Ideas, Stories, and Profiles

The most compelling thing I read in twenty-seventeen is the 2018 World Development Report (WDR) by the World Bank. Of course, there are amazing books I read — thinking here of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s best-seller Astrophysics for People in a Hurry and Walter Isaacson’s biography of Leonardo da Vinci — and many eye-opening articles here and there; but as much as twenty-seventeen presented lots of challenges, locally and globally, it also presented opportunities, mostly inspired by global campaigns and the growing access to information.

Every year, since 1978, the World Bank Group publishes a WDR featuring “a topic of central importance to global development.” Last year’s edition, which is titled Learning to Realize Education’s Promise, is the first of the series to be solely dedicated to education. This, in itself, means something. Just by considering the fact that the bank is the largest financier of education globally (fifty billion since the year 2000), one is compelled to wonder what took it so long to investigate the sector, using its flagship report.

In recent years, almost every government has worked to reform its education. Innovation and technological advances have constantly challenged systems to explore new ways of teaching and ensuring quality education. So, leaders have been confronted with big questions. One of such questions has been in knowing exactly what to do and (importantly) from where to start. This left many politicians, educationalists, and policymakers stuck in confusion because there was no clear understanding of what has gone wrong. Systems therefore been wrestling around theories and “new” models, diving into risky cycles of trial and error, most of which have been ineffective.

The 2018 WDR explores four main themes: Education’s promise, the need to shine a light on learning, how to make schools work for all learners, and how to make systems work for learning. Learning is at the centre.

Of course, many of the issues raised in the report are not new to the ears of educationists. Many activists and educational institutions have complained about the quality of schools, the education people get out of them, quality of teachers, and many more issues around the system. But the majority of ideas were based on speculations.

Essentially, the report does document a learning crisis — so extensively — and illuminates critical issues that education systems around the world, especially in poor countries, are facing and how to mitigate them. This is the World Bank saying “schooling is not the same as learning,” that systems have been schooling people but learning has been minimal; that there is a “global learning crisis,” that “schools are failing learners,” and that “systems are failing schools.” Worse, another study found the learning crisis to be “severe” when it comes to the Sub-Saharan Africa.

In Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda, when grade three students were asked recently to read a sentence such as “The name of the dog is Puppy,” three-quarters did not understand what it said.

But despite these challenges, as the report argues, there are reasons for hope. Innovations and advances in brain science, knowledge of effective learning, and management psychology have exploded in recent decades. And there many good practices in pedagogy from which to learn. So experts now know how to deal with these issues more effectively. The World Bank believes, as shown in the report, that countries can improve their education systems by advancing on three fronts: (1) Assess learning, so it can be a measurable priority; (2) Act on evidence, to make schools effective for all learners, and (3) Align actors, to make the whole system work for learning.

Although the WDR 2018 went unnoticed in so many ways, especially in this part of the world, it is a milestone — all backed by an institution whose influence will effect change for sure. It delivers a call for countries to tackle the immediate and deeper causes of low learning and the politics behind them. To be more optimistic about the near future of school and education isn’t an act of madness.

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