INTERVIEW: Transform education and prevent a global learning crisis

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Many education experts are concerned that the COVID-19 pandemic has inflicted untold damage on the educational prospects of children around the world, exacerbating the problems of the already existing falling standards, with millions of children receiving minimal, inadequate or no education at all. .

In the days leading up to the Transforming Education Summit, UN News met Leonardo Garnier, an academic and former Minister of Education in Costa Rica, who had been appointed by the UN Secretary-General as a special adviser to the summit.

He explained why going back to the old ways of teaching is not an option, and how the UN can help bring new ideas to classrooms around the world and raise educational standards for children around the world.

UN news The UN is currently tackling so many major geopolitical issues, such as the climate crisis, the pandemic, and the war in Ukraine. Why was education chosen as the central theme this year?

Leonardo Garnier It’s just the right time to do it, because when there’s an economic slowdown, it usually happens that education goes under the table: it’s no longer a priority. Governments need money and they stop spending on education.

The problem with this is that the damage this causes only becomes visible after a few years. If you take the education crisis of the 1980s, it wasn’t until the 1990s and 2000s that you started to see how countries had lost due to lack of education investment.

Millions of children were out of school because of the pandemic. But the pandemic also exposed what had been going on for years, as many of those in school weren’t learning very well.

UN news Talk us through the education crisis of the 1980s. What happened and what were the consequences?

Leonardo Garnier What you saw in many parts of the world was stagflation and a massive cut in education budgets. The enrollment rate fell, the number of teachers fell and many children missed education, especially secondary education.

And that meant that in many countries only about half of the workforce completed primary school. When you look at increasing poverty and increasing inequality in many countries, it is very difficult not to relate that to the reduced educational opportunities of the 1980s and 1990s.

© UNICEF/Veronica Houser

A family sits in their home, in an informal settlement for displaced persons in Kabul, Afghanistan.

UN news Do you think what we’re seeing now might lead to a recurrence of that situation?

Leonardo Garnier That could happen. From 2000 to 2018, we saw an increase in school enrollment and investment in education in most countries. From that point on, education budgets started to be cut and then the pandemic hit.

And then you really have two years in which education in many countries stopped, in addition to an economic crisis. So yes, there is a risk that instead of recovering from the pandemic, we may be in an even worse position than we were in 2019.

What the Secretary General is saying is that we must protect education from this major blow and restore what we have lost during this pandemic. But actually we have to move on.

With SDG 4 [the Sustainable Development Goal to improve access to quality education for all]the UN and the world community have set themselves very ambitious goals.

You might think that everyone should have the right to education, but if we keep doing things the way they were done before the pandemic, we won’t get there.

At the Transforming Education Summit we want to spread the message that if we really want every young person on this planet to have the right to quality education, we need to do it differently.

We need to transform schools, the way teachers teach, the way we use digital resources and the way we fund education.

A girl studies online at home in Abidjan, Ivory Coast.

©UNICEF/ Frank Dejongh

A girl studies online at home in Abidjan, Ivory Coast.

UN news What is your vision of an education system fit for the twenty-first century?

Leonardo Garnier It has to do with the content, with what we teach and the relevance of education.

On the one hand, we need the fundamental building blocks of education—reading and writing, arithmetic, scientific thinking—but we also need what some people have called the skills of the twenty-first century. Social skills, problem solving ability.

Teachers should transfer knowledge by arousing curiosity, helping students solve problems, and guiding students through the learning process. But for that, teachers need better training, better working conditions and better wages, because in many countries the wages for teachers are very low.

They need to understand that their authority comes not just from having more information than their students, but from their experience and ability to direct the learning process.

In any work activity, productivity comes in part from the tools we use. When we talk about education, we’ve been using the same tools for about 400 years! With the digital revolution, teachers and students could have access to much more creative tools for teaching and learning.

At the top we say that digital resources are what economists call a public good: they require a lot of investment to produce them, and they are not cheap, but once produced, anyone could use them.

We want digital learning resources to be turned into public goods, so that each country can share its own resources with other countries. For example, teachers from Argentina can share content with teachers from Spain; Egypt has a wonderful digital education project that can be shared with many other Arab countries.

The potential is there, but we need to bring it all together in a partnership for digital learning resources. This is something else we ask for at the Summit.

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