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Education Is The Key To All Global Development Goals (Q&A With Julia Gillard)

UNESCO estimates 124 Million children are currently not in school. That’s a positive improvement—the number was 200 Million just 15 years ago. Still, as Julia Gillard, former Prime Minister of Australia, explained, “aid to education in developing countries dropped by almost 8 percent between 2010 and 2013 while overall development aid rose by 8.5 percent.”

I honestly find it shocking that education is not THE international development priority. Especially, when you consider just how much impact education aid can have for humanity as a whole. In a Facebook post Ms. Gillard explained that, “If all students in low-income countries developed basic reading skills in school, 171 million people could be lifted out of poverty – the equivalent of a 12% cut in global poverty.”

I wanted to understand why we give so much attention to some humanitarian crises, while neglecting global education. Is it just that it doesn’t make for as good of a media spectacle as an earthquake or a tsunami?

I asked Julia Gillard. She’s an expert. Since leaving her post as 27th Prime Minister of Australia (from 2010-2013), she became the Board Chair for the Global Partnership for Education, an organization which brings together “60 developing countries, more than 20 donor governments, and international organizations, the private sector and foundations, teachers, and civil society/NGOs” to “develop effective and sustainable education systems, mobilize technical and financial resources, and ensure that those resources are coordinated and used efficiently.”

Jordan Shapiro: Can you explain to me why we give so much attention to some things and more or less ignore education? Is this just because education is not sexy enough or is there bigger geopolitical obstacles that I just don't really understand?

Julia Gillard: Well, I think education is the thing, so I'm not going to agree with the proposition that it's not sexy enough. But I think there's a couple of things that have tended to count against education. One, when we live in a world with so many major immediate humanitarian crises, a lot of the world's attention goes on to those big, big, urgent problems. I can understand that. It absolutely has to happen. It seems to me it's the difference between making sure that you are treating a gashing wound as opposed to also looking at something that could be compared to a longer-term, slow-growing, cancer. Certainly, people recognize that if we don't get education right, then we can't achieve the sort of great, peaceful, prosperous world that we all want and want to share. But education does take time and it does take patience; it takes many years to educate a child. So, in the rush and the urgency of where global attention goes most, education is often missed out.

Then, I think second, education has suffered from an absence of good information. We've had the access data about how many kids are in school, but people have worried about the quality. I think donors' eyes have been drawn to things that they can more easily quantify. So the vaccination programs, that are so important, and so easily countable. They've looked at education. They've found that it’s more complex, particularly if you want to deal with the quality dimension.

But even with all of that, we've made progress. And I really feel, with the sustainable development goals, that this is now education's time. People are more understanding now about how pivotal education is to the rest of the development agenda, that we can't succeed in anything else fully unless we also succeed in education.

Now everybody knows, for example, about the incredibly powerful data that shows that the more years of education that you a girl gets, the less likely it is that she's going to get AIDS, the less likely it is that she's going to end up in a forced or early marriage. She'll choose to have her children later. She'll have fewer of them, that will be healthier. People whose main preoccupation is health are now also talking about education because the need for us to all succeed together is no so obvious.

Jordan Shapiro: You mention the 17 Global Goals for sustainable development that 193 world leaders committed to at the UN General Assembly. The goals aim to end extreme poverty, to fight inequality and injustice, and to fix climate change. One of those goals—number four—is “Quality Education.” But it is clear that all 17 of the goals are actually dependent upon education.

I certainly agree with you that education is the fundamental factor here. I worry, however, that many well-meaning global education programs fall short. They seem to focus entirely on resources—delivering better pencils, classrooms, teachers, and technologies—the sorts of products that can be easily purchased and distributed. Tools, however, don’t always correlate to positive educational outcomes. I’m thinking specifically about the OECD’s recent report which showed that even in wealthy nations with ubiquitous tech, literacy and numeracy scores can be sub-par.

Alternatively, when you look at an organization like Camfed—which provides schooling for adolescent girls in sub-Saharan Africa—they seemed to have a great system for matching financial capital with regional and indigenous cultural capital. There’s a real commitment there to inclusivity, even when the solutions are technological. Just consider Camfed’s recent partnership with World Reader. They not only distribute eReaders to schools in Africa, they also make sure that the content of those eBooks is meaningful within local contexts (i.e. you shouldn’t teach girls in Ghana to read, using books about baseball players from Ohio).

What do you think we need to do in order to make sure we maintain a respectful appreciation for local identities while simultaneously providing the kind of forward-looking education that truly prepares children in fragile parts of the world to participate in a global economy? Global citizenship, after all, is hardly inclusive if it standardizes everything into a kind of US/Euro-centric hegemony.

Julia Gillard: Absolutely. You are on to such an important issue. I'm a very big fan of Camfed. I think their model does build on local community capital and the alumni model means the girls that have benefited go on to invest in the education of other girls. It's just a wonderful model from the point of view of growth and sustainability.

At the Global Partnership for Education, I kind of view us as an essential ingredient so that the investment of the full range of actors in education—donors bringing bilateral aid, non-government organizations, well-minded private philanthropy, and the private sector—can all be stitched together so that the sum is so much more than just the parts. By that I mean the particular role of the Global Partnership for Education is working with developing country partners in a country led model to properly plan an education system. Then, for the lowest income countries, we help fund a section of the plan.

We are not steam rolling out of Washington or even out of Australia saying, “have we got the education model for you!” We don't work like that. We work in inclusive ways in a country led model with local actors, and local civil society to make sure that there's an education sector plan that truly meets the need of the communities that it's seeking to serve. That involves issues not only around curriculum and content and cultural sensitivity, but also issues about the logistics and the best ways of making sure that children end up with what they need to learn. I know from my own country we solve those challenges quite differently in Outback Australia than we solve them in the center of a big city like Sydney. You can't just run out of a capitol like Washington and say, "Here is the model." It's got to be purposely designed for a place.

That is what we do: that very locally engaged planning piece. And once we've done that, other donors and other actors—NGOs, private philanthropy, the private sector—can know that there's a robust education plan. Then, they can time and shape what they're going to do against that plan so that it fits. They don’t need to run the risk of helping to build a school that isn't staffed, or dropping in technology that no one knows how to use. Or any of those other things that can so easily go wrong even when people have good intentions.

Jordan Shapiro: A big part of that, at least as I understand it, involves a real long term commitment to ongoing teacher development.

Julia Gillard: Yes, it does. I mean, we are all very persuaded by the research that shows the single most important thing for the quality of education is the teacher and the teacher's interaction with the child.

We're also very conscious that in many of the countries that we work, the teachers who are in front of the classrooms have not had a teacher education program in the way that you or I would understand it. In our own nations, people go off and learn to teach and the process of learning to teach is over a number of years.

Here too, there needs to be locally tailored solutions about improving the quality of teaching. That can be anything from teacher education models in teachers' colleges, to the quality of the materials that are given to teachers with lesser training to enable them to have the key supports they need in the classroom. So even though they've had less time to study the practice of teaching, they're still able to effectively communicate the curriculum and work with the students.

Jordan Shapiro: When I think about teacher education—and of course the place I know the best is going to be the United States—when I think about how we've done education in the United States, we’ve had so many years of what we call sage-on-the-stage, teacher-in-the-front-of-the-room, rigid, rote kind of teaching, too many standardized assessments, and that kind of thing. Now it is starting to become popular to create more experiential and more playful kinds of pedagogies.

When the Global Partnership for Education is working with developing countries, can you skip the step where you have to do all the standardized, rote, lecture at the front of the room stuff and go just right to letting kids learn through play? Is that possible?

Julia Gillard: I think it is possible. One of the levers we seek to have in the hands of our full partnership is this technical knowledge, technical exchange lever. Yes, we want to leverage money, we want to leverage advocacy. But we also want to leverage technical know-how. If there are things that have been learned in developed country contexts, that enable developing countries to leapfrog—rather than go through every stage that our schools have gone through over the last few hundred years—to a better solution that works in the local context, then yes, we want to be there with the technical knowledge that makes that happen.

Jordan Shapiro: I think I just have one more question. Well, it might turn into two. We'll start with one, which is about technology, which is about computers and tablets and eReaders and all these new digital information technologies which are so powerful. I do a lot of work with these and there seems to be two different ways that these can go.

They can either go in a way where the machines tend to be controlling the material, or in a way where what we really create are creative platforms on which kids and adults can be playful and experiment with it. I call the second one “learning through digital play.” New digital information technologies can either be powerful platforms through which we express ourselves or they can be platforms which keep us controlled in some ways.

It really terrifies me because often when I see things that are happening in the international development world, it is often just about dropping technology into a place. And the technology is not being used as a creative, imaginative tool. It's being used as something that's really mandating the possible ways people can relate to the world they live in. Do you understand what I'm saying there? Am I being clear?

Julia Gillard: Yes, I do. I should just jump on that technical exchange point, just to say that one of the things that we've really seen come to the fore in the last couple of years in the Global Partnership for Education is that sharing of knowledge doesn't just happen from the developed world to the developing world. Actually, some of the most powerful exchanges of knowledge happen when our developing county partners get together. Then they're all ears and have a whole lot of enthusiasm. What are you doing? How are you doing it? How can we learn from that? That kind of attitude is changing, and its pivotal, and incredibly important.

On the technology, I absolutely agree with you. I know what you mean and I do think it comes back to this planning and context idea. In your house, in schools, in your neighborhood, and for me in Australia, none of us just hand a mobile phone or an iPad to a two, three, four, five-year-old and say, "Teach yourself to read." We don't do that. You can use both devices to engage with the child and to make learning and letter recognition and shape recognition and colors and all the rest of it fun. Through the fun you're transmitting knowledge. You’re seeding the foundation side of literacy and that gets built on. On and on it goes.

Technology can be incredibly empowering. But it needs to be delivered in a whole ecosystem, a whole context that enables it to make a difference. I think some of the time we like to get seduced by the concept that technology is a shiny, big silver bullet. I don't think it's that. But I think it is an accelerator and enabler when used sensitively in an education context, when you've already got all the rest of what the technology needs to be wrap into right.

Jordan Shapiro: I do a lot of work writing, speaking, and consulting about using video games for learning. And one of the things I see is that when folks go into low income communities and suggest, “hey, let these kids use these games, expose them to these creative, fun ways of learning,” there's a lot of resistance. They want a kind of stereotypical rigor. They feel that they're being handed something dumbed down.

Julia Gillard: We should never dumb anything down. In Australia we've had those debate, too, about some of our privileged communities including our indigenous children. My approach here has always been: for every child we should be aiming for excellence. You never, to quote your former president Bush, you never give into that sort of bigotry that comes with low expectations. It is about aiming for excellence. But there's many paths to get there and the technology and what looks like playful technology can be one of those paths. It's a question of explaining to people how it fits in.

Jordan Shapiro: Well, I think you've answered all of my questions. Is there something else you think I should ask you about that I haven't asked?

Julia Gillard: The only thing I'd emphasize, and I think you're well and truly onto this, is the how pivotal education is to the seventeen global goals. If you go through them one by one, and I know we've given you the diagram to show you how dependent this agenda, for all of us, is on education.

Jordan Shapiro: Right, but that’s only true when education is at its best. Which means we need to be really thoughtful, not only about how we allocate and distribute aid and resources, but also to the pedagogical vision that’s ultimately put in place. Education can be about obedience or empowerment. In the United States, for example, our poorest citizens get an education for obedience—they learn that mathematics and numbers are rigid, fixed procedures that one needs to execute properly. Our wealthiest schools, however, teach kids that mathematics and numbers are part of a fluid language system that people can use to articulate and express innovative visions for the future.

Often the difference between these two visions comes down to the way in which academic content is taught. When learning is experiential, involving creativity and imagination, students learn to play with ideas. When it is rigid and rote, they learn obedience to fixed ways of knowing.
In order for education to cultivate the kind of engaged citizens who can contribute to a society’s sustained growth—to address the 17 goals—education needs to be playful.

Julia Gillard: That's true. It is about quality and about children actually learning.

Jordan Shapiro: Right, and learning to be empowered rather than obedient.

Julia Gillard: Yes, or a helpful mix of both.