The educational tinkerers (part 1)


By May 29, 2024

Innovation in education has many faces: those of students and teachers in classrooms in Tallinn, Nairobi, or Bobigny, those of educators in research laboratories in Belo Horizonte or London, and those of refugees in camps in Sudan. For everyone, education is the answer to a question asked differently but with the same promise: a better, fairer, and more sustainable world for all. The ideal and idealized vision of education has spanned ages from Socrates or Saint Augustine to the digital age and generative artificial intelligence.

The Mother of All Battles

Despite images of hundreds of millions of children on their way to school and tens of millions of teachers committed to training them, we still see schools closed and children deprived of education in cities and villages transformed into new battlefields worldwide. Education remains, despite our efforts, a random answer to vital questions. The French Prime Minister, once a short-lived Minister of Education, said education is the mother of all battles. This warlike vocabulary is used to mobilize parents, teachers, students, public authorities, and businesses. But to what end?

Countries worldwide have made access to quality education one of our sustainable development goals, alongside protecting the planet and ensuring health and well-being for all. Are we close to this goal? Education is also primarily a matter of measurement. What impact does education have on the lives of those who receive it? Does it really lead to better jobs, better wages, and more responsible behavior for a fairer and more cohesive life?

Diverse Concerns

For MIT or Imperial College students, education is the royal road to innovation in health, for example. These prestigious universities’ laboratories will produce new cancer drugs, just as they did for COVID-19. However, university education remains a privilege of a minority, while primary and secondary compulsory education faces incredibly diverse challenges.

In Africa, the goal for tens of thousands of children is simply to arrive at school alive, crossing unmarked roads at the risk of their lives. Finding a free desk in classrooms of 100 or more students is the daily reality for tens of thousands more. Meanwhile, in Europe, the student-teacher ratio below 10 is prioritized to combat dropout in the most vulnerable neighborhoods on the outskirts of major cities. In dozens of countries, 130 million young girls are denied education, and millions more face daily threats to their integrity. Absenteeism is a recurring problem in low- and high-income countries. For some, it’s often a health issue, with intestinal parasites or the lack of school meals preventing millions of young people from attending school regularly. For others, often thousands of miles away in the richest countries, children’s malaise, grade anxiety, and the loss of family and social reference points cause absenteeism and dropout.

Measuring Impact

As education is a matter of measurement, we must rely on data collected worldwide to evaluate educational systems’ performance. PISA studies for OECD countries and data gathered by the United Nations and the World Bank for low-income countries.

In the wealthiest OECD countries, the gap between a “West” often in educational regression and an “East” asserting its leadership in 21st-century skills is widening. To summarize, the skills of students in Taiwan, Singapore, South Korea, Macao, Japan, as well as Shanghai and other Chinese provinces measured by PISA, are significantly superior to their American or European counterparts in mathematics, reading, and science. (These results are often linked to values of effort, self-improvement, and social pressure at the expense of children’s mental health.) This gap has been widening for the past ten years. This divergence is not yet seen in higher education, still dominated by Anglo-Saxon universities.

Low-income countries still face endemic difficulties in accessing quality education: only one in six countries seems able to achieve the target of universal secondary school completion by 2030. It is estimated that over 80 million children and young people will still be out of school by then, and about 300 million students will lack the basic skills in arithmetic, reading, and writing needed to succeed in life.

Two-Speed Education

There is indeed a two-speed education (at least), between countries and within countries, where educational systems often exacerbate inequalities. In France, minority private schools host an elite distinguished by their academic and later university success, practicing near-total social exclusion of disadvantaged social classes, according to data compiled by economist Thomas Piketty. In Brazil, public universities, conversely, host the Brazilian elite, leaving private universities to meet the needs of millions of disadvantaged young Brazilians. Many educational systems find their modus operandi to ultimately become inequality factories.

(to be followed)

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