Afghan kids in class

Education in the Developing World

“Education is hugely important, as the skills developed in school lead to higher productivity and thus higher incomes. Compare Pakistan and South Korea, for example. They started with about the same level of education and income in 1950. Today, Koreans have an average of 12 years of education, whereas Pakistanis have not yet reached an average of six years. Korea’s per-capita income has grown 23-fold versus Pakistan’s three-fold growth.”

Understanding the Numbers: Good News and Bad

More people in the world today are educated than ever before. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), In 1900, close to 70 percent of the world was illiterate whereas today about 20 percent remain so. The number of primary school age out-of-school children dropped by 42 percent between 2000 and 2012, despite rapid population growth. Nevertheless, according to the UNICEF and the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, 58 million children of primary school age were out of school in 2015 and progress on primary school enrolment has slowed.

Although state education systems are corrupt in too many developing countries, with thousands of fake teachers on payroll and thousands of nonexistent schools registered with the state, the UN figures may nevertheless be misleading and the outlook less bleak.

Classroom in rural India

A small village private school in Dasdoi, Uttar Pradesh, India

The poor in the developing world and those stranded in refugee camps across the world know what they want for their children. Almost all of them recognize that a good education is key to providing a better future for their children and improving their own quality of life.

Talented people are interested in investing time and technology providing learning opportunities to children wherever they are; and provided they work in close collaboration in the communities and with the people they wish to assist, education can rapidly advance. Not forgetting of course the key fact that children all over the world are curious and naturally disposed to learn, no matter where they are, and particularly when valued resources are scarce.

Indigenous Solutions

Many indigent communities have come up with their own solutions. The Economist notes that “The failure of state education, combined with the shift in emerging economies from farming to jobs that need at least a modicum of education, has caused a private-school boom. According to the World Bank, across the developing world a fifth of primary-school pupils are enrolled in private schools, twice as many as 20 years ago. So many private schools are unregistered that the real figure is likely to be much higher. A census in Lagos found 12,000 private schools, four times as many as on government records. Across Nigeria 26% of primary-age children were in private schools in 2010, up from 18% in 2004. In India in 2013, 29% were, up from 19% in 2006. In Liberia and Sierra Leone around 60% and 50% respectively of secondary-school enrolments are private.”

School in rural India

Rural low-fee private school in Lucknow District, Uttar Pradesh, India

The pioneer work of James Tooley and his team took them to incredibly poor rural and urban areas in five countries: Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, India, and China. Tooley concluded that: “The poor have found remarkably innovative ways of helping themselves, educationally, and in some of the most destitute places on earth, have managed to nurture a large and growing industry of private schools for themselves.” Contrary to expectations they found that children in low-cost private schools in India, Nigeria, and Ghana outperformed students in government schools by double-digit margins in almost every subject. Those in low-cost private schools in China also outperformed students in government schools, although by a lesser margin.

Their work has done much to dispel the understanding of development experts that spending money on education ensures its higher quality and that the poor are helpless victims. But the situation is far from rosy: these private schools rely on temporary, local, very underpaid teachers.

Prachi Srivastava points out that most are women, who have little opportunities to move on and less education than teachers employed by the state. Since everyone is local there is a sense of accountability and obligation, and teachers do show up.

Education for All—Starting With Women

The Global Initiative number 4 resolution is Quality Education

Goal number four of The Global Resolutions Initiative  is quality education.

Global Resolutions Initiative has found that 781 million adults and 126 million youth (aged 15 to 24) worldwide lack basic reading and writing skills. The OECD noted that the Sustainable Development Goals adopted by the United Nations in 2015 to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all” by 2030 will be impossible to achieve unless there is greater equality between women and men, and increased empowerment of women and girls. More than 60 percent of those who lack basic reading and writing skills today are women; ten million more girls across the world are out of school than boys, and 41 million girls are denied primary education.

Women typically invest a higher proportion of their earnings in their families and communities than do men. With even a few years of primary education, women’s economic prospects improve; they have fewer and healthier children, and better chances of sending their children to school. Regrettably, cultural norms and the misinterpretation of religious concepts have too often led to violence against women of all ages, and present a major deterrent to female education. Honor killings, abduction, rape, and sexual harassment still occur with near impunity in too many countries.

Unfortunately, studies almost always show low attainment overall in both the government and private sectors. And most importantly, says Prachi Srivastava, “Impacts on higher order skills, like creativity and critical thinking, are not known.”

What Should the Poor Expect from Education?

First and foremost, education needs to prepare young people so that they and their community can get out of poverty. Tanzania for example has a high number of unemployed graduates: individuals who attained good degrees that have no or little application in their local communities. They may well have been excellent pupils, but were not taught to think critically, problem-solve or focus on studies that would lead to a better livelihood either for themselves or their communities.

Marc J. Epstein and Kristi Yuthas looked at some of the world’s largest and most successful innovative educational programs including:

  • BRAC, a Bangladesh NGO dedicated to alleviating poverty by empowering the poor that owns and operates 32,000 primary schools operating in 12 countries
  • Pratham, which provides literacy and other educational support programs, teaching 33 million children in India
  • Escuela Nueva, Colombian program of mono and multigrade teaching that has grown to 20,000 schools.

In Redefining Education in the Developing World they write: “The traditional definition of school quality in the developing world is based on content mastery. But using traditional schooling approaches during the few precious years most children will spend in school leads to wasted resources and forgone opportunities for individuals and communities. Governmental agencies and organizations that support and promote quality education for all children must move beyond traditional models to help children develop the knowledge, skills, and attitudes that are relevant to their lives and that can lift them out of poverty.

“For too long, governments and organizations investing in developing-world education have operated under the unquestioned assumption that improved test scores were clear evidence that their investments have paid off. But if, as we argue here, mastery of the basic primary school curriculum is not the best means for improving life chances and alleviating poverty in developing countries, that model is broken. Investing in interventions that produce the highest test scores is no longer a valid approach for allocating scarce educational dollars or the scarce time available for the development of young minds. It is time to seek out the interventions that lead to the greatest social and economic impact for the poor.

School under a bridge

Indian children attend a school run under a bridge in India.

“Conceptual knowledge is put into practice at school through activities that empower children to use what they have learned. For example, students practice routine health behaviors, such as hand washing and wearing shoes near latrines—and, to the extent feasible, gain exposure to other important behaviors, such as boiling drinking water and using malaria nets. …

“Students also develop higher order skills as they work in committees to develop and execute complex projects. Health-related projects can range from planning and carrying out an athletic activity to be played during recess, to practicing diagnostic skills when classmates are ill—helping to decide, for example, when a cold has turned into a respiratory infection that requires antibiotics. Entrepreneurship projects include identifying and exploiting market opportunities through business ideas like school gardens or community recycling that create real value. Students learn and practice workplace skills and attitudes like delegation, negotiation, collaboration, and planning—opportunities that are rarely available to them outside their families.

Fundación Escuela Nueva is changing the way children learn from Colombia to Southeast Asia.

“Some school systems, especially at the secondary level, have begun to include entrepreneurship and health topics in their curricular requirements. But including information in basic lectures is not enough. Schools must simultaneously adopt action-oriented pedagogical approaches that hone critical thinking skills and enable children to identify problems, seek out and evaluate relevant information and resources, and design and carry out plans for solving these problems. This involves tackling real problems that require and empower students to take the initiative and responsibility for their own learning.”

Education at all levels, especially in the developing world, needs to involve parents, students, and teachers; and address the needs of the local community first and then society at large; the subjects taught would then be relevant to learners. It’s not as if children lack the potential to change their world for the better. They are, as it were, waiting for the opportunities to expand their natural ability to create, learn and problem solve.

Children are Natural Learners

kids gathered around a computer embedded in a wall

Children use Sugata Mitra’s hole-in-the-wall computer in a slum in New Delhi. Credit: TED/Sugata Mitra.

Sugata Mitra wanted to solve the problem of the lack of good teachers in remote, poor areas, initially in India. Along the way he demonstrated what is perhaps the most powerful consideration in a discussion on education in both the developed and developing world when he asked: “Just how much are children natural learners?” He first installed a computer at the height children would be able to use, in an exterior wall of his south Delhi office opposite a slum. Initially curious about the machine, groups of street children soon became able not only to operate it, but also to teach themselves and each other, once they were motivated by curiosity and peer interest.

The project has now grown; Mitra says that adding “The Granny Cloud,” or “eMediators” made a huge difference. These non-threatening volunteer adults are Skyped into the classrooms of kids in India, Colombia, and Mexico to interact, read stories and discuss their lives; show photos and talk with the children; and to admire, encourage and be enthusiastic at what the young ones are doing.

SOLE: Self Organized Learning Environment

Kids in India gathered around a computer
In a SOLE classroom children from New Delhi search for answers.

As every parent knows, children seem to have little difficulty in figuring out computer hardware or programs; and we all know that they are natural born learners. Yet Mitra’s experiments with exposing children to computers, posing a problem and leaving them to it, have shone light on the immense capacities that children have for learning in self-composed and self-regulated groups, and more recently with the Self Organized Learning Environment (SOLE) schools he set up, 3 in England and 4 in India.

Each of the seven SOLE schools have computers in open classrooms; the teacher or mediator poses “Big Questions”—questions with no one right answer, composed in a way that spark children’s curiosity. Children form small self-selected groups, ideally of 4 or 5 students, around each of the computers and search for answers. As an example, the teacher/mediator might ask a group of nine year olds “Why does hair grow? Human hair grows longer, and longer and then you have to cut it off. It doesn’t do that on animals. Why?” Because they search and discover the answers themselves, they retain what they learn, and often have read and understood work written for much older audiences. At the end of each session each group presents its findings to the other groups, and at that time the mediators talk with them about what they came up with in ways that help them develop critical and analytical skills.

By working in self-selected groups their use of the internet does not degenerate to games, cartoons, or insalubrious websites, instead they tend to keep working to solve the questions asked. Mitra says: “I now believe that groups of children, given the appropriate digital infrastructure, a safe and free environment, and a friendly but not knowledgeable mediator, can pass school-leaving exams on their own.”

He contends that schools need to reflect the modern workplace, and even examinations should include the Internet and other available resources, as well as group collaboration for problem-solving and decision-making. Rather than beautiful handwriting – which is obsolete – or spelling and multiplication – which technologies now assist – teachers need to encourage children to come up with ideas and develop analytical and critical skills so they can discern information that is relevant and useful from that which is not. They need to assist children’s research methods and their ability to present their findings coherently to an audience. Learning facts, which can be looked up in a second, rather than attaining a comprehensive view of subjects is no longer appropriate. He points out that when teachers are friends, the curriculum, pedagogy and examinations can be rolled into one, and learning can be forever.

…knowledge is incremental and that we can only learn and retain something new when we can base it or attach it to knowledge we already have.

Kids gathered around a computer

In SOLE classrooms teachers simply need to design questions that evoke curiosity and interest, then sit back and admire as learning happens.

“Now we need to build SOLES in every primary school. Teachers need to be trained to design simple questions that will evoke curiosity and interest while gently nudging a group towards the curriculum. Then, they can sit back and admire as learning happens. The teachers have to learn to let go. In the language of physics: ‘Education is a process of self-organisation and learning is its emergent property.’ I continue to try to find the guiding principles of the ‘physics’ of education, but the method is ready for use.” Sugata Mitra.

Mitra has a wonderful way of interacting with young people and a remarkable ability to come up with ‘big questions,’ converting the dull questions that we’ve all faced in the classroom on tests and exams, into ones that galvanize children to search for answers. Obviously most teachers will need to spend time developing a similar ability, preparing ‘big questions’ that are relevant and whose solutions build on children’s previous discoveries and learning. Most educators agree that knowledge is incremental and that we can only learn and retain something new when we can base it or attach it to knowledge we already have. Grannies or mediators are unlikely to be able to provide this without training. Key also are the presentations that students make of their findings, at which point the teacher/mediator needs to guide the subsequent discussion, provoke analysis and critical thought.

Sally Rix, who is researching how SOLEs transfer into the English Secondary School system, points out that “Praising and challenging are not mutually exclusive. Make sure that students have the chance to fully share their findings in the debrief and encourage them to question each other. While this process should be characterised by praise and encouragement, students can (and should) be asked to justify their answers if they offer inaccurate or incomplete information. Ideally they will challenge each other, but while they are still developing the skills to do this it is beneficial that you model the process for them.”

It’s doubtful that someone with no training would be able to provide equally qualitative feedback and guidance. But testimonies around the web from teachers who have been applying SOLE ideas in their classrooms report improved children’s engagement and improvement in reading and presentation skills. As Mitra says, teachers today “should teach children how to discern the information that they need from the information that they don’t – and that’s a very difficult skill at this time. It has to become mainstream.”

Mitra is an affective and enthusiastic speaker, who, like many “on a mission” has a tendency to exaggerate and over-simplify in his lectures, making his claims the subject of much criticism. Nevertheless, his work is a timely reminder to both parents and educators that learning happens in and out of school; that children are natural learners.

…emotions play a vital role in learning and understanding.

As Michal B. Paradowski recently pointed out in his critique of SOLEs, in today’s classes teachers should “Promote enquiry-based learning: instead of spoon-feeding pupils ready-made answers and expecting them to remember and then regurgitate facts and figures, pose engaging, provocative (cross-curricular) questions that they will want to answer themselves, and let them try to figure them out on their own first. … Be a facilitator, not a lecturer; kindle children’s natural inquisitiveness and drive for discovery.”

There is no doubt that Mitra’s work bears out Immordino-Yang’s recent findings that emotions play a vital role in learning and understanding. Indeed, one of her recommended strategies for teachers to improve students’ emotional basis for learning is “Give students open-ended problems that force them to dig into the definition of the task itself.”

Info-graphic showing the rules of SOLE

Are Technology-Driven Solutions Applicable?

As Charles Kenny, senior fellow at the Centre for Global Development, observes: “Technology has become one of the greatest vehicles for change. … Young people are natural adopters of new technologies and certainly the potential for technology and digital media to be a force for innovation, education and change is just beginning to be realised.”

classroom in Bolivia

“The trick going forward is to figure out how MOOCs can enhance, instead of just compete with, existing national education systems.” says Anya Kamenetz in  “Exporting Education.”

The internet provides a unique opportunity for people everywhere to learn about themselves and their world. Today any literate person can ask any question, research any topic, check and analyze it, and come up with an in-depth understanding within weeks—something that, prior to this period in our history, would have taken months, even years. The internet also opens up possibilities for young people to connect as problem-solvers and participants in our global community.

Many of the world’s schools do not even have electricity and lack basic supplies like books, writing materials, and even a place to sit and surface to write on. The educational field hardly represents a promising market for these more costly innovations without the involvement of businesses, NGOs, and governments combined.

Those who have experimented with tablets and laptops have noted that success is limited or nonexistent unless the intervention is guided by national, cultural and social considerations, and, within these, adapted to the local communities’ unique needs and the task(s) to be accomplished.

Teacher Training is Key

Several studies concluded that one of the primary reasons for the failure of the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project was its lack of consideration for and adaption to the local cultures and societies. Additionally, OLPC failed to provide either sufficient tech support or teacher training. Teachers didn’t understand how to use the devices, let alone how to incorporate them into their lessons. Laptops that failed to function for some reason could not be repaired.

Developers and content providers need a real understanding of the people who will be using the devices: who they are, where they are, and what they need to learn.

Several high tech companies have launched worldwide programs to provide technology as well as community support in collaboration with local NGOs. Dell’s Youth Learning operates in 17 countries. “What we’ve learnt is that it isn’t enough to simply provide the hardware, it’s the quality of the wrap-around services – the teacher training, maintenance of technology, reliability of power, which provides the long-term benefits and this is one of the learnings we’ve been taking forward.” says Deb Bauer, former director of Dell Giving.

Developers and content providers need a real understanding of the people who will be using the devices: who they are, where they are, and what they need to learn. As Marc Epstein and Kristi Yuthas noted, students in poor areas of developing countries may first and foremost need to learn life skills that enable them to improve their financial prospects and well-being. These might include financial literacy and entrepreneurial skills, health maintenance and management, and administrative capabilities such as teamwork, problem solving, and project management.

Teachers who have grown up in a world with limited access to technology will need training and professional development opportunities that are of sufficient duration and detailed enough for them to understand and use open educational resources for their learners. Studies show that the tendency to provide minimal training within a short time period does not work. This is a problem, because so many teachers are both under-qualified and underpaid. One solution might be to select the very best and train them sufficiently well so that they can, over time, train others in their location.

Michael Trucano gives five considerations that need to be taken into account before introducing a technological solution:

  1. Affordability of both devices and programs
  2. Accessibility, which can also be a reflection of the cost: if a device is too expensive it may well be cherished rather than used and made available for multiple users.
  3. Connectivity: The potential to increase internet connectivity has risen recently due to marine telecommunication cables, yet many communities remain unconnected or under-connected, and are likely to remain so without commitment by governments in collaboration with private enterprise.
  4. Electricity: Lack of adequate electricity is an on-going problem, and is likely to be so for some time, because as use expands so does the need for power.
  5. Usability: Bearing in mind that most users will be unfamiliar with such devices, there’s a need to ensure that the user interface is easy to understand and the devices can be maintained and updated.

As Trucano notes: “It perhaps shouldn’t be too surprising that devices designed in places like Mountain View (or Tampere or Tokyo, Cambridge or Suwon) aren’t always as usable for folks in, for example, rural, low income Asian or African communities as they are in communities where the designers themselves live.”

Role of the Ubiquitous Mobile Phone

A 2014 study of 10 developing countries across sub-Saharan African and Asia found that many residents view cellular phones as a necessity, even cutting back on food purchases to pay their phone bills. Although more than 60 percent of people in the countries studied live on less than $2 per day, the majority own cell phones. In Nigeria and Kenya, for example, 67 percent of adults own cell phones, while at least 58 percent do in India, Indonesia and Botswana. Even among people earning $1 a day or less, more than half own mobile phones in Botswana, Kenya and Nigeria. Mobile phones, especially low-end ones, do not require a lot of power, and in many countries people have come up with their own charging solutions to help keep phones working, because they are perceived as highly necessary and beneficial for commercial, health and personal communication.

women with cellphones in Afghanistan

Simple and common Nokia phones are found even in remote villages of Afghanistan. Paiwastoon, an innovative IT company has created software called “Ustad Mobile” which utilizes these more affordable cell phones as teaching tools.

An article in The Guardian quotes Donald Clark, founder of the e-learning company Epic Group, who says he believes that mobile technology has produced a “renaissance of reading and writing” among young people across the world. “[Mobile] will, I think, be the single most important factor in increasing literacy on the planet. Why? Every child is massively motivated to learn to text, post and message. The evidence shows that they become obsessive readers and writers through mobile devices,” he says. “Texting is a significant form of literacy, introduced by youngsters, on their own, spontaneously, rapidly and without tuition.”

His view is supported by key findings from the UNESCO study, Reading in the Mobile Era:

  • Mobile reading opens up new pathways to literacy for marginalized groups, particularly women and girls, and others who may not have access to paper books.
  • People use mobile devices to read to children, thereby supporting literacy acquisition and other forms of learning.
  • People seem to enjoy reading more and read more often when they use mobile devices to access text.
  • People read on mobile devices for identifiable reasons that can be promoted to encourage mobile reading.
  • Most mobile readers are young, yet people of various ages are capable of using mobile technology to access long-form reading material. More can be done to encourage older people to use technology as a portal to text.
  • Current mobile readers tend to have completed more schooling than is typical.
  • There appears to be a demand for mobile reading platforms with text in local languages, level-appropriate text and text written by local authors.

Providing literacy, numeracy, other educational programs and books to underserved communities via mobile devices is a natural solution through which communities can begin to leapfrog traditional twentieth century educational methodologies. The price of a mobile book is at least 300 times cheaper than obtaining a physical text.

Mobile reading opens up new pathways to literacy for marginalized groups, particularly women and girls, and others who may not have access to paper books.

UNESCO’s findings indicate that women and girls tend to use mobile devices for reading and learning more than do their male counterparts, but have less access to these devices than men. Since about two out of every three illiterate people are female, the most urgent solution would be to provide women with equal access to mobile phones, from which they can access educational programs and books. There may well be cultural resistance to this in some countries, and, unfortunately, governments are as yet not taking enough advantage of using mobile technology as a portal through which to provide books and learning. More work needs to be done to promote this as a cost-effective way to improve education for men and women of all ages; to encourage governments to prioritize working with mobile phone operators to improve infrastructure and guarantee reliable mobile broadband connectivity throughout their country.

Refugees: The New Crisis

“There are over 50 million refugees and displaced people worldwide. Half of the world’s refugees are under the age of 18 and are displaced from their homes for an average of 17 years with little or no access to education,” says Andrew Dunnett, Director of Vodafone.

Woman toting a classroom in a box

Vodaphone’s classroom in a box.

The company has developed the Instant Classroom—a digital “school in a box” now being used in the Kakuma refugee settlement in Kenya. Each Instant Classroom is in a single case containing a laptop, 25 tablets pre-loaded with educational software aimed at children aged 7 to 20, a projector, a speaker, and a hotspot modem with 3G connectivity. The tablets can connect to the laptop locally, enabling teachers to deliver content and applications to the students. All of the components can be charged simultaneously from a single power source while the case is locked. Once charged, the kits can be used for a full day in a classroom without access to electricity.

Dunnett sees the possibility of expanding educational development in these areas and envisages a time in the not too distant future when the many people who are forced to call these camps “home” could work for Western firms remotely, providing coding and database services.

The best technological solutions to education will be initiated and implemented by people who know the culture and conditions of the communities they serve and who more than likely live and work in these local environments, or at least who come from such places and whose families may still live there.

The Child-Driven Education video

Watch: The Child-Driven Education

Sugatra Mitra, TED

Sugata Mitra tackles one of the greatest problems of education — the best teachers and schools don’t exist where they’re needed most. In a series of real-life experiments from New Delhi to South Africa to Italy, he gave kids self-supervised access to the web and saw results that could revolutionize how we think about teaching.

School in the Cloud video

Watch: Build a School in the Cloud

Sugatra Mitra, TED

Sugatra Mitra’s idea for a School in the Cloud, a learning lab in India, where children can explore and learn from each other using resources and mentoring from the cloud. Hear his inspiring vision for Self Organized Learning Environments (SOLE), and learn more.

Books for Afghanistan literacy video

Watch: Peace and Stability Begin with Literacy

Books for Afghanistan
Books for Pakistan

The literacy needs of Afghan and Pakistani children are crucial to the stability and progress of their countries and the region, yet their ability to educate its children through in turbulent years is severely impeded.

Play to Learn

Watch: BRAC and the LEGO Foundation Collaborate on Play-to-Learn Project


Children are able to explore different aspects of their identity and increase collaboration through play.

Featured Book

One World Schoolhouse

Education Reimagined

Salman Kahn

There may be a young girl in an African village with the potential to find a cancer cure. A fisherman’s son in New Guinea might have incredible insight into the health of the oceans. By combining the enlightened use of technology with the best teaching practices, we can foster students who are capable of self-directed learning, deep understanding of fundamentals, and creative approaches to real-world problems.


Our Challenge Today
Early Education
Adolescence: Second Growth Spurt
Education for the Future
World of the Poor

Further Reading

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