Date
9 October 2021
Is education the answer to our sustainability questions?

To meet the world’s sustainable development goals, we must start in the schoolroom

The UN has set 17 sustainable development goals (or SDGs). Every one of them is urgent and important: climate action, economic growth, reducing inequalities. So, where do we start? The evidence suggests we should focus our efforts behind one in particular: education.

One goal to boost them all

SDG 4 calls for inclusive, equitable, quality education. Obviously, that’s good in and of itself. But directly or indirectly, it can also help tackle other goals—according to more than 70 years of data.

Education sculpts our social and economic landscape. A recent report by the Wittgenstein Centre for Demography and Global Human Capital and Yidan Prize Foundation showed that a decent education had the strongest correlation with living longer—stronger even than a higher income. And when access to education is accompanied by quality schooling, that can lift a whole country out of poverty. The report concludes that “education is the key to making our world healthier, fairer, and richer”.

There’s no time like the present

The world is still navigating a once-a-century global crisis—one that hit schooling hard. But as we build back better after Covid, we have advantages we’ve never had before.

For a start, we know more than we’ve ever known about the art and science of teaching and learning. We can see that technology holds huge potential for shaping how, where, and when people learn. And we know who’s missing out: poor communities who can’t spare kids for school and lack connectivity; young women and girls; disabled students; young carers; and too many more. So we can target our efforts where they matter most.

And we must. The consequences of falling behind reach far beyond struggling to catch up with the term’s work: for adults, lost learning means lost earning potential. UNICEF reports that 214 million children—or one in seven—lost out on at least three-quarters of their face-to-face teaching time last year. As of today, one in three countries that shut schools has yet to take a single step to close the learning gap.

Meet the people moving us forward

Our best chance of making progress is recognizing the people that are already making an

impact, and giving them the resources and platform they need to scale up their work.

Through its annual education research and education development prizes, the Yidan Prize Foundation does just that. Its mission is to ‘create a better world through education’. To that end, each prize includes project funding, and community support for individuals or teams who are shaping the future of teaching and learning.  

Eric Hanushek puts quality before quantity

This year’s Yidan Prize education research laureate, Eric Hanushek, helped shape SDG 4 by reframing targets for learning outcomes. The Stanford University and Hoover Institution economist’s work shows that it’s how much students learn—and not how many years they spend in school—that boosts economies. Professor Hanushek’s now planning a research fellow programme in sub-Saharan Africa, supporting local researchers to gather high-quality data and translate it into plans policymakers can use.

Rukmini Banerji is leveling up learning

The Pratham CEO and 2021 Yidan Prize education development laureate, Rukmini Banerji, has a treasured ambition: “every child in school and learning well”. The ASER assessment approach pioneered by Dr Banerji and her team revealed literacy and numeracy gaps among children who had already been attending school for a number of years. Many of India’s state governments have since adopted and adapted Pratham’s Teaching at the Right Level (TaRL) approach, reaching 5 million children annually. Dr Banerji now has her sights set on expanding Pratham’s early years programme and collaborative approach to millions more.

A community of changemakers

Of the HK$30 million (or US$3.9 million) awarded to each person or team, half is a cash prize. The other half is a three-year commitment to funding laureates’ work, helping them expand or launch new projects. The foundation is an active partner, featuring laureates at conferences and events, and opening up spaces for collaboration.

One such space is the foundation’s Council of Luminaries, which draws laureates and other experts into a diverse, influential coalition of neuroscientists, psychologists, economists, statisticians, and technology pioneers. Together, they can speak with a collective—louder— voice on the most pressing issues in education.

And those with the power to effect change are listening. Because if we want people to live in the kind of fairer, safer, richer world the SDGs imagine, the evidence suggests we need to start in the schoolroom.  


This advertisement originally appeared in The Economist October 9th 2021 issue. No endorsement by The Economist is implied.