Alum Sobe helping United Nations shape the future of education

In the United States, the realm of education is often caught in the crosshairs of controversy.

Whether it’s disputes about how best to fund public education, discussions about the most effective ways to close opportunity gaps, or politically charged debates about what should (and shouldn’t) be taught in classrooms, it’s not always easy to remember the promise quality education holds.

But over the previous two years, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) developed a report to define international education goals with the vision that knowledge and learning are humanity’s greatest renewable resources — and that high-quality education holds the potential to transform the world.

The report, “Reimagining Our Futures Together: a New Social Contract for Education,” identifies key issues that all countries should center their educational systems around to better shape the future.

Noah W. Sobe
Noah W. Sobe says, “One of the things the report really tries to do is put forth a vision of a world where education supports peace, supports sustainability, and supports justice. And education is a key to bringing those visions into reality in societies across the world.”

“The most important word in the title of the report is ‘together,’ ” says UW-Madison alumnus Noah W. Sobe, who played an important role in pulling this report together as the senior project officer in the Education Research and Foresight program with UNESCO.  “During the pandemic, we learned how interdependent and together the world really is. We need to recognize this as a fact. But there’s also an aspirational dimension to this report. We need to get a lot better at working together — and I think education can play a vital role in this.”

Sobe earned his PhD in 2005 from the School of Education’s Department of Curriculum and Instruction, with a minor from the Department of Educational Policy Studies (EPS). And in March 2022 he delivered a keynote presentation about this important work at the 2022 EPS Conference, “The Futures of Education.”

More than a million people from around the world took part in the global consultation process that informed the report, with UNESCO hoping that the publication can start a debate and movement to forge a new contract between parents, children, and educators around the world. Leadership of UNESCO believes that the world is at a turning point of sorts, and that global disparities mean that education is not yet fulfilling its promise to help shape peaceful, just, and sustainable futures.

Sobe — who studied curriculum history and theory while pursuing his PhD at UW-Madison — is in the midst of a three-year leave from his faculty position at Loyola University Chicago, where he has spent the past 15 years as a comparative education researcher and historian of education.  He typically teaches a range of courses in Loyola’s Cultural and Educational Policy Studies program and also serves as the director of Loyola’s Center for Comparative Education.

It was his work in comparative international education that led him to the current role with UNESCO.

One intriguing aspect of working on “Reimagining Our Futures Together,” was the breadth of the project and working to make it relevant to diverse populations across the world. An important part of this process — in addition to having an International Commission, chaired by Sahle-Work Zewde, the president of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia — was this public engagement process that included collecting input from more than a million people who shared their ideas and fears.

“One thing that is clear is the feeling so many of us have that we’re at a turning point and in a moment where huge transformations are underway across the world,” Sobe said in an interview from his home base in Paris. “One of the things the report really tries to do is put forth a vision of a world where education supports peace, supports sustainability, and supports justice. And education is a key to bringing those visions into reality in societies across the world.”

Everyone from national education leaders in various parts of the world, to academics, teachers, and children in classrooms are having conversations about the report, says Sobe.

While discussions about “what’s wrong” with education can sometimes dominate media coverage of the field in the United States, it’s important to spotlight progress — with the EPS Conference planning to highlight what has been achieved over the last 50 years. 

“The improvements in gender equality and education, globally over that period, are massive,” says Sobe. “When we consider all the continuing problems that we have, it’s easy to lose sight of the positives. Another positive is how literacy rates are higher, in aggregate. And yet another positive is the ways in which education has been, in many places, a real force for fighting discrimination, racism, and exclusion — including the Civil Rights struggles in the United States. Yes, there is still a long way to go, but we can’t lose sight of the fact that schooling has been pretty successful, too.”

Sobe goes on to add: “We should be rightly bothered by aspects that haven’t been successful. The report is an invitation to consider, what do we need to improve and what is a path for achieving that?”

One interesting aspect of the report, notes Sobe, is a high-level question of “why do we learn?”

Some of that has historically centered around economic development and the focus on preparing a future workforce, while another common focus has been on growing a well-informed and engaged society.

“It’s not that those kinds of things aren’t important,” says Sobe. “But the report notes how we need to center on a new set of goals — around ideas of collaboration, cooperation, and solidarity. We also need to work on project-based learning, which may be familiar to people in places like Madison but is not familiar to those in many parts of the world. In many places the pattern is still a teacher in front of the room, lecturing out of books, with students taking notes, and then being assessed on what they can retain.”

Sobe says his time as a PhD student at UW–Madison was important in shaping his future as a scholar and global education policy expert.

“What I discovered was that UW–Madison is a global university,” says Sobe, who counts his doctoral advisor, UW-Madison Professor Tom Popkewitz, as one of his closest friends and mentors. “In my current work I still run into people, often now on a webinar, who did their PhD work at UW–Madison. Or I learn of people who have been visiting scholars in Madison. The depth of the global experience at UW-Madison is very interesting — and that’s especially true within the School of Education.” 

When asked to look into the proverbial crystal ball and talk about his thoughts on what role education should play in achieving an even better future, Sobe pauses.

“I have thoughts — but that’s exactly the kind of thing we all need to think about together,” he says. “Clearly, the destruction of the environment and the impacts of climate change are very important and are going to be shaping aspects of education. Due to this we can also anticipate massive migration of human populations as parts of the world become less and less habitable. But we’re all on this planet together, so we’re going to all have to come together to find solutions. Changing our consciousness and teaching people to increasingly see how we are all connected and part of the same planet will be important. Those are the kinds of things education can really contribute to in shaping the world and our shared futures.”

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