We’ve never known more about the impact of education than we do right now.
For the first time in history, we have 70 years of research at our fingertips that shows the impact of education—as well as modelling our future to the end of the 21st century. So while the idea of education as the bedrock of human progress goes back centuries, we now have decades of data to prove that’s exactly what it is.
That’s the focus of a paper we’ve developed with the Wittgenstein Centre for Demography and Global Human Capital. In Education: The key to global sustainable development, we explore the evidence that places education at the centre of human life. And we show how it’s the key to making our world healthier, fairer, richer—and more resilient to global threats like climate change.
The research tells us that education helps us live longer and more productive lives. It physically moulds our minds, changing our behaviour for the better. And we can now see that—although education is a long game—we can make progress, fast.
Literacy gaps prevent global progress—so we must close them.
The gap between the world’s most and least skilled adult populations is growing. When we look at the difference between countries where people emerge from education with strong literacy skills, and places where they don’t, it’s equivalent to an extra ten years in school. And we know that skilled populations lead to economic growth.
So if we want people, countries, and our globalized world to develop and thrive, we need to make sure that every learner has access to quality education in essential skills. That means investing in more, better trained, and properly supported teachers.
But it’s an investment we can prove pays off in the long term. We all know about the correlation between greater wealth and longer life expectancy. But when we lay out the data visually—as in our paper—we can see that it’s education that actually maps most closely with living longer, healthier lives. Finally, we have an answer to the chicken-and-egg problem: education comes first, and longevity and prosperity follow.
Education literally changes our minds.
We now have research that shows the effect education has on our brains. It makes us more capable of abstract thinking, and more able to calculate risk. And we know it’s not simply genetic: how we interact with the world around us shapes our brains, so identical twins raised differently show very different behaviour.
That’s because we learn from experience, and repetition: familiar faces stay with us, while we quickly forget strangers. We lay down neural networks that get faster and faster at processing similar experiences and combining information. With every new thing we learn, we are, literally, different people than we were before. And those people are better at making the kinds of choices that lead to healthier, longer, more productive lives.
We have a blueprint for building a better world.
The report concludes that there are five policy areas where we can take action, now. We can:
- Invest in early years support that gets children primed to learn. Like the Finnish neuvola (‘advisory’) system that offers free medical care, mental development check-ups and education counselling long before formal schooling starts.
- Give every child at least ten years of education. Even better, 12. The evidence shows universal primary education alone isn’t enough to pull countries out of poverty—but investing in quality secondary education can.
- Train more, and better, teachers. Nothing makes a bigger difference than confident, motivated teachers that empower and inspire their students.
- Use all the technology at hand. With a grounding in basic literacy and critical thinking skills—and especially the guidance of a good teacher—technology means students can navigate their own learning, and broaden their horizons.
- Set ourselves up for lifelong learning. Our world is changing—as are the skills we need to thrive. We can’t expect that what children learn in school now will still be relevant at work in 30 years. And opportunities for adult learning keep people healthier and more active into old age.
At the Yidan Prize Foundation, we bring together people and ideas that are already changing the world for the better. We’re building networks of the world’s brightest thinkers—including educators, economists, statisticians, and neuroscientists. With this increasing wealth of information showing us that education is the fundamental force for change, we inform and influence policymakers to invest in all our tomorrows.