Pile of 4 books with apple on top and colouring pencils by the side.

What should a 21st century education be? The answer is simple.

What should a 21st century education be? The answer is simple.

by Ger Graus

From the Dutch coal miner’s grandson to the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, Ground Zero in New York, the Pyramids in Giza, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, the Great Wall of China, or wherever my life has taken me. I stand on top of my hill and see my grandfather over there, and in the other direction my children – my eldest daughter as Senior Account Executive at Edelman, my youngest daughter entering her GCSE year, full of promise, and my son having only recently completed his final year at Oxford University. Social mobility personified. The moral high-ground is a beautiful vantage point.

“Whatever the question, education is always the answer”, Archbishop Desmond Tutu told me on his 86th birthday, after a shared portion of vanilla ice cream at a family celebration in Cape town. Here, I would like to share with you some of my thinking around children, their inspirations and aspirations, the educational confusion we find ourselves in globally, and what to do about it to help create a tomorrow that is slightly better than today – my definition of social mobility. The source of my thinking stems from my curriculum vitae, not just in professional terms but heavily influenced by the university of life.  And not a single mention of Covid-19; I promise.

“Playing football is very simple, but playing simple football is the hardest thing there is.”

– Johan Cruijff


This applies to education too.  The first rule needs to be to focus on the child. The second one not to overcomplicate things. Simple.

Children can only aspire to what they know exists.

The greatest challenge we face every day is to do the right thing for every child. It is the lottery of inequality from birth that it is so hard to apply fairness to, especially in education systems that appear obsessed with maintaining the status quo, mass-approaches, and where there is little room for knowing the individual and what makes them tick.

Let me tell you a story about Wythenshawe, a place of significant socio-economic disadvantage in the north of England, adjacent to Manchester Airport, and now also known as the place Marcus Rashford[1] comes from. I was Education Director there in the early 2000s and often asked children what jobs they could do at the airport. The answers I got were what they could see: baggage handler, passport control, driving busses, security – one-third of the airport’s job total. When I pointed out that you can fly aeroplanes too, the answer I got was: “People from Wythenshawe don’t fly planes”. From six-year-olds! The aspirational ceiling firmly in place, put there by us! And for Wythenshawe read Amsterdam, New York, Beijing, Johannesburg or Moscow …

Children can only aspire to what they know exists! It is our collective duty to twitch curtains, open windows and doors, and widen horizons to a better possible – online and off, for each and every child.

After other children and adults, the environment is the third teacher.

And when we do this, we find ourselves in a world where “not every classroom has four walls”, where the environment becomes a teacher.

Should we not collectively draw up a list of experiences, outside school, we believe our children are entitled to by, let’s say, age seven – and then again at eleven, fourteen, sixteen? Museums, galleries, restaurants, ballet, sports, concerts, being part of a team, performing, receiving an award, places of work, and government, visiting their capital cities, social media … Should we not aim to create ‘Learning Cities’, ‘Learning Communities’ and ‘Learning Families’, remembering also, that virtual is actually real? To all involved, the value of the connection between being taught in school and experiences out there will soon become very clear – believe me.

“If you have a strong purpose in life, you don’t have to be pushed. Your passion will drive you there.”

– Roy T. Bennet.


Let us add to the ‘wilding the tame’ agenda to influence positively a sense of adventure in a risk-averse world.

We live in a world that is strangely contradictory. On the one hand ever speedier global access to knowledge, news, events and more, with an increasing need to be able to research, analyse and judge. On the other hand, ever narrowing education curricula and testing, ever greater emphasis on over-protection in the name of health and safety. No wonder our children find themselves at times confused. How on earth will they acquire the skills to make informed decisions, take calculated risks, learn from their mistakes? Should we not move towards a more ‘free-range learning’ approach and include risk? Without elements of calculated risk, self-confidence is below where it might be and, surely, we will be wondering in years to come why our supply of entrepreneurs – calculated risk-takers by definition – has dried up.

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.”

– Henry Ford


We must measure what we value, rather than value what we can measure.

Educationally we seem to believe our own hype and are turning our so-called success stories into “fake news”. We test and publish our findings in league tables. We have come to believe that, to coin a phrase, “weighing the pig makes it fatter”. We have grown to value that which we can measure, instead of measuring what we value. Our education world is Kafka-esque. What is it that we are trying to achieve? How well do we actually know our children, beyond of course their predicted grades?

Let me briefly tell you about KidZania’s® ‘Global Barometer of Children’s Aspirations’:

▪ Let me tell you about the half a million or so four to fourteen-year-olds whose first choices we analysed at KidZanias® across the world.

▪ Let me tell you that in all cases the stereotypes were set pre-school, at the age of four – from pilot to cabin crew and from hairdresser to courier;

▪ that there was very little change between the ages of four and fourteen;

▪ that almost all girls, regardless of their background, chose activities below their age range and almost all boys above;

▪ and that there is irrefutable evidence that children can only aspire to what they know exists: male and female, black and white, rich and poor, urban and rural, from whichever country.

Let me ask you, when we know all this, why it is that we wait until the age of fourteen before we engage children in being aware about what their futures might hold and how they might get there? A decade too late!

Our education systems are based on the requirements of the past. Every economic age has its core asset, and, in our time, this is knowledge, skills and character qualities. Every year the world of work tells the world of education that what is being produced does not meet the necessary requirements in terms of skills and competencies. Our schooling now does not cater for the requirements of today let alone tomorrow; we need to learn that in 21st century education:

“Every child is everybody’s responsibility.”

– Vanessa Langley

The key question arising from our research is: who are the teachers? The answer is, of course, all of us!


We aim for children to understand that learning is a satellite navigation system to better places in life.

We need to introduce into education and schooling early opportunities to be aware of the world around us and the futures it may hold – let us for now call it ‘Futures Awareness™’. Experience is everything.

For our children to connect with the purpose of schooling and education, we need to, of course, provide knowledge and understanding. But how? And why? We need to utilise what is available to us – in terms of technology for example, but also in terms of all that says, “not all classrooms have four walls”. We are the facilitators enabling children to join the dots and recognise that experiences are “the appliance of the science”, “the theory into practice”, “the why answers” and often “the awe and wonder”. We need to empower children to make sense of the world, as agents of their own change and guide them to discovering their own inspirations and aspirations. Then we need to support them in finding their roadmaps and help them to get there, from an early age.

Children need to be able to write their own narrative of the possible.

For this to be achieved we need to become our children’s ‘Allies of Empowerment’. We need to make experience-based learning and partnership our modus operandus, purpose our watch-word, high standards and a sense of achievement our aim, and our children’s wellbeing and preparedness for tomorrow our promise.

We are all teachers: the businesswoman, the bricklayer, the beekeeper, the baseball player and Mr. Beurskens. Mr. Beurskens was my teacher and it is because of him, professionally, that I am who I am, and do what I do today. And, of course, because of my grandfather.

“We must trust the children as much as they trust us.”

– Carla Rinaldi


Perhaps in future we should not just simply ask children what they want to be, but rather who they want to be like.

“Competencies to shape the future: It is about acting rather than to be acted upon, shaping rather than to be shaped and choosing rather than to accept choices decided by others.”

OECD’s Education 2030 Strategy

‘The Future We Want’

[1] Marcus Rashford MBE is an English professional footballer who plays as a forward for Premier League club Manchester United and the England national team.

We talk more about education and stereotypes and how we can challenge them in our blog here.


Prof Dr Ger Graus OBE is the Global Director of Education at KidZania, a Visiting Professor at the National research University Moscow, and Board Director for Hello Genius. He globally advises a range of businesses and NGOs on the concept of ‘Return on Involvement’ and was invited by His Highness Sheikh Hamadan Bin Mohammed Al Maktoum, Crown Price of Dubai, to help shape the future of education in Dubai as a member of the Dubai Future Councils.

In the 2014 Queen’s Birthday Honours List Ger Graus was made an Honorary Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (OBE) for services to children.

In his book ‘Natural Born Learners’, author Alex Beard says: “In learning terms, Ger Graus is Jean-Jacques Rousseau meets Willy Wonka.”


Image credit: Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

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