Our world faces new challenges and is also changing at lightning speed. 

This opens up opportunities to develop and progress, but there are still many barriers to overcome. By UNESCO’s measure, 250 million children and youth are out of school, and 763 million adults lack basic literacy. Poverty and gender inequality remain urgent problems to solve.  

Yet we know the most powerful driver for change: quality and inclusive education, accessible to all. Education can help us change the course of existential threats such as climate change, conflicts, job-market shifts and inequalities. It can equip individuals with the skills to lay the foundations for lasting peace. And it can unlock the potential of the next generation to navigate and meet such challenges and, indeed, to build the world they want.  

So how can we reshape education to rise to the challenge? 

What it means to teach and learn well 

We now know a lot more about how students learn and how best to teach them. And we have practical methods to apply that knowledge, thanks to the work of innovators like Professor Michelene Chi, a cognitive scientist and Regents Professor at Arizona State University and recipient of the 2023 Yidan Prize for Education Research.  

Chi’s research focuses on how to foster deep understanding in the classroom. She has developed a ground-breaking theory of cognitive engagement that identifies four different modes of learning: interactive, constructive, active, and passive (ICAP). She has unified multiple theories of active learning into a coherent framework that teachers can embed in classrooms worldwide at every level, from kindergarten to university and beyond. In essence, Chi’s work gives us the blueprint for the thinking skills at the heart of a quality education—and with it, the keys to one of the fundamental levers for economic development.  

At the most recent Yidan Prize annual summit, UN development expert Joe Colombano reminded us that “Education holds the transformative power to enhance economic status and improve outcomes, shaping societies and the lives of individuals”. Education is innately connected to our economic systems. So when we know what it is to teach and learn well, we can unlock potential for learners everywhere, transforming societies. 

We also know a lot more about who is learning. The pandemic laid bare many inequities in education opportunity—disadvantages rooted in poverty, gender, geography, legal status of refugees, disability, and internet access. 

Dismantling barriers to quality education 

Many efforts rightly focus on increasing enrolment at primary level and keeping vulnerable students in schools. But there are also enormous barriers to entering higher education. Only 10% of the world’s lowest-income populations had access to higher education in 2018 compared to 77% of higher-income populations, according to a UNESCO study. This also found that, over two decades, the lowest-income countries had the lowest participation increases. Cost is one deterrent, but there are many others: a shortage of university places for qualified students, cultural barriers, gender discrimination, family and work commitments—all limit access 

These were exactly the issues Shai Reshef, the 2023 Yidan Prize for Education Research Laureate, sought to address when he founded University of the People. It’s a tuition-free, non-profit, American-accredited online university. Courses build on the strengths of virtual learning, particularly flexibility and accessibility. Under Reshef’s leadership, University of the People retains some of the beneficial aspects of a more traditional experience, such as class sizes of 20-30, personalized attention and a dedicated adviser for each student. 

Since its launch, enrolment has grown to over 137,000 students globally. Most come from countries where low incomes and relatively scarce university places make accessing higher education a struggle. Others face financial, geographical, cultural, or political hurdles. Some 16,500 students are refugees and 3,000 Afghan women—banned from higher education in their country—are studying online from their homes. 

Writing a new storyline on education 

Yidan Prize laureates and luminaries advance a compelling vision of how education could and should change, with speed, scale, and justice. They offer profound insights into the transformative power of early childhood development, play-based and active learning, collective leadership, inclusion, and how technological advances can improve teaching and learning.  

Their work reinforces my belief in the transformative power of ideas. Their collective vision leads us to understand that all students can and must succeed. They challenge us to reconsider what good classrooms and good teaching practices look like.  

These visionary educators also remind us to keep an open mind and imagine alternative futures. They are pushing the frontiers of psychology, neuroscience, economics, and technology to construct a vision of education that upends conventional thinking. Gone are the ideas that a child’s intelligence is fixed, that culture rather than poverty keeps girls and minorities out of school, or that higher education is the domain of a privileged few. 

They are writing new storylines for education that would have been difficult to imagine just a few years ago; storylines that shape new futures and renew our faith in education’s power to change individual lives and societies. 

These educators demonstrate that good education can be available to everyone. They provide not just stories, but also blueprints for action. The transformative power of education lies in our collective hands.

Photo credit: BRAC

This article originally appeared on Financial Times 24 January 2024. No endorsement by Financial Times is implied.



Professor Michelene Chi, 2023 Yidan Prize for Education Research Laureate

Shai Reshef, 2023 Yidan Prize for Education Development Laureate