Building a better world through education : it starts with bold ideas


When we asked Kamal Ahmad, founder of the Asian University for Women, about the future of education, he told us “education needs more attention, more resources, more and better ideas.”

At the Yidan Prize Foundation, we brought together our Council of Luminaries for the same reasons behind our prize: to find those ideas, draw attention to them and, ultimately, build a better world through education.

We’re proud to share the council’s plans with you, in the words of the people who make it what it is.

Rethinking the puzzle of education calls for a diversity of disciplines
Professor Carol Dweck of Stanford University sums up the approach: “education is a big puzzle, where every piece needs to be questioned and rethought.” That calls for our brightest and most determined minds: researchers, educators, neuroscientists, psychologists, economists, statisticians, and innovators – all working together.

The Council of Luminaries gives them the space to explore the biggest issues in education from different perspectives, share what they’ve learned, and influence the future of education as a team.

As Professor Zhu Yong-xin, founder of the New Education Experiment puts it, the council should “allow sparkles to emerge that will move our common goal of improving education forward”.

For some luminaries, improving education is personal
As a schoolgirl, Angeline Murimirwa excelled and was able to attend secondary school thanks to a scholarship from CAMFED (the Campaign for Female Education).

Now, as their Executive Director for Africa, she points out that “education is a right. It’s not a favor. At the core of it is a recognition that girls born in marginalized families do not choose to be in those contexts”. CAMFED CEO Lucy Lake adds, “we set out to prove that if you took poverty out of the equation, girls would be in school alongside boys”. They proved exactly that – and continue to drive programs to empower millions of girls and young women in Africa.

And that brings us to one of the biggest issues of the day: technology

The pandemic has shone a light on where improvements must be made. While many students were able to switch to online learning, that experience was far from universal – particularly where the infrastructure doesn’t exist or isn’t up to the task. How do we bring equitable and accessible learning to everyone in an unequal world?

Because the benefits of online learning are clear. Just look at the work of our luminaries Professor Carl Wieman, Professor Anant Agarwal, and Salman Khan (Sal) whose PhET, edX and Khan Academy programs attract tens of millions of students to online learning. Learners are able to join in at a time that suits them, and for another replay videos to fully grasp concepts. And Anant reckons we haven’t seen anything yet. In five to ten years, he predicts, “we will be doing personalized learning for everybody”. Learners will be able to go at their own pace “almost like (they) have a live tutor sitting next to (them)”.

Still, we know that learning is a social experience. Professor Patricia Kuhl’s research into early learning and Professor Usha Goswami’s work understanding the neuroscience of language have both shown how important it is that we learn from others. It’s challenging to gather together right now, but maintaining a social connection is a crucial part of the education puzzle. Sal is already thinking along those lines, explaining that online learning is “something that, in ideal circumstances, works hand in hand with the traditional school system, and kind of help take it to the next level”.

Most of all, we need to know what really works
For Professor Larry Hedges, it’s all about creating the conditions for trying lots of things, quickly, and learning what to scale up and what to leave behind.

We must “determine whether those ideas are actually improvements or not” – a focus he notes can be lost in the rush for the new. His view is echoed by Dr Erum Mariam of BRAC, who explains how they have gradually developed their formula for success: “find the solution, test and refine it to make it efficient, scale it, make women drivers of change, and engage researchers”.

We’ll seed great ideas, but we need a wider community to help them grow
Many of our luminaries spend a good deal of time bringing policymakers and private and public sector backers on board. They all agree that governments are important, but are only one part of the story. For Vicky Colbert, whose Escuela Nueva model is now working in 21 countries, it’s a balance of working with governments “to ensure coverage and impact, but you have to work with the private sector and civil society for quality and sustainability”.

Proving impact does wonder. Professor Thomas Kane’s MET project (Measuring the Effectiveness of Teaching) feeds back evidence into training – which makes iterative improvements in practice. And Wendy Kopp, of Teach For All, which has placed 112,000 teachers around the world, summarizes the broader impact: “what we’ve seen through the global journey is how much faster local leaders move when they’re exposed to what’s working and what’s possible in other places.”

There’s never been a better time to go further, faster
The council’s members are already changing not just education, but the way we think about education. They’re showing that quality learning for all makes for a fairer, healthier, more sustainable world. As Professor Eric Hanushek points out, on a national level, “differences in economic growth are almost completely determined by the skills of the population”.

In other words: what we do now can ready the next generations for an unpredictable road ahead. If the events of 2020 have shown anything, it’s that there’s no time to lose.

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