Learning crisis bigger challenge than increasing access to education

World Bank says that ‘schooling is not the same as learning’, which is a challenge for education stakeholders. Indicators like years of schools and access to education may no longer be sufficient

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Representative Image
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Dr Gyan Pathak

Most developing member countries (DMCs) are facing serious gaps in student learning outcomes, that the World Bank calls learning crisis. Half of the students in Grade 5 in India cannot do two-digit subtraction or read connected text, and half of the students who complete primary schools in Bangladesh and Pakistan cannot read. COVID-19 crisis has further worsened the situation.

This is only one aspect of the education crisis that has gripped the foundational education system that is commonly referred to as K-12 (kindergarten to grade 12), considered to be fundamental for people to succeed in life.

However, in most countries the national education system has been subject to socio-cultural, economic, and political influences. The traditional thinking continues, even as we are faced with 21st century challenges, which hinders its agility and disruptive evolution, and the system is difficult to change, though we actually need a paradigm shift, since educational reforms seem to have missed even quality and relevance.

An appropriated 21st century education also needs to impart appropriate soft skills and dispositions to prepare citizens to be agile, productive, and live together in harmony as national and global communities.

As the world transitions from industrial revolution to information revolution and now to knowledge economy, the foundational education sector has been confronted with several simultaneous challenges.

Access to education has globally improved but there are still millions of children out of school, especially among marginalized communities.

A World Bank report has said that learning crisis seems to be a bigger challenge than increasing access to education.

A related issue is the relevance of what children are taught. With exponentially increasing body of knowledge, educators are facing diverse expectations while working within rigid time-bound structures. Integrating new understandings of human learning into teaching and learning practices is the new challenge our educators are facing.

New delivery modalities that involve technology have come with many options and innovations to consider. All these have made the situation complex for governance, performance, management, and accountability.

An ADB study titled ‘Foundational (K-12) Education System: Navigating 21st Century Challenges’ has considered all these challenges and made recommendations to change almost all aspects of the present education system since they are unable to provide the necessary solutions.

Our systems are reliant on traditional rigid time frames and complex external pressures that are blurring the boundaries of the school education. There is a need to explore new opportunities for reforming the school education space, including system structures, human resources, curriculum designs, and delivery strategies, the study emphasizes.

There are still some countries where enrolment rate is below 45 per cent. Gender parity is excellent for primary education, but is imbalanced in favour of boys for secondary and tertiary education, except in few countries.

One of the reasons for poor enrolment in secondary education has been the perceived lack of relevance which in turn influences consideration of opportunity costs for student to join the workforce, albeit often in the informal sector.

Thus, increasing secondary participation rates is not just about increasing access but equally about the quality and relevance of education services.

The challenge now for DMCs is to improve the quality of learning outcomes and prepare students with 21st century knowledge, skill, and dispositions, the study says. The tension between competing public and private (community and individual) goals of schooling has become more significant with blurring of boundaries between formal and informal learning, which has further been confounded by communication technology innovations and evolving expectations to meet both social ideals and facilitate individual student growth and development.

There is an urgency to rethink, since earlier reforms – pedagogical, curriculum, programme, financing, and governance – seem to have missed the quality and relevance outcome.


A large percentage of secondary students in all DMCs do not progress to university and it is as low as only 30 per cent in some nations such as Sri Lanka.

Therefore, the K-12 program must be mindful to create alternative opportunities for students who do not seek the higher education pathway.

The current alternatives through Vocational Education and Training (VET) lack quality – they are under-developed, poorly resourced and not aligned with contemporary industry skills and/or entrepreneurial skills to engage with the emerging market opportunities.

Lack of high-quality opportunities after basic education contributes to the low enrolment in secondary education, the study points out.

As DMCs transition to a knowledge economy, adopt technological innovations, deal with increasing within and cross-border tensions, and navigate the COVID-19 pandemic, the ability to access knowledge (to read, interpret, and make personal sense) is even more important than before.

Foundational knowledge and skill is important for individual to become self-directed, make personal decisions, become innovative regarding life choices, citizens’ rights, financial issues, technological innovations and adapting to the economic changes that occur over their lifetime. Thus, the push for high quality and relevant K-12 education outcomes requires more than investments to increase access. The World Bank points out that ‘schooling is not the same as learning’, which posits a challenge for all education stakeholders.

Indicators such as years of schools and access to education may no longer be sufficient. Better quality physical facilities (classrooms, lab equipment); better qualified and prepared human resources (teachers and principals); and better home environments and family support can have a huge impact on learning outcomes, the study emphasizes.

A one size fits all approach has unintentionally homogenized the global K-12 education landscape.

All DMCs do not have to push that frontier through innovation, but they need widespread quality and relevant basic education to absorb and adapt the technologies that are already available globally.

High quality education generates benefit for individuals and societies. For individual, it raises cognitive abilities and emotional abilities such as self-esteem, and further opportunities for employment and earnings and a better lifestyle. For a country, it helps to strengthen institutions within societies, drive long-term economic growth, reduce poverty, and spur innovation.

The World Bank argues that factors that impede learning are unprepared learners due perceived lack of relevance and lack of foundational knowledge, unskilled and unmotivated teachers, limited and out-of-date teaching and learning resources, ineffective school management and governance, and school inputs that do not support quality of teaching and learning.

Added to the above is recent experience from the coronavirus pandemic which has challenged the traditional delivery modalities warranting consideration of more agile and responsive approaches to deal with natural and man-made disaster situations.

(IPA Service)

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