Hans Rosling talks up data at global education meeting

Hans Rosling presents at WISE.
Hans Rosling presents at WISE.

Doha, Qatar – The global push to expand access to education could take a lesson from former President George W. Bush, says Swedish academic and celebrated data whiz Hans Rosling.

Rosling likes to make his points by surprising connections, sometimes to the point of cognitive dissonance. He was a featured speaker here at a global conference, the World Innovation Summit for Education, with participants from Nigeria to Vermont exploring new ideas for improving schooling.

Speakers and attendees seek to break away from the tethers of traditional education. Delegates are debating issues such as whether or not teachers are needed and whether massive open online colleges can transform education.

Innovation in education requires new forms of thinking and a better understanding of how the world is changing around us, said Rosling. Data is key.

The economic center of the world will shift further east and find itself in the middle of the Indian Ocean by the end of this century, Rosling contended. India’s and China’s economic growth, both of them with many development projects and investments in Africa, is already transforming commerce and the world.

What did we learn from President Bush? Rosling said the increasing importance of emerging economies was illustrated by Bush, in 2008, turning to the likes of China for support at the beginning of the global financial crisis. He pointed to a G20 photo where Bush was flanked by leaders from Brazil, Saudi Arabia and China.

“I think that is the new world. If Bush got it, then we have to get it in the schools today.”

Rosling is best known for his lively talks and active animations of data that show connections between economic improvement and social gains. Millions have watched his videos, from TED talks to a special for the BBC, that challenge some misconceptions about development. For example, there exists a strong correlation between the declining number of births per person and increasing income levels for nearly every country around the world.

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Click the image to explore this graph/data yourself.

He used the same presentation method to show that commonly held beliefs about global education are wrong. Most important, and probably most controversial, he said that things like education are what come before increased incomes.

“Social change, driven mainly by education, is changing the world faster that economic change,” he said.

Poor education and barriers to it hold back the progress of emerging economies. The biggest challenge today is getting children into schools. Those that get into the classroom tend to stay, but poverty tends to keep children away from the classroom.

“Poverty is indeed the worst a worse problem than gender difference,” he said. “But gender difference aggravates the problem.”

Focusing on specific areas, such as girls education, is important, but the data shows that the disparity is made worse by poverty. That is what keeps girls out of school in the first place and it is made worse by gender disparities.

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“Girls lose out to boys only when it comes to enrolling at schools. When they get there, the drop outs are the same,” he said.

He showed that differences between income levels for school enrollment and completion is much higher than that between genders across countries in sub-Saharan Africa. If kids can get into the classroom they will remain there.

Once in at the school, the problem is an issue of the quality of education. Many countries maintain relatively high attendance rates for schools, but a small percentage are able to meet the minimum learning standards. Rosling did not make any policy prescriptions as to how to deal with the issue of school quality, rather he sought to show where problems exist.

He concluded by saying that he hopes to dispel the dichotomy between developing and developed countries. As the education achievement data shows, all are on a scale with each other and the majority are moving upward to the same point. Getting better data on education is difficult, but important because it can help show how to address the problem of education.

“We can never understand the world with numbers,” he said.

“Neither can we understand it without numbers.”

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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.