Scientific approach needed to make education more effective

Scientific approach needed to make education more effective
  • PublishedFebruary 27, 2024

The African Union (AU) has designated 2024 as The Year of Education, the first time that the AU has themed a year around education, thus sending a powerful signal on what it considers its development priority. However, going to school and actually learning are two different issues. For education to be effective, it must be based on sound science about how children learn best – argue Kwame Akyeampong and Ross Hall

Much of Africa has made admirable strides in increasing the rates of in-school children. A 2021 report from UNICEF and the African Union found the percentage of primary school-aged children who were not in school halved from 35% in 2000 to 17% 2019. However, it is not enough for children to be in school if they are failing to master basic skills while they are there.

According to the World Bank, 87% of ten year olds in sub-Saharan Africa are in “learning poverty”, meaning that they are unable to understand and comprehend a simple text. To improve the quality of education, AU leaders, in their statement, placed a particular emphasis on developing resilient education systems that equip children for the challenges of the future.

While these are admirable goals, for them to succeed education systems must be grounded in evidence. Learning outcomes will not improve unless teaching and learning practices are based on sound science about how children learn best.

A recent study from McKinsey also reinforced the need to anchor systems in evidence, saying that successful systems are “based on clear research into what improves outcomes.”

However, despite calls from the AU and others to invest in the generation and use of evidence, this is not yet the norm in education systems.

Even where the commitment to using evidence is there, for example as demonstrated in Born to Learn, the first of a three-part ‘Spotlight’ series published by the Global Education Monitoring Report at UNESCO, the Association for the Development of Education in Africa and the African Union, evidence still does not yet inform the vast majority of education policies or practices.

What is needed are practical examples and collaborative efforts that point the way for countries to build resilient education systems that are grounded in evidence.

One example of a collaboration that puts evidence at the core to improve learning outcomes is the Child Learning and Education Facility (CLEF) in Côte d’Ivoire. Spearheaded by the Ivorian government, CLEF is a new funding coalition across public and private sectors to improve access to and enhance the quality of education for millions of children in Côte d’Ivoire.

The initiative has brought together an unprecedented coalition of the Government of Côte d’Ivoire, global cocoa and chocolate companies, the Jacobs Foundation and UBS Optimus Foundation. As of December 2023, CLEF partners had committed more than $88m to tackle the dual problem of a lack of quality education and the dangers of child labour. The coalition has the ambitious aim of improving access to quality education for four million children by 2027.

This is accomplished through the construction of vital school infrastructure and teacher training that supports the adoption of evidence-based, child-centered teaching and learning practices. This includes the “Teaching at the Right Level” approach, which seeks to improve basic skills by ensuring that each child learns at their own pace and at their own level.

CLEF was endorsed in a recent World Bank report that commended the program as a best-practice public-private collaboration that other countries should seek to follow.

Education hubs in Ghana

Ghana, despite commendable strides in poverty reduction, continues to also face significant educational challenges, including low levels of learning and a substantial population of out-of-school children.

To combat these challenges, efforts are underway to develop Education Evidence Labs (EdLabs) to serve as central hubs for education research and data collection, bringing together government, local research universities, and educators to ensure that national education priorities, policies, and practices are based on rigorous evidence of what works in education.

The ultimate aim is to drive long-term change in the education system by supporting the institutionalisation and capacity building of countries to use evidence, with the ultimate aim of improving learning outcomes for all children.

In Ghana, the EdLab is being developed in collaboration with the Ghanaian Ministry of Education, with support from the Jacobs Foundation. It aims to work in tandem with a new ‘Communities of Excellence’ initiative that will embed evidence provided by the EdLab into teaching and learning practice.

These Communities of Excellence will also generate new evidence that the EdLab will seek to apply in policy at the national level. To ensure the longevity and effectiveness of the EdLab and Communities of Excellence, a new co-funding mechanism is being set up – modelled after CLEF in Côte d’Ivoire – as a government-led coalition that includes key players from the public and private sectors.

Together, the Co-Funding Mechanism, EdLab, and Communities of Excellence make up a system change architecture that is explicitly focused on equipping children for the challenges of the future.

Pursuing these types of public-private financing approaches in order to achieve quality education for all was a sentiment reaffirmed at the meeting of the High-Level Steering Committee of SDG4 held in Paris in 2023.

These programs in Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire underscore the importance of countries investing in building their evidence capabilities to achieve the goals set out by the AU as a path to achieving SDG4.

As we mark 2024 as the Year of Education, let’s remember that around the world, more than 160m children are engaged in child labour. In Sub-Saharan Africa alone, 98m children are out of school. And millions more are not developing the holistic skills they need thrive in the modern world.

The 2024 Year of Education serves as a call to action for governments and international institutions globally. Initiatives such as CLEF, EdLabs, and system change architecture can serve as promising examples of systemic efforts that put evidence at the heart of education decision-making and pave the way for the long-term, system-wide transformation of education in Africa that the AU has called for.

*Kwame Akyeampong is Professor of International Education and Development at the Open University and is the Co-chair of the Global Education Evidence Advisory Panel (GEEAP).

Ross Hall is the Co-Lead for the Learning Societies portfolio at Jacobs Foundation.

Written By
Kwame Akyeampong and Ross Hall

Kwame Akyeampong is Professor of International Education and Development at the Open University and is the Co-chair of the Global Education Evidence Advisory Panel (GEEAP). Ross Hall is the Co-Lead for the Learning Societies portfolio at Jacobs Foundation.

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