Building a better world through education: 6 big ideas

Child enters school

The distinguished philosopher Martha Nussbaum argues that the purpose of education is to produce “decent world citizens who can understand the global problems … who have the practical competence and the motivational incentives to do something about those problems.”

Indeed, education has helped to build a better world. Most people are generally more prosperous and secure than at any time in history. This is thanks in part to educational institutions that have fostered skills, research capabilities, and social and civic attitudes that underpin rapid progress in recent decades on issues from food security to communications, transport, and health care.

Young people around the world are now bringing a new set of challenges into sharp relief. They are negotiating tough issues including climate change, inequality, exclusion, governance, job instability, and technology. They are redefining what it means to be a global citizen, and to live sustainably.

Will educational institutions help them build the world they want? Will they prepare all children and young people to meaningfully participate in the journey?

The Yidan Prize Foundation searches for groundbreaking education research and practice every year.  Nominations for the prize are sourced openly and globally, and judged by an eminent panel of educators. Here are six big ideas from all of the prize winners to date that help us reimagine what education systems can and should do to help young people realize their potential:

  1. Start from the premise that good quality education is possible everywhere. Vicky Colbert’s escuela nueva program has transformed learning for marginalized and vulnerable children.  With the proper support, even the smallest rural schools can deliver active, cooperative, and personalized learning.
  2. Know that mindsets matter. Carol Dweck has shown that a growth mindset helps to build motivation, resilience, and achievement. Teachers who cultivate a growth mindset help students learn to love challenges and learning—qualities that carry them well through life and work.
  3. Make learning joyful. Sir Fazle Hasan Abed founded BRAC, one of the world’s largest and most successful NGOs. BRAC believes education can transform lives of poor people, and that play and joyful learning cultivate motivation, inquiry, and social skills.
  4. Understand the science of education to help all children learn. Learning differences don’t need to be learning barriers. Usha Goswami’s research on language acquisition shows the importance of rhythm perception for efficient language learning. Her work on literacy, neuroscience, and education shows how early educational interventions that account for differences in linguistic rhythm perception can help children with dyslexia or developmental language disorders read more effectively and enthusiastically.
  5. Believe that high-quality education should be shared. Anant Agarwal sees no reason to ration education. The EdX platform he created provides free online access to over 2,000 courses from more than 130 institutions of higher education. Technology and goodwill can help remove barriers of geography, financial resources, prior academic qualification, gender, race, and other demographics.
  6. Take a more systematic approach to learning what works. It is difficult for policymakers to interpret and apply large numbers of education studies, many of which appear to have contradictory conclusions. Larry Hedges’ statistical methods for meta-analysis provide tools to sort through studies and understand what works with more confidence.

The challenges the next generation faces are profound—some would say existential. Good quality education will help young people meet their challenges and perhaps even build a world that is better than what we can imagine now.

But education systems need to be strengthened. The task is especially urgent in the global south where the vast majority of young people live, and resources are most scarce. Improving education starts with reimagining systems that are more inclusive, orientated to a growth mindset, joyful, accessible, and systematic.

As Gregg Easterbrook said in “It’s Better than it Looks: Reasons for Optimism in an Age of Fear”: “On a warm morning in a hospital in Peru or Indonesia or South Africa, the most important person of the twenty-first century will be born.” Six ideas from the Yidan Prize laureates could help ensure she realizes full potential.