4 Paradoxes of Global Learning on International Education Day


At 4th yearly International Education Day, I find myself caught up in some of the thorny paradoxes that characterize the development of education on a global scale.

Until the mid-20th century, education was mostly a local affair. Although some reformers traveled abroad to find innovative methods of teaching (including Horace Mann, Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi and the Qing dynasty), in most cases countries administered their own educational programs and – within countries – schooling was often decentralized. It was only after World War II, when several Western governments established partnerships to ensure peace and economic stability, that multilateral institutions emerged and began to articulate shared human values ​​and administer them through educational efforts. Since then, a global architecture has emerged: one that supports countries in adopting educational practices that achieve literacy, career preparation, democratic goals such as gender equality and human rights, and—more recently—critical and creative thinking, digital literacy, and environmental protection.

That is commendable, but like so many things where the traditional collides with the modern, where the local intersects with the global, and where power is unequally distributed, there are inherent tensions in international educational efforts.

1. Preserve the local while embracing the global

Contemporary educators and policymakers like to borrow from each other and learn from the successes and failures of other countries. It makes sense not to reinvent the wheel (although, conversely, some organizations prefer to ‘do it yourself’). A relatively small menu of pedagogical innovations is currently circulating globe (e.g., educational technology, charter schools, online teacher development, after-school volunteer mentoring, and student-centered instruction).

However, this homogenization of innovations narrows the scope of what is conceivable and available in education. Does it discourage new or alternative ideas? How does a country capitalize on its unique strengths and characteristics when its educational program is dominated by the political agendas of other countries? And which country reforms dominate the reform menu – those that need aid or those that score best on scorecards?

Identifying what is right for a given site, seeking new solutions while building on the existing knowledge base can be contradictory goals.

2. Use the good of modernization and filter out the bad

Modernization is a universal virtue for many. Most of us find it difficult to argue against girls’ access to quality education, differentiated instruction, or equal school funding for low-income communities. Public health, strong economies, representative democracy, technological and medical advances, and equality matter.

But some of the aspects that come with the journey – like remora fish clinging to their hosts – give me pause. Is technology really the solution to many of the world’s educational problems, or is it simply replacing one set of problems with another? Is GDP really that? sublime metric, or should education take precedence happiness or environmental responsibility instead of this? Is it possible to divert modernization from pesky neoliberal traits like new managerialism in education or an over-reliance on standardized tests?

3. Improving institutions when everything is connected

The popularity of systemic reform in Global Education is underpinned by a healthy view of the interconnectedness of all things. We deal with the complexity of entire systems. We promote holistic implementation frameworks, speak of “transformation” instead of “transfer”, and seek collaborative support from a wide range of stakeholders and sectors.

For me, International Education Day is a reminder to keep going. Let’s be brave and find strength in our connections to each other.

However, the use of complexity is elusive. For example, improving education cannot be separated from poverty. However, alleviating poverty requires tackling hunger linked to food shortages, which are likely linked to climate change.

One inevitably finds that the strands that can be controlled (like funding formulas or math curriculum) are connected to strands that cannot (like budget variance, competing social priorities, or a global pandemic). As a result, we can be crushed by the enormity of it all.

4. Transform schools while still in use

Speaking of COVID-19, the pandemic has shown that education around the world needs to be structurally transformed, not just cosmetically improved. Nineteenth-century practices like 40 children listening to a single adult standing in front, reciting and fact-based appraisal, or teaching as a low-paid semi-profession needing far more than an overhaul. If we didn’t know this before, we know it now.

But how do you rebuild an airplane in the air? We cannot pause education for a generation while we overhaul institutions and retool learning and teaching as contemporary creative human practices. Therefore handcraft is the norm and surface changes trump deep makeovers.

In addition, governance craves political gains – a fact that favors small projects, cheap fixes, and short-term efforts. But transforming a country’s education ecosystem requires decades of continuity and shared goals; egoless leadership at all levels; and financial, political and social engagement.

What’s that supposed to mean?

As I reflect on these entrenched tensions, I realize that staying in education isn’t the issue solve the paradoxes, but the pursuit of success in them: Finding the middle ground, using the advantages of both sides productively and avoiding the pitfalls of the two extremes.

It is crucial to recognize the plethora of forces working against fundamentally improved education systems around the world.

So don’t give up.

And that’s where I find hope. We have learned a great deal about improving education over the past few decades and over the past 24 months. There are many success stories to be found.

I believe that holistic is the best conceptual approach. System reform is the wisest political path. And opening deep learning to all, tying schools to communities, and fairly prioritizing 21st-century knowledge and dispositions are the right educational goals. There are millions of educators, researchers, donors, and government workers who care deeply and can pool their efforts to thoughtfully combine these dimensions for transformation.

For me, International Education Day is a reminder to keep going. Let’s be brave and find strength in our connections to each other. Let’s share what works, but balance expertise with curiosity and confidence with humility. I hope that we will share our achievements next year on this day.


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