach to learning, opening up possibilities to simultaneously support multiple strategic agendas across education, including enterprise, widening participation, retention, attainment, mental health and wellbeing.  Achieving all this is made possible by specifically highlighting the dimensions for learning that underpin each of these currently disconnected individual priorities. We must shift the common and dominant discourse globally beyond simply securing a job and gaining skills (Higdon, 2016). In doing this, we will develop a much richer and holistic narrative and view of education and learning. this view makes the often implicit, explicit, illuminating the opportunity to redefine our future approaches and models so that they might better support not only the world of work, but the quality of our lives and society more broadly.

References and underpinning literature

Artess, J., Hooley, T., & Mellows-Bourne, R. (2017). Employability: A review of the literature 2012 to 2016. A report for the Higher Education Academy. York: Higher Education Academy.

Bandura, A. (1982) Self-efficacy mechanism in human agency. American psychologist 37 (2), 122

Barnett, R. (2011) Lifewide education: A transformative concept for higher education? In N. J. Jackson (Ed.), Learning for a complex world: A lifewide concept of learning, education and personal development (pp. 22-38). Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse.

Bauman, Z. (2000) Liquid Modernity. Cambridge: Polity Print.

Cole, D. (2019) Defining and developing an approach to employability: A study of sports degree provision, PhD thesis, Northumbria University

Cole, D. and Hallett, R. (2019). The language of employability. In J. Higgs, G. Crisp and W. Letts (Eds.), Education for employability (Volume 1): The employability agenda (pp. 119-130). Rotterdam, The Netherlands: Brill Sense.

Cole, D. & Tibby, M. (2013). Defining and developing your approach to employability: A framework for higher education institutions. York, England: The Higher Education Academy.

Dacre Pool, L. and Sewell, P. (2007) The key to employability: developing a practical model for graduate employability. Education and Training Vol. 49, No. 4, pp277-289.

Department for Education (2017) Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework Specification. London: Department for Education.

Fugate, M., Kinicki, A.J. and Ashforth, B. (2004) Employability: A psycho-social construct, its dimensions, and applications. Journal of Vocational Behaviour, Vol 65, pp 14-38

Gardner, H. (2003) Multiple intelligences after twenty years Paper presented at the American Educational Research Association, Chicago, Illinois, April 21, 2003

Hawkins, P. (1999). The art of building windmills: Career tactics for the 21st Century. Liverpool: Graduate into Employment Unit.

Higdon, R. (2016) Employability: The missing voice: How student and graduate views could be used to develop future higher education policy and inform curricula, Power and Education, Vol. 8, No. 2, pp176-195

Hinchliffe, G., and Jolly, A. (2011). Graduate identity and employability. British Educational Research Journal, Vol. 37, No. 4, pp563–584.

Holmes, L. (2001) Reconsidering graduate employability: the ‘graduate identity’ approach, Quality in Higher Education, Vol. 7, No.2, pp112-119.

Jackson, N. J. (2011) Learning for a complex world: A lifewide concept of learning, education and personal development. Bloomington, IN: Author House.

Kolb, D. A. (1984) Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development. Englewood Cliffs, N.J. Prentice-Hall

Mayer, J. and Salovey, P. (1997) What is emotional intelligence? In Salovey, P. and Shulters, S. (Eds) Emotional Intelligence and Emotional Development. New York: Basic Books

Mezirow, J. (2000). Learning to think like an adult: Core concepts of transformation theory. In J. Mezirow and Associates (Eds.), Learning as transformation: Critical perspectives on a theory in progress (pp. 3-33). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Rutter, M. (2006). The Promotion of Resilience in the Face of Adversity. In A. Clarke-Stewart & J. Dunn (Eds.), The Jacobs Foundation series on adolescence. Families count: Effects on child and adolescent development (p. 26–52). Cambridge University Press.

Sternberg, R. J, Forsythe, G., Hedlund, J., Wagner, R., Williams, W., Snook, S. and Grigorenko, E. (2000) Practical intelligence in everyday life. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Tajfel, H., & Turner, J. C. (2004). The Social Identity Theory of Intergroup Behaviour. In J. T. Jost & J. Sidanius (Eds.), Key readings in social psychology. Political psychology: Key readings (p. 276–293). Psychology Press.

Tomlinson, M. (2017) Forms of graduate capital and their relationship to graduate employability. Education and Training, Vol. 59, No. 4, pp338-352.

Williams, S., Dodd, L. J., Steele, C., & Randall, R. (2015) A systematic review of current understandings of employability. Journal of Education and Work, Vol. 29, No. 8, pp 877-901.

1 Comment

  1. This is a great read Doug and Victoria and you won’t be surprised to hear that I broadly agree with what you are saying. Transformation is a profound concept relating to the human project which has at its heart the transformation of ourselves, our social and our material worlds- not always for the better. But one of the things we have to do in higher education to fully embrace such a philosophy is to transform our concepts of learning and achievement and adopt the more holistic understandings, which is why the lifewide concept of learning, achievement and agency is so valuable. The concept embraces (Jackson 2011) learning and achievement in formal educational environments, work and all other social environments. It accommodates learning through directed (instructed) and self-managed activity, learning that is intentional or unintended, learning that is driven by our needs, interests and ambitions. To be a competent lifewide learner requires the awareness to recognise and take advantage of opportunities, and the will and capability to get involved in situations arising from these opportunities. It also requires the ability to think about and extract meaning and significance from experiences to use in future imaginings, decision making and action.

    It is through the interactive, relational and dynamic process of interacting with our whole environment through all aspects of our life that humans develop and apply agency, “a temporally embedded process of social engagement, informed by the past (in its habitual aspect), but also oriented toward the future (as a capacity to imagine alternative possibilities) and toward the present (as a capacity to contextualize past habits and future projects within the contingencies of the moment).” (Emirbayer and Mische 1998 p 963) Our agency enables us to achieve and develop confidence to keepon transforming ourselves and the world.

    Jackson, N. J. (2011) Learning for a complex world: A lifewide concept of learning, education and personal development. Bloomington, IN: Author House.
    Emirbayer, M. and Mische, A. (1998) What Is Agency? American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 103, No. 4 (January 1998), pp. 962-1023

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