What will the Sustainable Development Goals really mean for education? (Part I)

Well, the World Education Forum in Incheon has come and gone with clear excitement, apparently some controversy, and ultimately another universal commitment to education for all, but now through the full secondary cycle and highlighting “equitable quality.” More studious people than I will undoubtedly now dissect the official declaration and the official documents that contributed to it and will soon emerge from the process. My interest here is to focus on the commitment to quality.

Incheon is hardly the first time the world has highlighted either equity or quality. The Dakar Framework also pledged to achieve “equitable access to appropriate learning and life-skills programmes.”  Defined in such a vague way, it is unsurprising that few countries and international education agencies undertook abundant and deliberate actions aimed at this outcome. In addition, the “discovery” that neither Johnny nor Jamila nor João nor Jaantje nor Jhanvi nor Jorge can read diverted a lion’s share of attention and resources to “the basics,” seeming to disregard the fact that learning to read and calculate is not just a mechanical process or outcome but, in both instances, is enriched by meaning, purpose, and passion.

The renewed commitment made in Incheon brings much greater breadth and precision to the notion of quality, at least as a set of learning outcomes:

“Quality education fosters creativity and knowledge, and ensures the acquisition of the foundational skills of literacy and numeracy as well as analytical, problem-solving and other high-level cognitive, interpersonal and social skills. It also develops the skills, values and attitudes that enable citizens to lead healthy and fulfilled lives, make informed decisions, and respond to local and global challenges through education for sustainable development (ESD) and global citizenship education (GCED)” (italics added).

Wow. Who can argue with these? 

Unfortunately, there is still no indication in the document of what an education that aims purposefully and strategically to endow its students with such personal competencies and attributes actually looks like in practice. This might be less worrisome if Incheon were truly the first time countries of the world were embracing such educational goals, but it is not. Instead, national education reforms and plans around the globe have featured among their goals those of equipping students with “21st Century Skills,” “Life Skills,” “Citizenship,” “Workplace Skills,” “Personal Competencies,” “Entrepreneurial Skills,” “Financial Literacy,” and other versions since at least Dakar and even some since Jomtien, 25 years ago. Yet only a few education systems around the globe are moving in this direction[1]. More, it seems, are actually moving in the opposite direction, caught in a testing and accountability trap. This scenario is illustrated by the case of the United States, where the journalist Anya Kamenetz was thwarted in her plan to write about some of the most exciting pedagogic models in the country. Seeking to explore project-based learning, maker spaces, blended learning, and other exciting pedagogic innovations, what she found instead was rampant standardized testing and the mechanical instruction of reading and mathematics. So this is the book she was left to write.

Now is absolutely the time, however, for systems finally to focus and figure out how to imbue education with quality toward the concrete aims evoked in Incheon and actually to do it. I propose the same motto I used for the USAID-funded ALEF Project I led in Morocco from 2005 to 2009: “There is no quality without relevance.”  Such an aspiration is not just about functional learning outcomes. It is also about invigorating the learning process and mastery of the basic academic skills. Learning to read by focusing on the alphabet, phonemes, syllables, vocabulary, and syntax pales in terms of motivation, competency, and utility to learning that links these mechanics to story-telling, discovery, and dynamic interaction. In other words, relevance cannot wait until the basics are mastered; it is also a fundamental asset in the mastery of the basics and of quality education overall.

To integrate relevance fully into formal education, it is perhaps most important to recognize that relevance is least of all about information, and certainly not about an olio of diverse information captured between two book covers. Rather, relevance is the ability to seek, identify, analyze, and comprehend—i.e., to learn—knowledge and skills that pertain to a particular place, time, purpose, and/or other interest. It is the ability to combine pertinent information and skills with basic academic skills and knowledge—reading, mathematics, science, history, etc.—to solve problems and engage effectively in other manners of daily social, economic, cultural, and family life. Relevance also comprises the full set of cognitive and non-cognitive competencies and attributes—e.g., creativity, confidence, collaboration, perseverance, and empathy—that ultimately are the basis of ambition and of the effort and steps to mobilize all of one’s assets in order to attain one’s own and society’s ambitions.

This is the quality education that systems must now pursue, both to foster personal fulfillment for all children and youth and to equip societies around the globe to achieve the soon-to-be-approved Sustainable Development Goals in whatever ways and at whichever levels they can act. To do this will require a comprehensive systemic approach. Relevance might rightly begin with curriculum, but if it stops there, it is doomed. Similarly, if systems (and their partners) approach the integration of relevance into curricula as an additive process, quality is also likely doomed. To repeat, relevance is least of all about information but rather about seeking, mastering, and using information and the comprehensive range of competencies required to do so effectively and appropriately. As such, a relevant curriculum will be one that provides ample free space for students to use their academic skills to discover, analyze, and engage with the world around them and, in the process, to consolidate their academic and other knowledge and skills.

This is not easy to do, but it is absolutely necessary. And it requires that all aspects of the education system conform to this vision of learning, including teacher training and support, textbooks and other supplies, pedagogic methods, classroom management, organization of the school day, resource allocation, and student assessment, among others. A deeper discussion of what relevance looks like in the classroom and how the different aspects of an education system can, and must, operate and fit together to yield quality education in this manner will be the topic of my next blog.

[1] For example, Tan (2010: p. 53) reports that Singapore, a regular “high flyer” on the major international assessments, has been re-orienting its education system towards other priorities, finding that “…the price of high academic performance can be staggering.”  It is not, however, the financial cost that worries the country but rather the costs in terms of lost “creativity and thinking skills among students and members of the workforce.”