On December 6, the Brookings Center for Universal Education (CUE) facilitated a research symposium on “Learning in the Developing World” that brought together academics, donors and practitioners to share innovative research on learning. The intention of the symposium was to identify a research agenda to fill gaps in the evidence base on quality learning for all children and youth, particularly the most marginalized. Rebecca Winthrop, director and senior fellow at CUE, opened the discussion by welcoming participants and reminding them of the challenges the education community still faces. Despite progress in enrollment at the primary level, many children still do not have access to learning opportunities. Millions do not learn basic foundational skills and even fewer acquire relevant transferable skills necessary for meaningful employment and sustainable livelihoods. This is an important moment for the global education community to take action on these issues as many policymakers, including the United Nations’ secretary general with his new global education initiative, Education First, articulate desires to improve access and learning for the poorest. Educational research plays an important role in building the evidence on how to do this. However, education research is vastly underfunded. In OECD countries, health research is funded at 15.5 times that of education research, despite health and education being approximately the same size in national budgets. Rebecca then outlined a list of the “Top 10” research questions needed to quickly advance progress on learning for all.
Dan Wagner, UNESCO chair in learning and literacy and director of the International Literacy Institute & International Educational Development program at the University of Pennsylvania, presented his recent working paper published with CUE. The paper, “Learning First” draws from the work of the Global Compact on Learning Research Task Force and outlines key areas for short and longer term research needed to address diverse learning contexts.
Joan Lombardi, senior fellow at the Bernard van Leer Foundation moderated the first panel on non-cognitive skills and social and emotional learning. James Heckman, professor of economics at the University of Chicago, shared emerging research in this field. Research indicates that a core set of cognitive as well as non-cognitive capabilities like self-control, motivation and conscientiousness can predict a wide variety of behaviors. These two skill sets are dynamic in that they complement each other over an individual’s lifespan and are particularly important during the early stages in order to build a foundation for later development. Larry Aber, distinguished professor of applied psychology and public policy at New York University, talked about the importance of these skills particularly for children affected by severe conditions, including those living in contexts of armed conflict. Rachel Hinton, education advisor for the UK Department for International Development, emphasized that better coordination and partnerships around research and policy are necessary in order to support results at the grass-roots and programmatic level, and highlighted the formation of a donor working group for educational research.
Charles Kenny, senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, moderated the second panel on assessing learning outcomes. Cesar Guadalupe, researcher at the Universidad del Pacífico, discussed how a critical review of the purposes of assessment and the intended outcomes is greatly needed. Despite years of assessing learning, in many places around the world, learning outcomes are not improving. He stressed that assessments can support learning if they are designed and used appropriately. Suman Bhattacharjea, director of research at ASER Centre, discussed the necessity of capacity building at the local levels in order to ensure that assessments are utilized constructively. Suzanne Grant Lewis, deputy director at the UNESCO International Institute for Educational Planning (IIEP), presented an overview of a new online portal that will be a clearing house of studies on learning to support country governments in their education sector planning.
Josh Muskin, senior program officer at the Aga Khan Foundation, moderated the third panel on post-primary education. Rachel Glennester, executive director at Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, discussed findings from recent J-PAL research on post-primary education, which indicates positive results of extending credit and providing information on the economic benefits of education, however she posited that the evidence base on post-primary education is where we were with primary education a decade ago. Less is known about how to improve quality and teach 21st century skills, which Mona Mourshed, director of education practice at McKinsey & Company, highlighted in her presentation of the recently released McKinsey & Company study. The report explores the links between education and employment and finds that there are 75 million unemployed youth and that almost 40 percent of employers indicate that a lack of skills is the main reason for entry-level vacancies. Pauline Rose, director of the Global Monitoring Report, discussed the theme of the forthcoming 2013 report on teaching and learning for sustainable development.
Karen Mundy, professor and Canada research chair at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, moderated the final panel on reaching the most marginalized. Kevin Watkins, nonresident senior fellow at CUE, highlighted the plight of the world’s most marginalized children who make up the majority of out-of-school children and who, in many countries, receive the least amount of support through public spending. More research—both quantitative and qualitative—is needed to identify which children are getting left behind, the underlying reasons for those failures and what role the state and non-state actors can play to address the challenges. Liesbet Steer, research associate at the Overseas Development Institute, provided discussant remarks on what works in improving learning outcomes for the most marginalized, including moving deliverability models closer to the marginalized population and taking multi-sectoral approaches. Jean-Marc Bernard, senior education specialist at the Global Partnership for Education (GPE), discussed GPE’s work to support the real-time monitoring of countries’ progress on their national education plans, including progress on learning, and the desire to make this information publicly available.
There is a great deal of good work being done at the research, policy and practitioner levels. However, there is a clear need for more targeted research, collaboration and strategic implementation to ensure that current educational gains are not lost and that forward momentum continues to bring learning to all children and youth, especially those that are living under marginalized conditions.