Educational leaders and experts from the public and private sectors gathered at the International Development Bank’s Washington, D.C. headquarters to discuss skills gaps in Latin America and the Caribbean and how the region can be transformed.
As members of the IDB’s 21st Century Skills Coalition, a group of Creative’s education and economic growth experts were invited to join the conversation.
The hybrid event coincided with International Education Day, Jan. 24, and explored the topic of “Skills for youth: Investing in the human capital of Latin America and the Caribbean” with more than 150 in-person guests and 1,000 online viewers.
“Narrowing the skills gap for youth from different socioeconomic backgrounds is one of the most powerful ways to fight inequality” said Ilan Goldfajn, President of the Inter-American Development Bank in his opening remarks.
Demetrios Marantis, Global Head of Corporate Responsibility at JP Morgan, a co-sponsor of the conference, invited all actors to do their part to help young people gain the skills they need to propel their career.
“For too many young people, these skills are out of reach. As the global economy transforms, we need to transform the opportunities to gain skills and connect educational resources with employment opportunities,” said Marantis. “It’s about creating the innovative and creative talent for the jobs of tomorrow.”
Education with Purpose
From Ministers of education to academic experts, researchers and youth, panelists and speakers amplified the call to transform education. The overarching theme was that education needs to better engage youth by connecting them with a purpose that will motivate them to learn and stay in school.
“Foundational skills are relevant, but when kids don’t understand why they’re learning you can’t engage them. This is why we’ve lost so many young people in LAC,” said Andreas Schleicher, OECD Director for Education and Skills, who stressed that younger generations face unprecedented challenges.
“Literacy is no longer about extracting knowledge; it’s about contrasting information. We are inundated with information, and nobody tells you what is right and what is wrong. Young people need to develop critical thinking to know the difference,” he said. Schleicher further challenged that while foundational skills like literacy and numeracy remain key, and are relatively easy to teach and assess, they have also become skills that are easy to automate (think: ChatGPT). But human skills cannot be automated.
Furthering the need to align education to a purpose, Kay McConney, the Minister of Education of Barbados, said that in designing the country’s education plan, the government closely considered the skills that a global and a Caribbean citizen needs to thrive today.
“Education must lead to outcomes that are highly linked to the context. It doesn’t stand alone,” she said.
Minister McConney offered as an example a new partnership between the Ministry and the business sector to support the current $1.4 billion construction boom in Barbados. The Barbados Construction Gateway Training Initiative was designed as a multi-pronged approach in collaboration with businesses to develop the talent they need to support the sector, closing the skills gap and creating jobs.
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Foundational skills vs. 21st century skills – It’s not a tradeoff
Foundational skills remain critical to acquiring knowledge throughout life, and we need to get the basics right for children and youth to succeed. The region was already lagging on learning outcomes before the pandemic, with 15-year-old students in LAC, on average, three years behind OECD students in reading, mathematics and science (PISA, 2018).
Education leaders from Barbados, Ecuador, Paraguay and Uruguay agreed on the urgency to improve learning outcomes and address the region’s high dropout rates, highlighting the need to deploy evidence-based strategies to bring students back and catch them up while avoiding teacher burn-out.
Expert panelists stressed the significant dividends of investing in education. Harry Anthony Patrinos, an Adviser at the World Bank, noted that every year of schooling is a 10% increase in future income and that a 1% improvement in education increases national GDP by around 6%.
“Governments should have investment plans for improving education, much like an infrastructure investment plan,” he added.
Alejandro Adler, Dean of Student Life and Wellbeing at Upper Canada College, and Robert E. McGrath, Ph.D. Professor of Psychology at Fairleigh Dickinson University, shared findings on the top 10 life skills identified in a recent joint study produced for the IDB. The study found that two years of interventions in life skills, mindfulness and wellbeing resulted in youth gaining an extra year of literacy and numeracy.
How to teach 21st century skills?
“21st century skills can and should be taught, but changing an education system is not just about changing a curriculum. Teachers are the node of the education system, and only if they are trained through ongoing professional learning will they be able to teach these skills and practice them,” cautioned Adler, arguing that we need to better support teachers to be able to teach these skills explicitly and embed them in the classroom.
Ben Nelson, Founder and Chancellor of Minerva University, an institution rethinking higher education, emphasized that, “the concept of transferable skills doesn’t happen by accident. The only way to teach critical thinking is through practice and repetition of the different skills that compose it. To do it so many times, that it becomes wired into a student’s brain. But our education system doesn’t even contemplate how students put into practice what they learn.” Affirming that “we have to attract students’ intellect —that’s how we keep kids in school.”
In closing, it is worth reflecting on the words shared at the conference by Jeffrey Sachs, Director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University and President of the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network.
“From every point of view, there is no more important investment than education. Period. Young people need to be in schools, need to be learning, have access to trained teachers, quality materials, information to develop the skills they need. It’s obvious. But it’s not happening to a large proportion of children and youth in the world. Education is not working for most of the world’s children. It’s a strong statement. But I mean it.”
Sachs ended with a call to increase investments to enable progress.
“Education is always shortchanged in development finance, and we must mobilize financing to do what we know needs to be done,” he said.
The good news is that we have evidence of what works, and this type of event is proof that different actors are coming together to move this agenda forward.
“I am an optimist and believe significant change is possible. But we must move beyond the ambiguity of political will,” said María Brown Pérez, Ecuador’s Minister of Education. “Education must become a collective priority and remain at the center of citizens’ demands.”
The time is ripe to rethink, redesign, and repurpose education for life and for sustainable development. The pandemic momentum for transforming education is still very much alive, and we cannot afford to lose that.