There’s No One-size-fits-all Approach to Improve Learning


During the struggle for freedom in Zimbabwe, I always remember a certain general who used to say, “The challenge is not finding the problem – that’s easy. The hard part is identifying the solution.” This is as true in war as it is in every other human endeavor.

With regard to education, we know we have many problems. This is demonstrated well in the latestGlobal Monitoring Report. We have millions of children not in school (30 million of them in Africa), and millions more who are in school but not learning. This is a huge problem of inequality and wastage. So what are the solutions?

Addressing the Global Data Gap on Learning

Since July 2012, I have had the opportunity to contribute to a group that has been actively working on this issue. The Learning Metrics Task Force (LMTF) was convened to build consensus among diverse stakeholders in education on how learning should be measured and tracked globally.

From the outset, the group recognized that effective measurement of learning is most certainly not the same as improving learning, and that it is only one part of the solution to the many problems facing global education.

Still, we agreed that without good data on learning we cannot fully define the problem, and in turn we cannot find a solution. Knowing where we stand on learning outcomes is essential for identifying the best ways forward for improving learning achievement for students (e.g. support for teachers, improved learning materials for specific subjects). So we set about developing a set of recommendations on how to address this particular gap: the lack of a common definition and metrics for learning outcomes that can be tracked globally.

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The final task force recommendations released in September 2013 were developed based on input from 30 member organizations, 186 technical experts, and public consultations engaging more than 1,700 individuals in 118 countries. But these summary figures do not tell the whole story. In fact, the road to consensus among task force members was not at all straightforward. With so many different sectors, contexts, and geographies represented, of course we did not always agree. However, the disagreements pushed the group to be more innovative in its thinking.

No preference for specific tests

For instance, the task force agreed that it would not privilege the areas of learning that are currently measured through large-scale international assessments, but rather consider them together with other areas that are less well measured or even defined. The task force would also not endorse any one test or any one method for collecting data on learning outcomes. We learned through consultation that there is strong interest globally in exploring other areas of learning beyond literacy and numeracy, and other ways to measure learning beyond paper-and-pencil tests. So the task force recommended a holistic framework of seven learning domains, seven areas of measurement for global tracking, and that multiple methods be considered when designing systems to assess learning opportunities and outcomes.

Still, as much as the task force tried to take all perspectives into account, divergent views on the these topics remain, and the task force welcomes continued dialogue and collaboration as it moves into the next phase of work.

One size doesn’t fit all

As a former education minister and current chair of the Association for the Development of Education in Africa (ADEA), I led the last LMTF working group tasked with exploring how measurement of learning can be implemented to improve education quality. In the brief five months allotted, we only just scratched the surface of this complex topic. But one thing we heard time and again in our consultations with more than 50 ministers of education, permanent secretaries, and their representatives1, was the pivotal role of teachers in any potential solution for the learning crisis. They also confirmed what most of us already suspected—that a one-size-fits-all approach would not work if we are to support countries in measuring and improving learning levels.

As the task force wrapped up its first phase, we agreed that we had much more work to do if our ultimate goal is to help increase levels of learning worldwide.

Accordingly, for the next phase of LMTF work over the next two years, the task force will shift its focus: from global-level recommendations to actively supporting countries.

And from a strict focus on measurement we will  expand to explore how measurement data can be used to improve learning outcomes—including data that teachers and schools collect to inform their instruction.

Focus on Africa

In Africa, the LMTF recommendations are influencing discussions on education quality. ADEA in particular will support African education ministries in developing an Inter-Country Quality Node (ICQN) on Teaching and Learning under the joint leadership of Rwanda and Uganda. This effort is supported by the African Union Commission, which is an LMTF member, and by the Ministers of Education of Rwanda and Uganda, who have committed to providing leadership, as well as financial and human resources to get this important work underway.

The goal is to have a forum for countries to exchange ideas and support each other as they explore ways to advance the ideas captured in the LMTF recommendations. Initially the ICQN will focus on countries in East Africa, but as with other Nodes, the reach will eventually extend to other countries in the region. Previous Nodes on topics such as peace education and technical and skills development, and use of African languages have been successful in bringing together representatives of education ministries from different African countries to engage in joint problem-solving and share information on innovative educational experiences in Africa.

Task force partners in other parts of the world—from Latin America to Asia—are also taking up activities to advance the LMTF recommendations. By helping to build a global network of actors focused on access plus learning in education, the task force is working toward better collaboration among existing agencies, stronger and more relevant support to countries, and a coalition of stakeholders with a common vision of learning for all.