We stand at a critical moment in history. Climate change, the Covid-19 pandemic, food insecurity, inequality, and other key challenges threaten our way of living. To build a more equitable, sustainable, and peaceful future, we need solutions rooted in education.
January 24 is International Day of Education. This year, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization and its partners will celebrate it under the theme of "Changing Course, Transforming Education".
At the Yidan Prize Foundation, we share UNESCO's belief that quality education is a fundamental right, and we need insightful policies, concrete action, and global commitment to address widespread disparities in education, and transform how the world teaches and learns.
Education Comes First, and Longevity and Economic Growth Follow
In Education: The key to global sustainable development, a paper launched by the Yidan Prize Foundation in collaboration with the Wittgenstein Center for Demography and Global Human Capital in July 2021, we examined 70 years of consolidated research on the benefits of education, based on data from 185 countries.
The data shows the widening gap between the world's most and least skilled adult populations. 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 human capital is a fundamental prerequisite for economic progress and strong institutions. The quality of education in terms of measurable skills has been shown to greatly impact earnings and health at the individual level, and economic growth and employment rates on the macro level.
Investment in education pays off in other ways too. Life expectancy has increased globally from just 45 years in 1950 to above 70 years presently. We have long known about the correlation between increasing income and longer life expectancy, but in fact, the data shows increased life expectancy maps more closely with educational attainment.
The data also allows us to model multiple scenarios, exploring the potential impact of different education investment and expansion strategies over the next 80 years. For developing economies, these models show how education drives economic growth and social progress, and this data can help governments place education front and center on the policy agenda.
We Need an Education System that is Fair, Efficient, and Flexible
The evidence is clear: quality learning shapes how we think, what we do, and how well we live. It makes us more capable of abstract thinking and more able to calculate risks. Indeed, it's the key determinant of health, demographic transitions, economic growth, effective institutions, and even our resilience to climate change.
This means that globally, a strong education system is directly connected to the future of humanity. 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. A fair, efficient, and flexible system will mean no one misses out because of a lack of opportunity.
We Have a Blueprint for Creating a Better World Through Education
UNESCO's Futures of Education report, published in November 2021, calls for everyone, from teachers and schools to community leaders and institutions, to help us shape peaceful, just, and sustainable futures. Action must be taken at every level. And we must bridge the gap between research and practice in education. Only then will current and future generations build the knowledge and skills required to solve the world's most pressing issues.
But where do we begin? In our paper, Education: The Key to Sustainable Development, we propose five data-driven policy priorities: 1) invest in early childhood education; 2) give every child at least 10 to 12 years of quality education; 3) train more, and better teachers; 4) use technology to support learning; and 5) recognize learning as a lifelong necessity.
To see significant progress in each of these five areas, we need innovation, reform, greater investment, and global cooperation. As the paper summarizes, "Humanity faces titanic challenges for the rest of this century... Only informed and empowered people will be able to contribute productively to this task."
Our Newest Yidan Prize Laureates Show Us the Impact of Closing Education Gaps
Professor Eric A. Hanushek — Paul and Jean Hanna Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University, and our 2021 Education Research laureate — has shaped education policies in both developing and developed countries for decades. His research shows that the most consistent correlation with economic growth is a skilled population.
In other words, spending years on end in education won't make a difference unless students leave with a comprehensive set of skills — as well as the ability to adapt and keep learning throughout their adult lives. Eric's work suggests we need to focus on students' learning outcomes, and to design better and fairer systems for evaluating teacher and school performance.
At India's Pratham Education Foundation, CEO and 2021 Education Development laureate Dr Rukmini Banerji drives programs that close skills gaps in primary education. Under the banner of "every child in school and learning well", she and her team develop high-quality, low-cost, community-focused interventions that demonstrably improve learning outcomes.
One of its globally replicated programs, Teaching at the Right Level (TaRL), directly addresses why some children leave school without foundational skills. With TaRL, teachers assess children and group them based on their learning needs rather than by age or grade. Children only move on to the next stage when they're ready to do so — meaning no one is left behind.
When every child can learn at their own pace, guided by excellent teachers, supported by fair, efficient, and flexible education systems, not only are they better off for it, but we tap into vast pools of potential. After all, these are the generations who could solve our biggest problems, from global inequality to climate change.
The International Day of Education Gives Us an Opportunity to Reflect—and Act
The Yidan Prize was established to celebrate and champion the most innovative and effective ideas in education that drive social progress.
In the five years since establishing the Yidan Prize, we have recognized and amplified the work of 11 laureates around the world. All laureates join the Council of Luminaries, which brings together distinguished education leaders to drive the global education conversation and accelerate the pace of education reforms.
On 24 January 2022, while we celebrate decades of global progress in improving education, we also need to fix our eyes on the future, face up to the challenges, and commit to using all the evidence at our fingertips to create a better world through education.