Anyone who is interested in the global effort to see more children reap the benefits of literacy, numeracy, languages and a broader awareness of the world will be used to seeing headlines like this, from the guardian: “Drive to get children back to school failing worldwide”. To many of us, ‘back to school’ has become synonymous with ‘back to learning’. When we mean to say ‘learning’ we are happy with the shorthand phrases ‘in school’ or ‘in the classroom’ or ‘at their desks’.
The images conjured by this language are clear. In the west, we have a shared experience of what ‘education’ means that informs our thinking on a subconscious level. Learning looks a certain way: rows of uniformed kids at cantilevered desks, a teacher at the front, textbooks and alphabet posters, double maths and a bell that’s for them not for you. We know that education is more complicated than that but the metaphors that we use have powerful connections attached to them – and so that’s what we think about when we think about it.
Anyone who has seen the realities of providing access to learning up close will know how woefully inadequate this conception can be. The one constant in international development is variety. Cultures, political realities, even the particular features of local geography – all of these can drastically alter the way that learning is best provided.
Haiti, for example, is the smaller half of a small island beset by natural disasters and still bearing the scars of centuries of political turmoil. The Steve Sinnott Foundation’s Learning Resource Centre there, providing a central hub for a network of teachers, is a tailored solution to a unique problem.
Because Haiti is small, a hub makes sense. Because the Haitian people are urgently engaged in the building of a modern democracy after the autocracy of the Duvalier dynasty and the subsequent years of turmoil, it makes sense to empower teachers to share ideas and teaching materials; and to give them a structure to facilitate this exchange.
But what works in Haiti will not necessarily work in mountainous Nepal or in Sierra Leone, hit hard by 2014’s ebola epidemic, and where 39% of girls are married before they turn eighteen.
If we step outside the traditional, one-size-fits-all approach that would have us just build schools and staff them in every country where literacy rates are low, we can find that unexpected actions can have surprising effects. In countries where girls have traditionally been excluded from schools, for example, something as easily overlooked as providing adequate toilet and sanitary towel disposal facilities can do wonders for increasing female attendance.
Technology, too, is giving us a glimpse of a world beyond the desk. Already, today, apps like Duolingo are providing free, self-directed learning to millions. Learning marketplaces like Udemy are connecting people who know things with people who want to learn them on a peer-to-peer basis. The Global Learning Xprize is offering a $15 million bounty to the team that best develops “open source and scalable software that will enable children in developing countries to teach themselves basic reading, writing and arithmetic within 15 months”.
In Africa, where Smartphone adoption is rapidly catching up with the global average, it might well suit some children better to help them self-direct their own learning using free, open source apps than it will ever suit them to round them up into photogenic classrooms in the service of our idealised vision of education.
If the international community wants education for all, it will have to realise that the goal of seeing every child ‘In School’ might not only be unachievable, but might not even be desirable. We have to be willing to treat different situations differently and to embrace positive change when we see it.
Schools are vital, Classrooms will always play a central role in global education. But we should not be wedded to them, they have always been a means to an end and outside their windows new shoots are sprouting.
Our end, our purpose, must be Learning. Learning. However, wherever and whenever lessons can be learned.
If we maintain our commitment to learning above all, it really is possible to imagine a future where every child can be given the tools they need to create their own ideals and to make the world anew.