This is one of the most astonishing, yet least reported stories of our time.
It’s not something we hear a lot about, because big, complicated statistical narratives are shoddy clickbait for media companies trying to survive in the attention economy. And education reporting is hard. There are big gaps between the haves and the have nots, plenty of people still being left behind, and the debates on best practice are endless. But the overall trends are clear.
In the 1970s, only half of the world’s kids attended some form of schooling. Today, that number is 9 out of 10, and we’re starting to see younger generations reach literacy levels of up to 100%. Enrolment in primary education is nearly universal in Eastern Asia and Northern Africa, and sub-Saharan Africa is catching up fast, with enrolment increasing from 62 million children in 1990 to 149 million children in 2015.
We’re starting to see the gender gap narrowing too. In September, 2016, the World Economic Forum released a report showing the number of girls in school worldwide has increased by 5% in low and middle income countries in the last decade, meaning girls are finally reaching parity with boys. UNESCO says the global education gender gap will be closed worldwide in the next ten years. That’s a big deal, because women who receive an education are less likely to contract infectious diseases, or lose children, and more likely to become entrepreneurs, invest in their communities and empower other women.
Just take a moment to think about this.
We have never lived in a world where boys and girls receive the same amount of education. As we get closer to that milestone, we’re going to start seeing a very different kind of global society. What’s more, by the end of this decade most of those newly literate boys and girls are also going to have access to the internet. We’ve got a new generation coming of age in a second age of discovery, a second Renaissance that looks a lot like the first: new maps; new media; a leap in health, wealth and education, and a whole lot of political and economic uncertainty.
That new generation will not only demand a direct role in their economic, political, cultural and societal choices but will have the capabilities to implement them. They are going to have universal access to all of human knowledge at their fingertips. That means an unprecedented sharing of ideas and collaboration, and a sense of empowerment when other people take action and we can see whether it works. It means less fear of centralized authority and the ability for problems to be solved from the bottom up by the very people who have the greatest stake in solving those problems.
This newly educated generation is also growing up in a world where our ideas about education are changing. You often hear people say that our schooling systems were built for the 19th century, and are in urgent need of an update. That’s starting to happen. In Germany and Scandinavia, they’re using outdoor education, with a focus on encompassed craftsmanship, community service, outdoor pursuits and physical skills. No longer do kids sit in rows while their teachers lecture, lessons are now collaborative. The system is geared towards improving communication, confidence, character and resilience rather than pushing kids through what have essentially become exam factories.
In France, there’s a school called 42, whose name comes from Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. It has no teachers; students learn to deal with ambiguity, complexity and diversity. They’re taught to understand that in the modern world there is not typically one right answer when you make decisions. There are just different shades of how correct you might be. In Kenya, Bridge International Academies runs the administration of 400 schools with more than 100,000 pupils entirely on tablets and smartphones. They’re now expanding into India, Liberia, Nigeria, and Uganda, with varying degrees of success. In June this year, the US State Department partnered with online education platform Coursera to allow refugees from around the world to take all its courses for free and obtain certification.
There’s obviously still a long way to go. One in every 10 primary-school-age children remain out of school, and an estimated 103 million youth around the world still cannot read and write. Being enrolled in school doesn’t necessarily mean that children are learning well either. And while technology helps provide students with access to learning tools and resources they didn’t have before, it’s not a silver bullet. The best education happens when you’ve got a good teacher, and when you get personalised instruction. The human connection is still the most important thing.
That all being said, imagine what’s possible in a world where everyone can read and write. We’re getting very close to that now thanks to the dedicated hard work of hundreds of thousands of educators over the last few decades. That’s definitely something worth celebrating.
I write a fortnightly newsletter called Future Crunch. It’s about science and technology and human progress. It’s also got a lot of really bad GIFs.