The 4and annual international day of educationI find myself overwhelmed by some of the thorny paradoxes that mark the development of education globally.
Until the middle of the 20th century, education was essentially a local affair. Although some reformers traveled abroad to find innovative educational practices (notably Horace Mann, Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi and the Qing dynasty), in most cases countries ran their own educational programs and, at the n the interior of the countries, schooling was often decentralized. It was not until after World War II, when several Western governments entered into partnerships to ensure peace and economic stability, that multilateral institutions emerged and began to articulate shared human values and administer them through the through educational efforts. Since then, a global architecture has evolved: an architecture that helps countries adopt educational practices that achieve literacy, career readiness, democratic goals such as gender equity and human rights and, more recently, critical and creative thinking, digital literacy and environmental stewardship. .
This is commendable, but, like so many things where the traditional collides with the modern, where the local overlaps the global, and where power is unevenly distributed, international education efforts are shaped by inherent tensions.
1. Keep local as we embrace the global
Contemporary education funders and policy makers like to borrow from each other and learn from the successes and mistakes of other countries. There is value in not reinventing the wheel (even if, conversely, some organizations prefer to “do it themselves”). Currently, therefore, a relatively small menu of pedagogical innovations is circulating world (e.g., education technology, charter schools, online teacher development, after-school volunteer mentoring, and student-centered teaching).
However, this homogenization of innovations reduces the scope of what is thinkable and available in education. Does it discourage new or alternative ideas? How does a country capitalize on its strengths and unique characteristics if its education agenda is dominated by the political agendas of other countries? And which countries’ reforms dominate the reform menu – those with foreign aid to provide, or those that score high on the scorecards?
Identifying what is suitable for a particular location, researching new solutions while building on the existing knowledge base can seem like incompatible goals.
2. Harnessing the good of modernization while filtering out the bad
For many, modernization is a universal virtue. It is difficult for most of us to argue against girls’ access to quality education, differentiated instruction, or equal school funding for low-income communities. Public health, strong economies, representative democracy, technological and medical progress and equal rights matter.
Still, some of the aspects that come with the ride – like the remora fish attached to their hosts – give me pause. Is technology really the solution to many educational problems around the world or does it simply replace one set of problems with another? Is GDP really the exalted metricor should education prioritize joy or environmental responsibility rather? Is it possible to distance modernization from vexing neoliberal traits like the new managerialism in education or an overreliance on standardized testing?
3. Improve institutions when everything is connected
The popularity of systemic reform in global education is underpinned by a healthy view of the interconnectedness of all things. As a result, we engage with the complexity of entire systems. We promote holistic implementation frameworks, talk about “transformation” rather than “transferand strive for collaborative buy-in from a wide range of stakeholders and sectors.
For me, the International Day of Education is an exhortation to persevere. Let us be courageous and draw strength from our bonds with each other.
Yet harnessing complexity is elusive. For example, improving education is inseparable from poverty. But to reduce poverty, you have to tackle hunger, which is linked to food scarcity which is probably linked to climate change.
Inevitably, things that can be controlled (like funding formulas or math curricula) are tied to things that can’t (like budget gaps, competing social priorities, or a global pandemic). As a result, we may be disheartened by the enormity of it all.
4. Transform schools while they are still in use
Speaking of COVID-19, the pandemic has revealed that education around the world needs to be structurally transformed, not just cosmetically enhanced. Nineteenth-century practices such as 40 children listening to a single adult standing in front, recitation and factual evaluation, or teaching as a low-paying semi-profession all require much more than a makeover. If we didn’t know it before, we know it now.
Yet, how to rebuild an airplane in the air? We cannot suspend education for a generation while we reorganize institutions and reorganize learning and teaching as contemporary creative human practices. That is why tinker is the norm and surface changes prevail over deep renewal.
Moreover, governance aspires to political victories, a fact that privileges small projects, cheap solutions and short-term efforts. But transforming a country’s education ecosystem requires decades of continuity and shared purpose; egoless leadership at all levels; and financial, political and social commitment.
What does all this mean?
As I contemplate these ingrained tensions, I realize that persevering in education is not to resolve the paradoxes but to strive for success in them: finding the middle way, taking advantage of the advantages of each side while avoiding the pitfalls of each extreme.
It is essential to recognize the plethora of forces that stand in the way of fundamentally improved education systems around the world.
So don’t give up.
And that’s where I find hope. We have learned a lot about improving education over the past decades and a ton over the past 24 months. There are many success stories to discover.
I believe that holism is the best conceptual approach. Systemic reform is the wisest political path. And opening deep learning to all, linking schools to communities, and equitably prioritizing 21st century knowledge and dispositions are the right educational goals. There are millions of educators, researchers, donors, and members of government who care deeply and can come together to thoughtfully combine these transformative dimensions.
For me, the International Day of Education is an exhortation to persevere. Let us be courageous and draw strength from our bonds with each other. Let’s share what works but balance expertise with curiosity, trust with humility. I hope we will share our successes next year on this day.