The International Day of Education: Three Reflections from Members of the RISE Team

Carmen Belafi
Yue-Yi Hwa
Michelle Kaffenberger

Today is the International Day of Education, and this year’s theme focuses on “the many ways learning can empower people, preserve the planet, build shared prosperity and foster peace.” The RISE team gives three perspectives on these themes in the context of education in lower-income countries.

Michelle Kaffenberger, on the need for solid foundations to achieve high aims

The themes of “empowering people, preserving the planet, building shared prosperity, and fostering peace” are admirable aims for any education system. Achieving them, however, requires solid education foundations, including literacy and numeracy for all children. On this day, dedicated to education, it is worth a reminder of the foundations that still need to be built.

In seven countries that participated in the first-ever PISA for Development assessment in 2018, on average only 5 percent of all 15-year-olds demonstrated minimum proficiency in mathematics, per the SDG definition of minimum proficiency (Level 2 on the PISA scale). In Cambodia, 3 percent demonstrated proficiency. In Zambia, 1 percent did. Even among just the 15-year-olds who were in school and in at least Grade 7, on average across the seven countries, only 12 percent of this group had achieved minimum proficiency in math.

Across 51 low- and middle-income countries, only half of young women with six years of schooling and no higher can read a single simple sentence in a language of their choosing. Some countries perform better—in Rwanda, nearly all of this group of women can read a simple sentence. But others perform much worse—in Ghana and Nigeria less than 15 percent can.

In India, among 10-year-olds, about half have not gained basic literacy. Among the poorest 40 percent, more than two-thirds of 10-year-olds remain illiterate. 

These are devastating numbers. Basic literacy and numeracy are necessary building blocks for all the other hopes and aspirations we want education to bring for today’s children and youth. How can education “empower people” without delivering literacy? How can it “preserve the planet”, with all the scientific breakthroughs necessary to do so, if children can’t do basic math?

Education systems and the global education community have big goals and high hopes for what they want children to gain from education. They should help children achieve these goals by ensuring children have solid foundations to build on.

Carmen Belafi, on the link between education and peace

Education has long been considered interlinked with peace. However, the global community needs a better understanding of the causal pathways that connect these two concepts. 

This starts with a specification of terminology: Following Johan Galtung’s (1964) classic distinction, definitions of peace range from the absence of physical violence (‘negative peace’) to the absence of structural, indirect violence and positive descriptions of social cohesion and societal integration (‘positive peace’). On the other hand, one would expect schooling and learning (as distinct operationalizations of ‘education’) to have different impacts on peace. This is all the more important as we are facing a learning crisis, and schooling is producing only limited learning in many lower-income countries. Not least, education can play a diverse role in ‘fostering peace’, ranging from conflict prevention to conflict transformation and peacebuilding.

Already in 1999, Paul Collier (in his paper Doing Well out of War) found that increased years of schooling for young men significantly lowered the risk of violent conflict. In his analysis, education was defined as years of schooling and linked to economic opportunity, in which schooling provided individuals with alternative income-earning opportunities to joining a rebellion. There is no specification of how schooling achieves this, whether through credentials that improve chances on the job market (“signaling”) or via acquiring actual skills. More than 20 years have passed since then, and we have yet to fully understand the causal mechanisms linking (specific types of) education to (specific types of) peace. Sustainable Development Goal Indicator 4.7 highlights the importance of education to promote peace for the Agenda 2030: 

“By 2030, ensure that all learners acquire the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development, including, among others, through education for sustainable development and sustainable lifestyles, human rights, gender equality, promotion of a culture of peace and non-violence, global citizenship and appreciation of cultural diversity and of culture’s contribution to sustainable development”

But what exactly is it about education, and learning in particular, that fosters peace? Not least, how do schooling and learning contribute not only to peace defined as absence of war, but to positive peace and social cohesion? If we want to focus on the many ways in which learning can foster peace, conceptualising these causal pathways is a necessary step in underpinning intuition with evidence.

Yue-Yi Hwa, on how basic literacy can lay the groundwork for equality

We expect a lot from education. As today’s theme reminds us, those expectations include benefits for people, planet, prosperity, and peace. Against these lofty expectations, emphasising basic skills such as literacy and numeracy may feel more like a pragmatist’s compromise than an idealist’s dream. 

Yet such basic skills are a necessary foundation for a highly idealistic goal: political equality. As political philosopher Danielle Allen argues, in the second of a pair of lectures on “Education and Equality”:

"When we think about equality in the context of education, we tend to think above all about distributional questions. We imagine that we will have an egalitarian system when we have managed to fund a system that will genuinely offer the possibility of an equal level of attainment … to all (or nearly all) students. But we may need to move the conversation one step back and to remind ourselves that fair economic outcomes may themselves depend on genuine political equality. If this is right, then an education for participatory readiness, and not merely for technical skill, is the appropriate way of understanding the linkage between pedagogy and equality." (pp. 31–32 in the lecture transcript)

In other words, pursuing equality by reducing skills gaps isn’t a future-proof strategy because the market for skills can change—the goalposts will shift. Instead, education systems should pursue equality by equipping people to fight for fair goalposts. 

Allen calls this “participatory readiness”—that is, the capacity for taking part in all spheres of human flourishing: bread-winning labour, creative self-expression, personal relationships, and collective decision-making. She further argues that the ability to use language well is central to participatory readiness:

"Education’s most fundamental egalitarian value is in its development of us as language-using creatures. Our linguistic capacities are what, fundamentally, education taps, and it is their great unfolding that empowers students. … As we cultivate verbal empowerment in our students, we build the foundation for a politically competitive social and political system. We have good reason to expect that a genuinely competitive political system would put matters of economic fairness into play for contestation." (p. 46)

All of this may sound like highfalutin rhetoric, for multiple reasons. For one, some components of participatory readiness overlap with so-called 21st-century skills, so we could just as easily argue for them on the basis of career readiness or other economic grounds. For another, as Michelle observes above, so many education systems fall far short of cultivating basic literacy (i.e., the most rudimentary aspect of participatory readiness).

Yet education is fundamentally aspirational. As hopeful humans, we should approach education—whether an individual encounter between a teacher and a student, or a system-level exercise in policy planning—with excitement about who our children could someday be. As rigorous educationists, we should start with what we know can make the biggest difference. And where these two converge is at a foundation of basic skills that can lay the groundwork for both pragmatic bread-winning and idealistic world-building.

RISE blog posts reflect the views of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the organisation or our funders.