The World Bank, an organisation that supports developing countries around the world, issued an alarming warning in its somewhat controversial 2018 World Development Report titled “Learning to Realise Education’s Promise.”
The report identified a “learning crisis” in global education where many developing countries around the world are said to be providing “schooling without learning” and where “even after several years in school, millions of students lack basic literacy and numeracy skills.” The road to recovery, according to The World Bank, is for education systems to commit to a renewed focus on “all for learning,” using learning as both a guide and a metric for improvement.
While the need for adequate funding of education is always at the heart of the learning puzzle for developing countries, the World Bank identified several complementary, interdependent strategies to help keep learning at the forefront of education reforms.
The first strategy is to “assess learning and make it a serious goal” by measuring and tracking learning outcomes in schools and using these results to guide action. A second strategy is to “act on the evidence to make schools work for all learners” using innovation and practice to make teaching more effective. Another strategy is to “align actors to make the whole system work for learning” by mobilising and aligning the stakeholders — including governments, non-profit organisations, community leaders and the private sector — in a coherent manner to focus on learning, and to overcome technical and political barriers.
The World Bank’s report acknowledges that although the results will be very worthwhile, achieving these “all for learning goals” will not be easy. A key part of the problem is that learning is cumulative; without first having acquired the foundational skills such as literacy and numeracy, a student may not be able to access many areas of their future school curriculum. Conversely, students that have mastered these foundational skills at an early age are likely to build on their skills and perform better throughout their schooling. It is difficult to narrow the learning gap as students get older and less receptive to interventions.
The World Bank report further highlights that learning shortfalls during the school years show up later in life as weak skills in the workforce. Low literacy levels in the adult population are especially difficult to tackle given the additional negative societal attitudes and complex practicalities involved. Illiterate adults will rarely seek support and will often learn to mask their inadequate skills to avoid detection, and, without the structure and convenience of being part of a school system, they will often lack the motivation and commitment needed to overcome their literacy hurdle. Many workers who lack basic literacy skills will therefore never reach their full potential and will stay stuck in low-skilled, low-income jobs throughout their lives.
In recognition of the crucial link between literacy and the development of further skills, UNESCO, the United Nations’ specialised agency for education, has adopted the theme of “Literacy and Skills Development” for its annual International Literacy Day celebrations on Sept. 8. Its focus for the year is on youth and adult literacy learning and skills development through technical vocational education and training, commonly known as TVET. UNESCO has noted that many of the youth entering apprenticeships through TVET programmes seem to lack the functional literacy skills needed to succeed and reach their true potential. A lack of basic literacy skills is seen as an impediment to the success of TVET programmes and work-based learning initiatives.
UNESCO’s aim is to promote an integrated approach that connects literacy learning and skills development through multidimensional programmes that combine literacy, technical and vocational skills, and employability and entrepreneurial skills. UNESCO argues that the challenges in skills gaps and mismatches are faced by developing and developed countries alike, and that when faced together with other factors such as rapid technological development, those most impacted by the resulting unemployment are the disadvantaged groups within any society.
Regardless of what the future holds in relation to changing demands for skills due to rapid technological developments, individuals will still require a solid foundation of basic skills and knowledge in order to reach their full potential. Literacy will always remain a fundamental piece of the lifelong learning puzzle.