6 December 2021
Are we ready for a leap forward in education?

The opinions of more than 1m people were collected over two years to compile Reimagining Our Futures Together: A New Social Contract For Education, a groundbreaking new report released last month by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

Education must be fit to face existential challenges, the report says, such as rising economic and digital inequality, the destruction wrought by the pandemic and the threat of climate change. We must fundamentally rethink the purpose of education and the way it is delivered.

The Unesco document also calls for deep reflection on what kind of society we want to build, as well as a new social contract between policymakers, educators, students and parents to drive that vision forward.

‘Luminaries’ to light the way

Essentially, Unesco wants its Reimagining report to kick off a global debate—across both wealthy and less affluent nations, with nobody left behind. And this worthwhile goal aligns perfectly with that of the Yidan Prize, the world’s highest education accolade.

The Yidan Prize aims to inspire progress and change to create a better tomorrow for everyone through education. Of the HK$30m (US$3.9m) awarded to each winning person or team, half is a cash prize and half is a project fund—enabling laureates to scale up their work.

In support of its mission, last year the Yidan Prize Foundation established its Council of Luminaries, bringing together international experts in the field of education, including researchers, neuroscientists, psychologists, economists, statisticians and innovators from around the world.

These luminaries have already actively improved education for millions of people globally. Now they are collaborating to speak with a collective voice on issues that genuinely matter, releasing their own report—entitled Are We Ready For a Leap Forward in Education?—in June of this year, and contributing expertise and knowledge to the Unesco release. 

What’s more, on December 5 the Yidan Prize Foundation gathered members of the council and other leading lights in education at the 2021 Yidan Prize Summit and Ceremony, a hybrid online-offline event held from Hong Kong, with attendees discussing the most pressing issues uncovered by the Leap Forward and Reimagining reports.

With the world now beginning to rebuild after the pandemic, the council believes we have an unmissable chance to do more than just restore our educational systems. Such systems must be reimagined for a new era, and the Yidan Prize community is driving conversations to answer a fundamental question: What can we do now to create a better future through education?

Prioritise teachers to emerge stronger

There are many answers to that question. One key solution, the Council of Luminaries believes, lies in “making teachers and school leaders a priority”.

“Schools have a huge impact on students. That impact is not seen by how many laboratories schools have, or how much experience the teachers have,” Professor Eric A. Hanushek said at the 2021 Yidan Prize Summit. “In fact, research shows that impact comes from high-quality teachers who increase the rate of student learning.”

As well as being a member of the Council of Luminaries and laureate of the 2021 Yidan Prize for Education Research, Hanushek is the Paul and Jean Hannah Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University. His research spans key areas of education policy for both developed and developing countries, including the economic value of teacher quality and the role of education in economic growth.

Hanushek’s studies point out that a highly skilled, high-performing teaching force is critical to better learning outcomes for students.

The Leap Forward report, meanwhile, argues that school systems would be improved by gathering evidence on teacher effectiveness, then providing teachers with access to that research and training in how to use it. Leadership would be made stronger by focusing on building up the capacity of the world’s teacher corps.

Putting students’ needs first

The council also believes that education must focus not only on standard achievement tests, but also on broader measures. Schools of the future should consider not just academic achievements but socio-emotional skills, problem solving, teamwork, mindsets and citizenship.

Personalised, student-driven learning is taking off, and it is increasingly important to place learners at the centre of education, the council argues. Educators should make it their mission to develop the talents of every student.

To achieve this, it will be important “to start at the child’s level, not at the level of the curriculum”, Dr Rukmini Banerji, member of the Council of Luminaries, laureate of the 2021 Yidan Prize for Education Development and chief executive of the Pratham Education Foundation, said at the summit.  

To this end, Banerji and her team at Mumbai-based Pratham Education Foundation employ a “Teaching at the Right Level” (TaRL) approach to teaching and learning, whereby every child is assessed and grouped according to learning level and not by age or grade, engaging in activities and using materials appropriate to their level.

Teachers dedicate time to ­­­ensuring basic foundational skills are in place, so that students can read fluently with understanding, before moving towards the existing grade-level curriculum.

Evidence shows that the TaRL approach consistently improves learning outcomes in contexts where a majority of children are behind the grade-level curriculum.

A better world through education

Ultimately, the world needs answers to climate change, inequality and other social challenges that will only be met by a generation educated in schools that are more innovative, more student-centred and more determined to help every child to learn.

“We need an open global dialogue, bringing together the brightest minds to inspire progress and accelerate change and action within education to help shape a brighter, better future,” says Edward Ma, secretary-general of the Yidan Prize Foundation.

The Yidan Council of Luminaries believes that society can make this leap forward — and that reimagined education will make tomorrow brighter for everyone.

This article originally appeared on Financial Times December 6th 2021. No endorsement by Financial Times is implied.