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Asia-Pacific countries should tackle unprecedented education crisis

DEPED

OVER TWO YEARS since the start of the pandemic, the global learning crisis has expanded to become an unprecedented crisis threatening education budgets, increasing learning poverty, widening inequality, and undermining sustainable development. According to UNESCO, over 1.6 billion children, and their learning outcomes, were affected by school closures. Learning outcomes, which were already lagging pre-pandemic, have become unacceptably poor.

We are calling for urgent action in Asia and the Pacific to transform education and renew the region’s commitments to building resilient, inclusive, and equitable education systems that lead to effective and relevant learning outcomes.

We need to leverage the role of education in the green and digital transformation, and in promoting global citizenship, human rights, peace, and tolerance. It is time to make high-quality education a right, not a privilege, for all, and especially girls. We must ensure high-quality education reaches all in the most marginalized positions, including people with disabilities, children and young people living in poor, conflict-affected, and disaster-prone parts of the world.

To achieve this, we must start to make long-term investments in education. Such investments have transformed many countries to well-functioning, democratic, equitable and competitive societies. One example is Finland whose teachers are a key factor in the national education system’s success. Finnish teachers are highly educated, skilled, motivated, and given professional autonomy. All teachers have a master’s degree that includes pedagogical training connected to practice, and their education is research-based.

This is not to say one size fits all — but to inspire and encourage a reimagination of education on a global scale.

Rethinking teacher policies is necessary to transform education. Teacher policies must focus on attracting the best candidates to the profession and supporting their motivation and professionalization. It is also essential to strengthen gender equality and female leadership in the education sector. We want to highlight the crucial role of female teachers in inspiring and enabling girls’ participation in education.

The first step is to develop teacher pre-service education systems in a comprehensive way. Research-based and practice-oriented university-level teacher education is important. Countries should also aim to support teachers’ long-term motivation and offer them continuous professional development over the course of their careers. Continuous and tailored school-based professional development is essential to equip teachers with the skills to support life-long learning for their students.

One country making progress in this area is Vietnam, which has raised the quality and attractiveness of its teacher education by making it a university-level education. This has also made the country’s student learning outcomes better.

Second, countries in Asia and the Pacific should do away with traditional, more authoritarian, and rigid models of teaching and learning, and instead develop a different approach and skillset for teachers. Effective pedagogical practices are at the heart of improving learning outcomes. So, schools and teachers must contextualize and adapt teaching and learning to meet their students’ needs, with methods increasingly focused on helping students to become self-directed learners. Learning is for life, active citizenship, and critical thinking, among others — not only for passing exams. In today’s world, competencies such as media literacy are becoming increasingly relevant. This also requires simplified curricula that support flexibility and a focus on 21st century skills.

Third, teaching and learning need to adapt to new and innovative learning environments, including ramping up the use of digital technology. The pandemic has made it clear that flexible education systems are more resilient. The ability for students to study without physically needing to be at school has become necessary, not only as a response to the pandemic, but also to ensure education continues in times of conflict and crisis. In Singapore, the government has already announced that it plans to enhance learning and teaching with technology based on the country’s experiences during the coronavirus pandemic.

But making full use of technology, including the promise of personalized learning technology in education requires flexible curricula and skilled teachers who are supported to be creative, and who have the competencies and resources necessary to focus on addressing the needs of individual learners. Again, investing in skills is crucial to ensure that teachers can use technology-enabled learning analytics to facilitate the continuous assessment of student learning.

Finally, equitable, inclusive, and quality education requires governments to look at the whole education system. This involves maintaining investments not only in learning but also in student well-being. It is essential that students can access nutritious school meals daily, and adequate health, hygiene, water, and sanitation facilities. There is now global momentum building towards recognizing the importance of investing in school meals. Ten Asian countries, including China, Japan, Pakistan, and the Philippines are among the more than 60 countries worldwide to have committed to join the Global School Meals Coalition. We encourage more countries to follow suit and invest in human development.

The time has come to build forward, better, and greener. Investing in teachers, developing different approaches to teaching and learning, embracing the use of technology, and taking a whole-of-system approach can help to tackle the unprecedented education crisis unfolding before our eyes. Let’s use the power of holistic education as an engine in doing so.

Ville Skinnari is minister for Development Cooperation and Foreign Trade of Finland, and a global champion for school meals; and Woochong Um is managing director general of the Asian Development Bank.

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