Global learning crisis?

Texto en español: ¿Crisis global de aprendizaje?

International organizations are speaking of a global learning crisis. Is it really a global learning crisis?. Speaking of a "learning crisis" has the risk - once again - of blaming the victim, not acknowledging the teaching crisis behind such learning crisis, and ignoring the overall responsibility of the school system, historically unable to respond to learners' and learning needs.

The fact that the term learning crisis becomes very attractive for the modern and powerful evaluation and testing industry is also a matter of concern. We discuss here also the need to acknowledge teacher learning and not only student learning; teachers' learning is also in crisis. Aldo, it is clear that the so-called "learning crisis" affects not only poor countries but also rich ones, and is thus really global.

Children are not learning in school

A major 'discovery' came up from the extensive international meetings and deliberations stimulated by the 2015 deadline of the Education for All - EFA goals (1990-2000-2015) and the Millennium Development Goals - MDG (2000-2015): millions of children are not learning the basics in school. Of the 650 million children going to school worldwide, 250 million are not learning to read, write and calculate, even after 3 or more years of schooling.
In 2011, of 41 countries surveyed:
- after 4 years or less in school: 1 in 4 children are unable to read all or part of a sentence
- after 5-6 years in school: 1 in 3 children are unable to read all or part of a sentence
- 61% of children who cannot read are girls
- 25% of children in low and middle income countries cannot read.

Illustration: Claudius Ceccon (Brazil)

The term illiteracy applies not only to adults but to children as well. Illiteracy is linked to lack of access to school, but also to access to poor quality and insufficient education, and to lack of opportunities for reading and writing. The combination of poverty and poor teaching, poor learning and poor reading conditions reinforces the worst predictions for the poor.

In 'developing countries' we know this for a long time. Completing four years of school, prescribed by the MDGs as equivalent to 'primary education', is clearly insufficient to make a child literate - able to read, write and calculate in real life situations - especially if that child comes from deprived socio-economic contexts and subordinate languages and cultures.

The same is true with adult literacy: the usual quick literacy programmes - more concerned with statistics than with actual learning - leave people half way, with weak and volatile reading and writing skills. A short 'post-literacy' programme does not add much. Just like children, young people and adults need a solid basic education, and exposure to reading and writing environments and acts.

Not being able to read and write is one of the main causes of school repetition in the early years of schooling worldwide. There is no scientific or even rational reason behind the idea that children must learn to read and write in one or two years. And yet, this is often mandated by national education policies and authorities. 'Failure' is typically attributed to the students rather than to the system and to those in charge of defining policies and curricula.

Few countries give students and teachers enough time to make a joyful and meaningful literacy process. Brazil - well known for its high repetition rates and its long-entrenched 'school repetition culture' - groups together the first three years of primary education, called 'literacy cycle'.

We, specialists, have been saying for decades that literacy education must be seen as an objective for at least the whole of primary education, if not of basic education (primary and lower secondary education, according to ISCED). We have also been saying that, given the importance and complexity of the task, groups in the early grades must be rather small and the best teachers should be assigned to such grades (Finland does it), challenging the logic and usual practice of school systems worldwide.

The acknowledgement by the international community of the school 'global learning crisis' comes a bit late, when the deadline for both MDG and EFA goals is coming to an end, after 15 and 25 years respectively. Hopefully such recognition will lead to world awareness and will help reshape the post-2015 education agenda worldwide.

Learning was one of the six Education for All goals approved in Jomtien, Thailand, in 1990, at the launch of the Education for All initiative. (Goal 3: "Improvement in learning achievement such that an agreed percentage of an appropriate age cohort - e.g. 80% of 14 year-olds - attains or surpasses a defined level of necessary learning achievement). Ten years later, at the World Education Forum in Dakar (2000), that goal was eliminated and learning was mentioned only in reference to young people and adults (Goal 3: "Ensuring that the learning needs of all young people and adults are met through equitable access to appropriate learning and life skills programmes"). That same year the Millennium Development Goals were approved; the two goals referred to education did not mention learning.

It is definitely time to move beyond quantitative goals of access and completion, and to incorporate learning at the core of all education goals. It is time to apply the terms 'universalization' or 'democratization' not just to enrollment and completion of a certain school level, but to learning. It is time to assume that the right to education includes not only the right to access formal schooling but also the right to learn.

"Global learning crisis"? - Blaming the victim

There was apparently consensus in choosing the term "global learning crisis". It is certainly global: the crisis affects not only poor but also rich countries. On the other hand, it is clear that acknowledging the learning crisis in the school system implies acknowledging the teaching crisis as well. Speaking of a learning crisis has the risk of placing the problem, as usual, on the side of the learners rather than on the system.

Illustration: Claudius Ceccon

Blaming the victim is daily practice in the school culture. But we know - or should know - that if children are not learning in schools it is not because they are stupid but because the school system - not only teachers individually -- is unable to teach them properly and the social system is unable to offer them adequate learning conditions in and out of school (family welbeing, affection, protection, nutrition, health, sleep, security, etc.).

Both the learning crisis and the teaching crisis are related to an obsolete and dysfunctional school system that needs major changes if we want to ensure learning, learning to learn, and learning to enjoy learning.

Teacher training appears typically as the main 'solution' to educational quality and to student learning. However, even if important, teacher training is not enough. There are other quality factors related to teachers (salaries, professionalism, respect and social appreciation, participation in educational policies and decisions, etc.) and other internal and external factors intervening in school success or failure.

When it comes to teaching and learning, let us not forget that:

(a) The "global learning crisis" affects not only 'developing countries' - focus of Education for All and other international education reports and debates - but also 'developed countries'. Concern and complaints about poor reading and writing skills among primary and high-school students are common and increasingly voiced in rich - OECD - countries.

(b) The "global learning crisis" affects not only students but teachers as well. Millions of school teachers receive inadequate and poor pre- and in-service training, where they learn nothing or what they learn is not relevant and useful for their professional practice and development. There is huge waste of money and time in teacher education and training that do not translate into meaningful teacher learning

(c) Students are blamed for not learning and teachers are blamed for not teaching (or for not teaching in ways that ensure desirable student learning). However, the teaching role is not exclusive of teachers. The whole school system has been designed and operates as a teaching system. And this teaching system - the way we know it - is not adequate for learning and for learners.

Illustration: Frato (Italy)

Even if teachers are trained, and even if they are well trained and paid, the learning crisis - including their own - is there. The label "global learning crisis" may activate the assessment and evaluation machinery, with its fierce competition, standardized tests, and rankings, rather than stimulate the long postponed and much needed teaching-learning revolution.

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