What’s the connection between education and development? My guest today, Dan Wagner, argues that it’s past time to move beyond conceptualizing development as economic growth.

For Dan, the framework we should use is learning as development. He calls on social scientists to work towards a Learning Gini Index that not only takes learning seriously but also equity.

Dan Wagner is Professor of Education and UNESCO Chair in Learning and Literacy at the Graduate School of Education, University of Pennsylvania, where he is also the director of the International Literacy Institute and International Educational Development Program.  In today’s show we talk about his new book, Learning as Development: Rethinking International Education in a Changing World (Routledge 2018). He has also published a new book for UNESCO entitled Learning at the Bottom of the Pyramid (UNESCO 2018).

Citation: Wagner, Dan, interview with Will Brehm, FreshEd, 145, podcast audio, January 21, 2018.

Transcript, translation, and resources:


Will Brehm  1:39
Dan Wagner, welcome to FreshEd.

Dan Wagner  1:41
Will, great to be with you.

Will Brehm  1:43
So, for many people, development is understood through, more-or-less, an economic lens. So, increases in Gross Domestic Product will help national societies, that sort of view. In your view, though, what are some of the limitations from understanding development as growth in GDP?

Dan Wagner  2:00
Right, so I think that’s a fundamental question and that was one of the motivating forces for writing this book. It is seemed to me, as well as, I think many people, that a unique or predominant economic focus on development not only was incomplete, but also led, unfortunately, to some very poor choices by the development community and by national governments. So that, for example, if one looks at average Gross Domestic Product across the world, or income levels across the world, one can come to decisions about where to make investments, which type of education at what level as, for example, the World Bank has done now ever since its existence. And most, or many of us, sort of joke that every 10 years, they choose a new rate of return based on return on investment based on either higher education, secondary education, or vocational education, basic education, early childhood is now “en vogue”, and it keeps rotating over the years and there is evidence from GDP that you can marshal to support any of these decisions. The problem is that there’s no particular reason that we should accept this other than some international experts funded by a few prominent organizations tell us that that’s the best assessment. In fact, in my book, I make the claim that we really should be thinking across the board. That it’s a mistake to simply pick a slice of the pie and say, that’s the one you should invest in, because that’s the one that has the greatest return on investment.

Will Brehm  3:57
So, when you mean across the board, you mean looking across all levels of education?

Dan Wagner  4:03
Not only all levels of education, but actually across the human lifespan. So, it is possible to see the world through a unique educational lens. As you know, from my book, I try to see outside of that particular box with a framework that I have suggested in the book that looks at both schooling and out of schooling, and very young children at birth, all the way through people who are elderly, these are all part of our human population, and each makes its own contribution and even subtraction from the kind of society that we have. And unless we look at the broad range of humans, I don’t mean only here by age but I also mean, as you know, by context, and by culture, we will be not only missing the scientific boat, we will be missing our ability to help different people in different ways, rather than what I view as a fairly simplistic analysis that admittedly you can find statistics to support but doesn’t really support our understanding of human well-being.

Will Brehm  5:10
Is this what you mean by human development? The framework of human development?

Dan Wagner  5:13
That is what I mean. And in fact, there is a long history if you understand, the primary disciplinary focus comes out of what people call human development or developmental psychology, which starts at births, some say before birth, but continuing on into the lifespan, you have very well-known academics and researchers, famously people like Jean Piaget, Jerome Bruner, Ben Bloom, John Dewey, others, Montessori, all of whom had lifespan perspectives on human development. It isn’t, by the way, that human development has been ignored by the UN agencies. Certainly, United Nations Development Program has for almost 20 years had a Human Development Index, which was designed to measure roughly what I’m talking about. But the problem is that that was informed again, more by indicators that could predict economic development rather than by aspects of human development that are valid on their own. And that is what I’m trying to suggest in this book, that it’s not economics as the dependent variable where the independent variable is how much schooling does a person have? Do they read in the mother tongue, or in a second language? Do they get a particular kind of nutritional supplement? Still, much of the international community is, in my view, hung up on rates of return that look at human development as predictors of what they think is important, rather than human development as its own dependent variable of what, comprehensively, will provide solutions for people in a world that is fast changing, so we could talk about that as well.

Will Brehm  7:07
Yeah, I mean, it seems like, recently the World Bank has put out their Human Capital Index, which in a sense, furthers that same idea of seeing economic growth and rates of return as the primary function of what education is supposed to do.

Dan Wagner  7:22
Right. I mean, I think that I have to give a bit of a wry smile, because there is completely nothing new in the Human Capital Index. The Bank invented it 50 years ago, along with some economists. I mean, I do think that there’s value in thinking about humans. I appreciate the word “human” in human capital index. The problem is the word “capital” and “index”. But I do think that there are people and I don’t mean to say that, again, I don’t think this is something I’m not suggesting something that’s completely new. There are people who have taken these issues into account. As I mentioned, people in human development, some of the people I mentioned a moment ago, who are very well known in the field of human development, one of their limitations, as you probably know, is that most of them rarely looked outside of where they lived. So, Jean Piaget mainly worked out of his home in Geneva, Switzerland. He had a couple of students who went elsewhere and did some interesting work in Africa, and so on. But basically, these theories are Euro-centric, North American-centric, they have a different purpose. Their purpose was to describe how Euro-American children grow up. That’s interesting, and of course, there are people who’ve looked cross-culturally at these theories but there is hardly anybody who made the step to say, “well, how do these theories of human development actually play out in low-income countries? And how do they play out in what we sometimes call the international development arena”? And this is what inspired me to write my book, is that I frankly, couldn’t find people who would really addressed that issue. And that’s what I sought to do.

Will Brehm  9:13
And what did you find?

Dan Wagner  9:14
Well, for one -and anybody who wants to read the book will find- is that, its quite remarkable how many very well-informed scientists have not invested themselves into thinking about how human development as a science can make a difference in international development. I’d say the one area where this is less true -and it’s because it’s more recent- is the area of early childhood development. It isn’t, of course, people have looked at early childhood for many years, you could go back to Margaret Mead. And you could go back to others who have, Berry Brazelton, and others who’ve worked internationally. But their goal was the science of human development rather than to invest in young children as a way of thinking through what would happen when they got into school in a low-income country. There is work being done in that area, I’d say it’s one of the more exciting areas today. And I’m glad to see that people have been putting resources into that. But again, part of my I would say, cautionary remark is just because it’s an area where people have sort of discovered its importance doesn’t mean that it should be the exclusive priority of international agencies.

Will Brehm  10:31
So, you call for “learning as development”. What do you actually mean by this? I mean, you take this human development idea, but then you, in a sense, stick in the term learning. So, how does that fit into this conversation.

Dan Wagner  10:45
So, one way to think about it is to think about the very important work of Amartya Sen, who is one of the best known, he’s a Nobel Prize winner, he’s an economist, born and raised in India and has been a significant actor in a number of different fields, from philosophy, to political science, and also into international development. He wrote a book some years back a couple decades ago called, “Development as Freedom”. And you can hear that two out of those three words in a title, I share with him. His was Development as Freedom, and mine is “Learning as Development” and it’s not by chance. I think he had a very interesting approach to seeing personal liberty as a form of well-being that should be advanced in the world. And he had many followers, quite appropriately so. One of the limitations however, was that he was at base an economist. And so, he too, was looking through an economic lens. So, while I did think of him, he was partly the inspiration for the title of my book. Nonetheless, my book focuses almost entirely on education and learning. So, learning as development is different than education as development. And that’s the second thing so, while Amartya Sen helped to inspire at least the title and some of the thinking, the point of learning as development is that education is a system that we have created around the world that is largely similar in its inputs and outputs. That is fine. And that is where I would say, according to my book, anyway, about 95% of the intellectual and fiscal resources go into that idea. That is that education IS development in the same way that economics IS development. And my claim, of course, is that that’s not true. At least not, well there is a high correlation between education and learning. Most of us spend most of our days not in school, even children spend most of their days not in school, parents obviously see things a little bit differently. They hope that most of the learning their kids would do would be in school and on target and whatever the teachers teaching, and the national institutions believe, should be taught. But the reality is increasingly, whether it’s in the United States, or Uganda, or Bolivia, is that kids are learning much more autonomously, partly due to the growth of technology, a topic we could we could also talk about, but also because the nature of schooling -and this is another point I try to make- has simply become much more complicated in the days we are in today. It may come as a surprise to some of the listeners on the show, but you only need to think about, certainly, I mentioned technology, which has many inputs that are largely out of our control, whether we’re parents or teachers, or even ourselves, we’re often assaulted by a variety of inputs that we have little control over, or only moderate control over. But it’s also true that the sample of people who are in school is no longer the sample that was in school 50 years ago, or 30 years ago, or even 10 years ago. You go to the Philadelphia school system, we teach 50 languages in our school. That’s not a lot. They teach more in Los Angeles. You go to South Africa, 25 different languages taught in Johannesburg. Why is that? Well, one of my chapters is about globalization and migration and climate change. And it’s clear that people are moving around, it’s not just let’s say Africans from sub-Sahara, moving to Brussels, or Paris. Much more common is internal migration. And any demographer that works on countries around the world will tell you that certainly, urban settings in almost every country are showing a greater mix of populations, in part because that’s where the jobs are, and it’s pulling people in. The resources that are available in rural settings are more limited, are driving parents to put their children in schools in urban settings. What that means is that the number of children per teacher has grown tremendously, especially in Africa but not only. The complexity of the teacher environment. Teachers are finding it more and more difficult to teach in many classrooms, whether it’s Africa or Philadelphia. That teachers don’t have mastery of the language or languages that children know and vice versa. Life is more complicated and especially in the low-income countries, which is the focus of my book, the number of pupils per classroom has grown tremendously, even as education looks like it’s improved in the sense that this is where national averages are deceptive. As you probably know, the number of children in school in Africa has just about tripled in the last 25 years. Has that made education better? Quite the contrary, children are losing, learning less on average than they learned 25 years ago. Not because the teachers are worse, or the curriculum is worse, probably not true. But the fact is, there are just so many kids in the classroom the teacher can’t be effective with all of them. So, there are well accepted statistics. The question is, what do you do about it? How do you take into account this diversity? And that is another area that I tried to treat in my book.

Will Brehm  16:17
So, I mean, let’s look at that. What would you do about it? Like, if we accept the argument and all of these statistics that the nature of schooling is becoming much more complicated. Then, if we were to rethink schooling with that framework of learning as development as you propose? What would that look like?

Dan Wagner  16:33
Well, to me, this means more work on our part as applied researchers. But I think the angle of response is well known. That is, when you have a disparate population, a varied population, you have to figure out ways of addressing that population. So, if I had five different languages being spoken in my classroom, in a part of Johannesburg, I have to figure out ways of getting appropriate language input, either into the teacher or a supplementary support for instruction. And, in fact, you know, some of us, in fact, one of my projects out of the University of Pennsylvania and partnership in South Africa, we have done just that by deploying mother tongue language support in classes where the teacher only knows one of the three languages being taught in the classroom. And we supply support and we did in partnership with the South African government in two other languages when the teacher couldn’t teach effectively in those two other languages. And that’s just one angle. Technology can do this kind of thing. Another, which is crucial, and I try to speak about this in my book, is how to look at teacher training. Much too often, teacher training involves -and I think this is still the majority case, and most countries, low-income countries, but also, I think, in most countries- is to send teachers to some kind of provincial capital, or the national capital on some nice week long or two-week long experience, sometimes taught by outside experts who speak English or French or Spanish, or some international language. Or they’re being taught by professors who’ve been in their own country, but who’ve been trained by, let’s say University College London, or Institute of Education, or, you know, in major metropolis’ around the world. But where, in fact, what we need to be doing is teaching to the marginalized children. So, we have to have a pedagogy that is appropriate for the diversity of kids who are in the classroom. This is not the same thing as what we sometimes call either flipped classrooms or child-centered pedagogy. Again, those are interesting terms. They are interesting things going on, but they miss the boat. And I find somewhat frustrating to me is that some of my my favorite colleagues, nonetheless, are focused on what we think -here in America, or sometimes in Europe- are magic bullets for improving pedagogy when the real issue in pedagogy is addressing the diversity of children and the skills that they bring to classrooms, or even the skills that are needed outside of classrooms that we are not taught in typical teacher training programs. There is a lot to be done and if you focus as I tried to suggest, in my book on the most marginalized and disadvantaged populations, what I call in the book, “the bottom of the pyramid”. If you focus on learning at the bottom of the pyramid, then you have a different approach to the issues than trying to find what on average works statistically, for some average population compared to another. That is where we missed the boat.

Will Brehm  19:54
So, you and I were both in Brussels last month to attend the Global Education meeting put on by UNESCO, which is supposed to sort of look at the Sustainable Development Goals, particularly the goal on education, SDG 4, and sort of measure and evaluate the progress towards achieving that goal. I want to know in your opinion, do you think this idea of “learning as development” is reflected in the Sustainable Development Goals?

Dan Wagner  20:22
Yes and no. I think in the “yes” part of the answer, the Sustainable Development Goals are a great improvement over previous goals that we’ve had, and certainly over not having any goals at all. They do put, as you know, a major emphasis on the quality of education and learning in the context of that is, I think, a very positive development. And there are some people who were at that meeting that was in Brussels who did talk about issues of equity and education and I thought that was a positive development. It was not always the case. Though there has always been some serious interest, I think that one of the things you learn in a career in social science is that we are limited by the data that we have in front of us. And the data that the United Nations collects, or the World Bank collects are typically national level data created, either by an international agency or by a national government. Most national governments and international agencies pay some attention -this is part of the “no” part of the answer-they pay, I would say, more philosophical attention to, we want to raise the levels of learning of every child in our population. But if you look at the data, which was shown at this meeting in Brussels, the amount of money invested in the lowest parts of the economic pyramid in low-income countries is far less than in the middle and upper end of the population. And I think that reflects, where we also put our emphasis on trying to understand what would make a difference. And for these people at the bottom of the pyramid, or especially children, and that is often in many countries, very large numbers, sometimes the majority in some of the poorest countries in the world. But these are difficult political programs to adopt at a national and international level. So, at the national level, ministers of education sort of famously said, rarely, I think if you looked it up somebody once did, I think the average term in office is somewhere between a year and a half and two years. There are usually at least two ministers of education, at least per head of state per Prime Minister and that’s in part because schools are often a flash point. Either teachers strikes or student rebellions or political differences among different groups, it’s very difficult to be a minister of education. So, ministers tend to go with the flow, which means the dominant plurality of the country and have a hard time investing in the poorest parts of the population. This then is picked up I think, in my view, by international agencies, which are trying to come up with ways of thinking about which countries are doing better and less-well, that’s, I think, another part of my “no”, to the answer of do I think things are going in the right direction with the SDGs. I think the SDGs are basically very good, but they mainly establish benchmarks so that countries can be compared with one another, and that, to me, is our major flaw. I’m not saying that everybody believes that to be true, I have a lot of friends who believe like I do, that the real goal should be looking at diversity within countries, not between countries. Diversity across countries simply picks up on the economic differences that already exist, and limit or don’t limit the kind of support you can have for education. But looking within countries, you start seeing where countries are making investments. And there we could have an impact, if we understood this notion of diversity and disaggregation of differences within populations, in between populations. Again, I don’t think this is a particularly new idea. I mean, people in the United States and in other countries certainly been concerned. But I think it with respect to the SDGs, one of the problems of these national goals, national targets, international targets, is it pushes one toward national averages rather than into equity issues within countries. And I think we cannot make progress unless we look at the diversity within countries.

Will Brehm  25:01
One of the big issues that the UNESCO seems to be having right now with the Sustainable Development Goals is simply measuring all of the targets under SDG 4, and so, I want to ask you as a social scientist proposing this framework of learning as development, how would we even go about measuring it even within a country to capture that issue of equity, you know. How would you go about measuring it if we had sort of a magic wand of data collection?

Dan Wagner  25:33
Right. So, I’m going to give you I think, an answer that I’d be interested in hearing what others might say: In my view, as a person who has been in the social sciences of measurement of what we used to call cognitive development, that is learning across the lifespan and across different content materials, there is a high correlation -very high correlation- between all the different measures that one can use. Whether it’s intelligence testing, whether it’s math testing, and reading testing. The fact is, testing is a very common kind of goal and no matter which items you put in, you can find that there’s a high correlation between how a person scores in one test and how they score in another. The reason why there is such a debate in the world today about which measures to use is that the contents that go into them are very diverse across the world as they should be. But I think, again, that’s where international policy actually pushes us in the wrong direction. So, what I suggested, as you noted, in a note to me is that something like a learning gini index is much more interesting than whether we have a particular test. The idea of a learning gini index, we don’t have to call it that. But a gini index is something that many people are familiar with and that essentially measures whatever kind of economic system you have. It can look at those who have more of it, meaning money, and those who have less of it, whether we’re in rupees or dollars, or whatever. So, what interests me, and we don’t have this as yet, is some type of learning gini index that looks at how populations within countries do. You can pick an age and you can pick your sample by mother tongue that they speak or by gender, or by economic level, and see how gaps are rising and falling over time. To me, this would be more indicative of whether we’re making progress than a measure that was first developed in Princeton, New Jersey, then translated into other languages, and then translated into mother tongue, by people whose second or third language were those mother tongues. To me, that is far less relevant than knowing whether kids who are in rural Somalia are doing better relative to their peers than they did the year before. And whether a teacher who understands the language that they speak has improved the performance relative to others over previous years. And what that does, at least in principle, and I’m working with a number of statisticians and some other colleagues to try to find a way to do this, that does not prejudice the measure of equity by focusing on a particular set of contents that really can only be understood within a given sample in a given place in a given time. So, what I’m suggesting here is that I, like I think many people, are very concerned about a push toward a global metric. If the global metric is in fact, a set of contents that is part of the globalization that says that everybody needs to be prepared to work at you know, at some international banking firm or some Microsoft type technology entity. As much as that is important, certainly, for the middle and upper classes in countries. The kids who don’t have bread on the table, their goal is going to be how to get as much as possible to be able to handle the onslaught of information that is coming their way. Some of which will help them, some of which probably needs to alert them of and two, things that are not so favorable in the environment. We have far too many kids, even ones who have made it through primary school who can’t read and write effectively, who don’t know math. This inefficiency of our education system is, it’s really an outrage today. And so, I am passionate about it. But there are things that we know that are better and things that we know that will hold us back and we need to build, I think, on a better science but the focus of that science on making a difference for those and to use my labeling at the bottom of the pyramid. I think that’s where I would suggest. Especially private foundations and organizations that have the resources to think boldly and innovatively and have the human condition at their heart.

Will Brehm  30:24
Well, Dan Wagner thank you so much for joining FreshEd today. It really was a pleasure to talk.

Dan Wagner  30:28
Thank you very much. It was a great pleasure to talk.

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