Discussion forum seeks new ways to improve learning outcomes

How can differences in children and young people’s learning outcomes be reduced? This was one of the timely themes discussed in the Sustainable Cities discussion forum series arranged by the United Nations University World Institute of Development Economics Research (UNU-WIDER) in collaboration with the City of Helsinki.

The two-day event, co-hosted by HundrED, an organization specialized in educational innovation, highlighted equality and innovation in connection with the future of education. One of the UN's Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), SDG 4: Quality education, is to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.

Participants from over 30 different countries were represented in the over 900 online registrants, alongside a live audience present at the venue in Hanasaari.

Wednesday’s keynote speech by development economist and education specialist Lant Pritchett was a summary of the latest research on education. He pointed out that, even though most children around the world have access to schooling now, learning outcomes have become weaker. 

There are staggering differences between students in their level of mastery of basic skills depending on where they come from. These differences start to develop right from the start of schooling. These outcomes are affected by, for example, their domestic situation, but even when several underlying factors are taken into consideration the differences remain. Outcomes in rich countries are generally better.

'This results in a crisis of education,' said Lant Pritchett. 'Some pupils who attend school don’t even learn to read.'

This results in a crisis of education. Some pupils who attend school don’t even learn to read.

—Lant Pritchett 

In Zambia, which has a population of 19 million people, only 5 pupils belong to the group with the best PISA results, while the corresponding number in Finland, which has a population of 5.5 million, is 25,000 pupils. 

However, prosperous countries are in no way in the clear. Research indicates that there is a clear trend of literacy rates plummeting. 

Pritchett presented a list with five points that could reverse this negative development and drive better learning outcomes. 

  1. His first point is that we have to commit to understanding the learning process. If teaching is conducted at a high pace without proper understanding of the learning process, learning outcomes remain narrow and lack mastery of larger entities of knowledge. 
  2. The second point involves measurement. It is crucial to measure the skills and knowledge learned by pupils, since education policymakers must know what it is that pupils don’t know. 
  3. Pritchett’s third point is alignment. Teaching must take into consideration what the pupils are capable of learning. Without the basic skills and knowledge to build upon, it doesn’t matter how much is invested in teaching. A study carried out in Indonesia showed that if children still lack basic numeracy skills in sixth grade, they will not acquire them later either.
  4. Pritchett’s fourth point involves teaching support, which is quite separate from remedial teaching.
  5. The fifth way to improve learning outcomes involves adaptation. Teaching methods and innovations that have been successful elsewhere must be adapted to each unique situation.
Lant Pritchett. Photo: HundrED
Lant Pritchett. Photo: HundrED
Focus on work opportunities

UNU-WIDER Director Kunal Sen asked in his speech whether it is possible to increase social mobility with the help of education. His short answer to the question was: yes, but. He underlined the word 'but'.

Social mobility, which in practice entails that children become more successful than their parents, is quite common in, for example, China, where it is currently even more prevalent than, for example, the United States. 

But in order to increase social mobility by means of education, young people’s motivation to study must also be ensured. If educating oneself does not open up better job opportunities or better pay, there is less motivation to carry out studies. His main point was that education can only go so far in advancing social mobility, it also needs to be paired with inclusive economic development. 

It is OK to fail

Varsha Pillai, deputy director of the startup Dream a Dream, gave an example of an 11-year-old Indian boy who harbored a lot of anger. He was disappointed in his parents and in his school, and he dropped out. 

However, he was later connected with an engaged adult and today he is a team member at Dream a Dream. 

'This example illustrates clearly what it is we do at Dream a Dream,' said Pillai. 'Disappointed children and youths need support from a caring adult who can teach them life skills.'

Nowadays, the Dream a Dream community collaborates systematically with decision makers. They want to keep the decision makers updated regarding the needs of children and youths. 

To young people, we communicate that it is completely OK to fail. The important thing is to get up and try again. 


—Varsha Pillai

'To young people, we communicate that it is completely OK to fail. The important thing is to get up and try again.'

More funds to those in need of special support

During the panel discussion on Wednesday, one of the questions asked was what consequences the pandemic has had for learning, children, and youths.

Mayor Juhana Vartiainen said that during the pandemic, young people have experienced more loneliness and insecurity than before. It seems that the polarization between those who are successful in school and those who are not has grown. 

Vartiainen pointed out that the situation is taken into consideration in the city’s new budget. More funds are being directed to, for example, children in need of special support.

Pritchett mentioned that it was crucial to minimize the learning gaps between pupils as soon as possible. He gave an example related to Pakistan’s earthquake. The schools in the area were closed for a couple of months. 

When the children from the earthquake zone were later compared with other pupils in the same age group, it was discovered that the two-month pause in schooling meant a three-year lag in learning outcomes in the long run.

When the children return to school, their teaching must quickly be adjusted to the right level, which is not necessarily the level where they left off. 

In Varsha Pillai’s opinion, other factors affecting young people’s lives during a pause from school must be continuously considered. In India, schools were closed due to the pandemic for up to two years. Corona wreaked havoc in communities and many pupils lost their parents to the pandemic. One must always understand the human factor.

Panel discussion. Host Denise Wall, Juhana Vartiainen, Lant Pritchett, Kunal Sen and Varsha Pillai. Photo: HundrED.
Panel discussion. Host Denise Wall, Juhana Vartiainen, Lant Pritchett, Kunal Sen and Varsha Pillai. Photo: HundrED.
Where do we go from here?

Pritchett cites a study conducted in Viet Nam. The country’s schools had shown excellent results, and a research team studied the underlying reasons for the success. He said, 'One clear reason was the need to succeed. It was a very simple answer, but still explained the reasons behind the results.'

You can watch a recording of the event at The event is in English with English subtitles.

Kirsi Riipinen is contributing freelance journalist for the City of Helsinki. 

The views expressed in this piece are those of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Institute or the United Nations University, nor the programme/project donors.