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The Five Trillion Dollar Question

25/06/2014 14:22 BST | Updated 24/08/2014 10:59 BST

One of the key topics to be discussed at the Aspen Ideas Festival next week is the issue of equality in education. It also sets the agenda for this week's Global Partnership for Education replenishment conference in Brussels. Technology is helping to level the playing field and expand access to more and more people, but there's work to be done. I wrote about those issues following the Goldman Sachs / Harvard University Education Conference - excerpted below - and look forward to the discussion continuing in Brussels and Colorado.

Organizations all around the world battle daily to solve the same equation - how can we do more, better - and most often do it with the same or less?

This question is pertinent and pressing in education. The consequences of poor basic education are as fundamental as they come: in the world's poorest countries, a child born to a mother who cannot read is 50% less likely to live beyond the age of five. Research tells us that as many as 170 million people could be lifted out of poverty - if all students in low-income countries completed school with basic reading skills.

Beyond the basics, gains are exponential - in the United States, we know that the median hourly wage of workers who can make complex inferences and evaluate subtle truths in written texts is 60% higher than those who cannot. Yet, only one in five African American, Latino, and Native American students are proficient in 4th and 8th grade reading.

So we need to couple the relentless pursuit of quality with a dogged focus on equity of access. The potential results are compelling. If every class in every school in every country that participates in PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment, a global study on student performance on mathematics, science and reading) could reach the standards of the highest performing, you would comfortably achieve a goal to double learning outcomes.

This is what is driving us to remake Pearson as a company set up to tackle one of the most important global socioeconomic issues of our time - how to make the best education more accessible and affordable for far more people around the world. Or, to put it another way, how to get a far better return on the five trillion dollars, and more, the world spends each year on education?

Making that shift from inputs to outcomes will more than anything else drive positive change in global education over the next ten years. At Pearson, when we ask ourselves how we can help to achieve that goal of doubling the amount of really high value learning, we think about four things.

One, by combining global and local insight.

Thirty six percent of global GDP crosses national borders, and these global trade flows should double in the next decade. We need to stimulate the same global flows in educational policy and practice. We need to make it much easier to, on a daily basis, learn from, and share with, the very highest performing universities, schools and teachers in the world. So in everything we do as a company - how we organise ourselves, how we invest, how we develop new products and services, how we think about our research - we make sure we draw upon the fullness of our worldwide expertise.

More global does not mean being less local. The delivery of more holistic, digital, outcomes based approaches demand highly intensive, very local engagement. And when we think about access and equity, addressing local language, culture, community is critically important.

Two, by being mobile first.

Pearson supports 70 million around the world to learn digitally. Technology can be deployed to engage students, for teachers' professional development, to support new pedagogies that foster skills of problem-solving, collaboration, and creative thinking alongside the traditional basics of literacy and numeracy.

We are only scratching the surface. Despite teachers using technology more routinely, they are not - yet - using it to really analyze data or learning behaviors. Nor is education technology really engaging young people at scale, in the way that entertainment platforms, or social media, does. And back to access - the growing mobile network represents huge untapped potential to get learning opportunities to the hardest to reach.

So, in developing all our new products and services we are taking a mobile first approach. And this is one of the themes that will be top of mind when we work with the exciting start-up partners participating in the second Pearson Catalyst for Education accelerator programme that began this week.

Three, by creating "systems" that support learning.

Michael Fullan argues that for education to make strides, three big ideas - a new pedagogy, technology, and systemic reform - need to come together in a holistic way. That requires us to shift from building an ever-wider range of bigger and more complex standalone products and services to creating more open, interoperable educational "ecosystems", centered around and personalized to learners.

It means deploying a core technology platform, with common capabilities, on which we can co-develop with our customers and partners services which speak to and adapt their evolving and individualized needs. Great learning is always a partnership - between student, teacher, parent, and institutions' large and small, and we know we are only responsible for a few small parts of the education system. And frankly, if we are serious about that goal of doubling learning outcomes, there's no shortage of work to go around. Collaboration is key.

We're mirroring the journey we want our products to go on in our organizational transformation. We have moved from being a portfolio of companies, united by education but with different brands, systems and teams of experts, to operating as a single company with a single mission.

Which brings me to:

Fourth, and above everything else, being absolutely obsessed with learning outcomes.

Efficacy is a deceptively simple but incredibly powerful idea - that every product we sell should be measured and judged by the learning outcomes it helps to achieve.

Historically, governments put all the focus on measuring inputs into education; class sizes, spending levels, a laptop per child. That's changing, but we still need to put an even greater focus on what these inputs produce; for example, what percentage of young people leaving school are able to read and write sufficiently for a career or college? How equitably is that outcome distributed?

This sort of question now defines what we do as a company each and every day. Every decision, every process, every investment we now make within Pearson is driven by an 'efficacy framework' that requires us to be able to answer four key questions:

  • What learning outcome do you aim to achieve?
  • What evidence - what data - will you collect to measure progress?
  • Do you have a clear plan that gives us confidence you can implement?
  • And, as we'll always be working in partnership with other stakeholders, do we, collectively, have the capacity to deliver the desired outcome?

If we can't clearly see how a new product or service will drive up learning outcomes, we won't invest in it. It is changing how we recruit, train and reward every employee, the new products and services we invest in - and those that we don't.

The novelist, William Boyd, once wrote: "The last thing we learn about ourselves is our effect." We have the chance, as a global education community, to work together, to put our effect - how successful we are in making good education more accessible and affordable for more people around the world - at the heart of what we do.

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John was speaking at the Goldman Sachs - Harvard University Global Education Conference. Catch up with the event on Twitter #GlobalEdu2014.