January 24 is International Education Day. This year, the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization, UNESCO and its partners, will celebrate this auspicious day by highlighting the heroic efforts to protect and promote education during the COVID-19 pandemic.
International Education Day provides us with an opportunity to reflect on some remarkable achievements in education over the past eighty or so years. In the late 1940s, UNESCO hosted a committee of philosophers who laid the foundation for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 26 of the Declaration commits all signatory nations to the principle that: “Everyone has the right to education.” These seemingly simple, yet historic words transformed the way governments perceived their responsibilities towards their citizens and, more importantly, how people viewed themselves—as being worthy of receiving an education.
The rapid growth of learning at all levels in the second half of the twentieth century profoundly changed the lives of individuals and societies. Widespread educational opportunities built the skills, research capabilities, and social and civic attitudes that underpinned progress on all social issues, from food security to communications, from transportation to health care. Education began to provide a pathway out of poverty for hundreds of millions of people. It helped build vibrant centers of innovation and the abundant civic and cultural spaces that we enjoy today.
The Impact of COVID-19
It is in this context that the COVID-19 pandemic came as a shock. That 600 million children are still out of school a year since the pandemic began needs to be understood as a threat to huge progress made. We need to comprehend the impact not just in terms of the impact on individuals, on their hopes and aspirations, but also the impact on mass society. We need to think of the sheer magnitude of loss of human potential over the past year, that would have been a driver of our collective well-being.
COVID-19 has brought inequality in our education systems to the forefront. Young people on the wrong side of the digital divide have been hurt disproportionately. Children who were already marginalized by, for example, poverty, gender or disability have been hurt. Education for children with learning differences has been disrupted. Many of these children are thought to be at risk of never returning to school.
However, amid the pandemic and disruption, innovation continues to emerge, and human enthusiasm and hard work still shine. We join UNESCO in applauding the remarkable achievements of governments, school leaders, teachers, parents and students to adapt and innovate under stress. We salute the educators who have found new ways to teach; who have “upskilled” by learning to use new technologies; and who have made extraordinary efforts to keep marginalized children engaged. We also honor previous generations of educators who cultivated the talent of scientists and health workers who are now leading us out of the crisis.
As we slowly emerge from the pandemic, let us think what kind of world we want to build, the role education needs to play in developing our children to actively shape a better world. The next generation will be affected deeply by all the new challenges, including climate change, jobs and technology, and inequality. Education systems need to prepare young people for this future. Globalization is binding together economies, environments and people like never before; making nurturing young people everywhere a common goal.
Committed to Excellence in Education
The Yidan Prize recognizes excellence in educational research and innovation in practice. We are committed to building a better world through education. By shining a spotlight on some of best ideas and innovations in the field, the Yidan Prize will contribute to building education systems that will keep us on the journey of progress, even as the world experiences dramatic change. We dream of a future where schools are more inclusive, where children learn to love learning, and relish taking on difficult challenges with open minds, intelligence and passion. That is the future we want; it is the future we need.
Firstly, we should make more space for discovery and innovation. At an individual level, a child captivated by the spark of discovery is a motivated learner. At the systems level, experimentation can help education become a more scientific discipline. At the policy level, adhering to these principles implies opening-up space for new actors, including NGOs and digital innovators seeking to make education more widely available. Our education leaders believe that commitment to equity in particular can drive innovation.
Secondly, our education leaders encourage us to understand how the schools of the future might be different and are beginning to lay the foundations now. This requires building a talented and motivated group of teachers and school leaders; incorporating new insights from scientific studies of early childhood and early learning environments; adopting teaching methods and curriculum to develop twenty-first century skills; making personalized learning a reality; and exploiting the full potential of technology to deliver equitable, high quality education.
International Education Day in 2021 is a time to celebrate many decades of achievement. It is also a time to reflect on setbacks and to recommit to building more equitable and effective education systems. This is the opportune time for us to work together to create a better world through education.