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Reworking Four Pillars of Education to Sustain the Commons

Noah W. Sobe — 10 February 2021

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How do we design meaningful learning experiences that develop the skills and competencies most needed in the present, for the futures we want to create? From the mid-1990s perspective of a world seen as awash in change and complexity, a UNESCO commission under the leadership of Jacques Delors proposed four pillars that education could rest upon.  

To “simultaneously provide maps of a world in constant turmoil and a compass that will enable people to find their way in it”, the Delors commission proposed learning to know, learning to do, learning to live together, and learning to be as four fundamental types of learning. Each deserved equal attention. And together they were to form a whole that would guide education across the human lifespan.  

Change, complexity – also fragility, precarity and uncertainty – are very much with us 25 years later. The COVID pandemic has held up a mirror and shown us that we remain far from making our societies more just, equitable and inclusive. It is also clear that we still have much work to do to avert ecological catastrophe. But, COVID has also reinforced the conviction of many that mutual support, the cooperative sharing of resources, and collective action provide the right moral coordinates and give good reason for hope.  

The commons movement is one suggested strategy for leveraging mutuality, cooperation and collective action for a better world. Presented by David Bollier of The Next System Project as “at once a paradigm, a discourse, an ethic, and a set of social practices,” the commons has been held up as holding great promise for transforming societies. Important here is the common as what is shared, commoning as what is done together, and the common good as what is built and cared for by individuals together.  

No commons simply exists on its own. A commons needs to be nurtured, at times protected. And if we accept that “commoning” skills and competencies are high among those needed in the present for the futures we want to create, we might consider reorienting the Delors “four pillars” around the commons.  Reworking each of these pillars in relation to building capacity for commoning actions and strengthening the common good offers a compass and map well suited for the collective challenges of our present historical juncture.

Learning to study, inquire and co-construct together

Within a commons framing, acquiring knowledge needs to be recast as not simply enabling individuals, but rather as connecting individuals to one another and interegenerationally to the common knowledge resources of humanity.  A commoning paradigm requires attention to the collective ways knowledge is accessed, used, and created.  The knowledge pillar supporting education would then need to be oriented towards learning to study, inquire and co-construct together. This revision would highlight the social dimensions of learning, as well as the diverse and networked dimensions of knowledge. Reworking the “learning to know” pillar in this way would point educators towards constructivist pedagogical approaches and towards viewing their students as learning communities. It would highlight the knowledge commons as an intergenerational resource and conversation that has been built and nurtured across millennia.

Learning to collectively mobilize

The Delors Commission’s discussion of “learning to do” almost exclusively narrowed to the issue of putting learning into practice in the workplace. A commons framing would recast this in terms of skills and competencies that enable collective action. The collaboration capability thus foregrounded would be valuable in the world of work and far beyond. The doing pillar that supports education would need to be oriented to learning to collectively mobilize. Focusing educational efforts on empowering learners to take action together surfaces the importance of deliberation, cross-cultural communication and coalition building.

Learning to live in a common world

Setting “learning to live together“ as a key pillar puts education on the right track. As the COVID disruptions have unfolded, humanity has been reminded just how closely we are linked to one another biologically, politically, and socially. (Though at times this last has painfully manifested through its absence and deferral.) While “together” is a robust concept, we cannot let it only mean peaceful “living with others” co-existence. Tolerating and respecting the rights of others and the ways of being of others is a first step. But, the challenge for humans living on planet earth in 2021 is to make healthy, sustainable ways of co-living: with one another and with the planet. Orienting this pillar towards learning to live in a common world elevates the importance of education that engages with our common humanity and with the natural world of which we are a part. This change enables us to reshape common living as intertwined and a fundamentally shared experience.

Learning to attend and care

When the Delors Commission presented “learning to be”, it placed great emphasis on the development of one’s personality and being able to act with independence, judgment and personal responsibility. The role of education in supporting people in freedom of thought, critical thinking, and the realization of their own self-chosen purposes is not to be overlooked. At the same time, we have seen the insidious dangers of acquisitive individualism and diminished empathy that appear when autonomy comes entirely at the expense of an understanding of relationality. Applying a commons framing to the pillar of education that emphasizes the development of the complete person, we would do well to think in terms of learning to attend and care. This would entail understanding ourselves as persons who are simultaneously capable and vulnerable. It would force us to reflect on how we affect and are affected by others and the world. It would require that educators focus their work on the rights and responsibilities that come into play in our relationships and interdependencies. A commoning paradigm would take problems of caring-about, caring-for, care-giving and care-receiving as inextricably social and moral questions that call for individuals to take action together and share responsibility. Considering this one of the fundamental pillars of education would put our relationships with one another and with a more-than-human world at the center of educational practice.

This piece has suggested that core educational foundations can be usefully reworked to value and empower individuals as they also leverage mutuality, cooperation and collective action for a better world. The Delors four pillars can be updated to better support educators who are working to design meaningful learning experiences. Using a commons framework to foreground what we share together, what we do together, and what we build together helps us reimagine the skills and competencies most needed in the present for the futures we want to create.


Noah W. Sobe is Senior Project Officer in the Future of Learning and Innovation team at UNESCO.  He is a former president of the Comparative and International Education Society (CIES) and holds a faculty position as Professor of Cultural and Educational Studies at Loyola University Chicago. 


Cite this article (APA format)
Sobe, N. W. (10 February 2021) Reworking Four Pillars of Education to Sustain the Commons. UNESCO Futures of Education Ideas LAB.  Retrieved from https://en.unesco.org/futuresofeducation/ideas-lab/sobe-reworking-four-pillars-education-sustain-commons

Cite this article (MLA format)
Sobe, Noah W. "Reworking Four Pillars of Education to Sustain the Commons". UNESCO Futures of Education Ideas LAB. 10 February 2021, https://en.unesco.org/futuresofeducation/ideas-lab/sobe-reworking-four-pillars-education-sustain-commons


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