Education needs to go beyond the physical classroom

UntitledThe world is doing a great job in its progress towards improving education, if only the Millennium Development Goals count. Roughly 102 million children were not in primary school in 2000. The number was nearly halved to 57 million children by 2011.

The UN warns that progress towards universal access to primary education has stalled, but there is a bigger problem. Getting children into schools is only the first step. They have to learn once they get in schools and that is not happening.

For example, student enrollment in primary school in Sierra Leone exceeded 100% in 2011 (it means older and younger children were also in school), yet its literacy rate is only 42%. The majority of its population above the age of fifteen cannot read and will mostly likely not be enrolling in primary school. By measure of the MDGs, Sierra Leone is a success story for education. The truth is that it has a long way to go.

The World Innovation Summit on Education (WISE) gathered educators, researchers and policy makers from around the world to seek out ways that every child can not only go to school, but receive a high quality education. Education must be a tool for life, argued ninety-two year old French philosopher Dr Edgar Morin.

“To live is to face the complex issues of truth, illusion and error,” said Morin.

A lack of education stips a persons ability to deal with such complex issues in daily life. Though the issue is far more basic in some developing countries. The inability to read and write can prevent people from gaining certain types of employment.

The scandal regarding Greg Mortenson and his Central Asia Institute exposed that education is much more than building schools. The book about Mortenson, Three Cups of Tea, garnered widespread attention for his personal story and a drive to ensure education reaches girls in Afghanistan and Pakistan. An investigation by journalist Jon Krakauer revealed mismanagement by the organization and school buildings that sat empty.

Presenters at WISE repeated the fact that funding for education is short by $26 billion. Developing countries are spending more on education each year, but a report from UNESCO, the UN’s cultural and education organization, says that the lack of support by donors means that the shortfall is increasing each year.

There is hope that the rise of girls education advocate Malala Yousafzai will help to galvanize support and funding for education. Her fellow advocate and former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown attended WISE as a not-so-surprise guest. He slouched next to Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al Missned, wife of the former Emir of Qatar and the chairwoman of the Qatar Foundation, at the opening plenary for the second day.

“It is the forgotten, the neglected, the most in need, the hardest to reach children that need our help most of all,” said Brown. “It is possible now to imagine 20 million children who are out of school not to be in school by 2015.”

His promise is contingent on the ability of high level advocates, such as himself, to get donors to spend more money on education at a time when aid budgets are shrinking everyone except for the UK. However, there were people at the event who were trying address the issue of education with limited resources.  WISE honored individuals for their innovative work in education and all were finding solutions in resource-lacking situations. From private education in Uganda to the largest massive open online college provider in Africa, attempts to improve education and not just enrollment were present.

They are reaching children and adults to improve overall learning around the world. The new set of goals that will follow the MDGs, starting in 2015, will rectify the shortcomings of the current education goals. Though concerns remain that the widening funding gap will make achieving the most basic goal of attending school even harder.

I will highlight some of these programs and ways that educators are finding ways to reach children in places full of obstacles and failure.

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.