Learning and Human Futures: My Fall of “Reading”**

As many of you know, I’ve moved from a managerial role back to academia. Perhaps the most perplexing thing about changing tacks is that old habits have to be changed, and new ones developed.   It’s really, really, hard.  So, much of my “reading”** this fall has been focused on understanding the science of making change at the level of the individual (i.e. myself), which I like to think is my zone of proximal development.

But what if the changes to be made are part of a much wider societal shift?  Early in September, I realized that I had lost my ability to read longer texts (those things called “books”) with concentration. There I was, on sabbatical, time to spare –every day struggling to read about the science of human learning for any longer than 15 minutes without distraction.  

Slowly I realized this was not a Karen Mundy problem but something bigger — a problem that parents, schools, communities and workplaces are all facing at scale. Everyone is talking about it (see this from the NYT and this from the CEO of Apple). Happily I stumbled on one of NPR’s most listened-to podcasts, hosted by Manoush Zomorodi and captured in her popular book entitled Bored and Brilliant.” Manoush interviews leading thinkers on the challenges that new technologies and changing work patterns are imposing on the human brain – then she provides a series of “exercises” (she calls them challenges) to help us get things under control.   Nothing too difficult – track and limit your screen time, use the pomodoro method to rebuild concentration, drop all the notification functions on your social media, read more, and restructure your daily habits to maximize productivity (through line to Daniel Pink’s new book “When” /which I also “read”**/ and all the others trying to sell me on meditation and napping)! Ha!  

But re-learning how to read deeply is not a simple process, as neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf documents in her new book – “Reader Come Home– apparently motivated by the realization that she had lost the skill herself. Her book explores the evolution of the brain’s ability to read – showing how the “reading circuit” is unlike genetically hardwired abilities (vision, language), and draws on and builds the brain’s deep seated plasticity.  The book argues – implores – us to protect the reading brain and its capacity for deep thought, even while building out new brain circuits for learning through other media. With some irony I admit to “reading”** this book on audio, a learning modality whose efficacy is rarely researched.  

Now let’s take this problem up one notch – since I’m on sabbatical anyway. How should/can we steer learning systems of today so that kids and adults around the world are ready for a 2050 future?  Let me call this out as an area where “basic research” is much needed and not yet thriving. A vast literature on the future of work is emerging, which I’ll cover in later blogs, and another on using technology to disrupt learning.  But neither of these threads seem wide enough or interdisciplinary enough to me. Such research is delinked from other changes in world order – climate change, new geopolitics, rise of populism and decline of democracy, migration, bio-engineering, all intersecting with what some call the 4thIndustrial Revolution. Nor does it utilize what we are beginning to know about the science of learning and the brain itself.  Most importantly, how to tackle this level of “change” in a world where the ability to read is already polarized between children who are schooled to fail at reading and those who have moved on to digital alternatives.

The irony is that just when we need to think on a world-historical scale and build a basic science for change that stretches downwards to brain science and outwards towards societal structures, much recent funding for educational research has gone down the path of rapid loop experimentation to test “what works” in terms of discreet interventions – (see recent blog by the Curry School Dean, Bob Piantas on this problem in the US experience).  

To think forward I say we need to start by learning from history (I always say that –  history was my first degree) and then invest in basic research. That brought me to my next deep reading challenge of the fall – Yuval Noah Harari’s “21 Lessons for the 21stCentury.” In it he lays out possible futures for humanity based on lessons from his previous two histories of human society, Sapiens and Homo Deus.  Again, guilty admission:  I think I’ve picked up what is is basically a “Harari light” compared to his earlier books (this one is clearly meant for distracted readers); and even so, I’ve shamelessly supplemented the book with videos of interviews and talks by Harari (see Harari on education; discussing the book with IMF head Lagarde; and my favourite, with Christiane Amanpour).  Suffice to say that his futures are framed as extra-ordinary challenges to which only human creativity, deep learning, ethics and story telling (read education – which gets a whole chapter) provide solutions.  And he’s pretty funny about the story telling done by economists in the mix!

All of this “reading”** is helping me as I think through what research questions I will pursue now that I’m back to academe – but also what kind of writing I want to do. Epistolary writing (dear reader) is back in vogue, that’s for sure.

For now I plan to use Harari and Wolf in my redesigned course “Global Governance/Educational Change” (blog and syllabus coming soon here). Feel free to recommend more “reading” to me. 

What to “read”**  (listen, watch)

(**shout out to my dear friends the novelists Nino Ricci and Erika de Vasconcelos for pointing out to me last week we that need a new term for audio reading. For now I am going with “READING”**).

  1. Harari, Yuval Noah (2018). 21 Lessons for the 21stCentury.  Signal Press/Random House.
  2. Pink, Daniel.  (2018). When:  The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing.  Riverhead Books. https://www.danpink.com/books/when/or interviewed on NPR: https://www.npr.org/2018/01/17/578666036/daniel-pinks-when-shows-the-importance-of-timing-throughout-life
  3. Wolf, Maryanne. (2018). Reader Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World. Harper Collins.  https://www.maryannewolf.com/reader-come-home-1/
  4. Piantis, Bob.  (November 2018) Blog. “Why Education Research Isn’t Improving Education Much.” https://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/rick_hess_straight_up/2018/11/why_education_research_isnt_improving_education_much.html
  5. Zomorodi, Manoush. (2017). Bored and Brilliant: How Spacing Out Can Unlock Your Most Productive and Creative Self. New York Public Broadcasting.

It’s all about youth

Across Sub-Saharan Africa, policy makers are paying attention to education and skills for youth. The coming crisis has at least four dimensions:  a large bulge of youth (the Economist); poor quality of learning in the primary cycle (WB); high demand for free universal secondary education; and a future in which non-formal employment and the gig economy remain the norm for most young people (CGD).

Embed this all in an uncertain future, one where the fourth industrial revolution threatens to make traditional pathways for economic growth through manufacturing and services difficult for Africa, and where climate change and conflicts will take their toll, and Africa has a youth challenge on a scale no other country or world region has faced in human history.

In Ghana last week, I had a special chance to look at these challenge up close. Hosted by CAMFED, I met with girls and young women supported to go to school and to engage in a range of leadership and community development activities. I also worked with an advisory panel on a report that the MasterCard Foundation will release in 2019 on youth, skills and secondary education in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Here’s what I learned.

First, we must and can support the imagination and resilience of the young people themselves to craft their futures, and in doing so change the culture of schooling itself.  More prescient than the experts on the MasterCard advisory panel, the secondary aged girls I spoke with asked me cutting edge questions: will artificial intelligence replace our future jobs? How much will we suffer because our library has no computers?  Do you think free secondary education will help our country or will schools get worse? How does what we’re learning compare to other countries?

Remember these girls are selected for scholarships based on need, not academic merit. CAMFED’s model offers them training in budgeting, time management, leadership skills and community development. Alumnae of its programs become community “guides,” a fundamental part of the CAMFED ethos of giving back.  This community-focused model has been shown to be highly cost effective: for $100 USD, it delivers the equivalent of two additional years of learning to those children it supports with ripple effects to others at participating schools and communities.

At university level, I joined a room of young CAMFED women with an amazing range of propositional ideas about learning and the future of work.  Tagged initially as “poor scholarship girls” they told me they now sit in student leadership positions across the University Cape Coast. And they are using the leadership and self-management skills learned from CAMFED activities to identify problems they can solve – not tomorrow but today.  From retooling early grade learning by setting up literacy boot camps in primary schools to starting Ghana’s first network on mental health for young people, these girls are stepping up as social entrepreneurs – and creating pathways to a new economy .


The Economist on Africa’s youth bulge https://www.economist.com/middle-east-and-africa/2018/09/22/africas-high-birth-rate-is-keeping-the-continent-poor

REAL Centre’s evaluation of CAMFED’s cost-effectiveness http://www.educ.cam.ac.uk/centres/real/downloads/REAL%20Policy%20Brief%20Cost-effectiveness%20Camfed%20A4_FINAL.pdf

The World Bank (2018) report –  Facing Forward: Schooling for Learning in Africa. https://www.worldbank.org/en/region/afr/publication/facing-forward-schooling-for-learning-in-africa

The Centre for Global Development’s new brief on the informal sector, gig economy and the future of work in Africa https://www.cgdev.org/publication/lets-be-real-informal-sector-and-gig-economy-are-future-and-present-work-africa


Education Aid and Creativity

What to read in global education this week.  CGD on IFFED and new podcast on Creativity and why schools kill it off.

Aid architecture: See this critical article on the  education aid architecture’s new international financing facility (IFFED). Note: one author was among the original proposers of IFFED. On the education impact fund authors argue that impact funding should be for governments – not only private providers – I agree.  However, I am skeptical about the drive to use multilateral aid for outcomes. The political economy of multilateralism makes true COD/results based financing unlikely (more in a later blog); and wide use of financial and other material incentives can undermine human motivation (except in a few settings).

I see other routes to same end:  make sure all multi-lateral aid is aligned to country plans  that are owned by governments; and that what is funded from the plans includes stronger accountabilities to national publics. Evaluate education aid properly and make sure that there is a go/no go for second stage funding based on results. Lets fix the fundamental problem in our own back yard: multi-laterals are still driven by spending pipelines –  not by longer term, consistent delivery of results.

Science of learning:  see the new Freakonomics series on creativity. I’m fascinated with the new sciences of the human brain, of human motivation, and what this can tell us not only about individuals but about how to get systems and organizations to change. I’m also crazy curious about how this is being used in popular media. Curious fact:  more 30 year olds are writing popular books, and other media  on human motivation than in any previous decade.   I will tell you more about this and my new mantra for foreign aid in coming blogs…. “autonomy, mastery, purpose.”


I’m back

I’m back from four years in my dream job (as Chief Technical Officer at the Global Partnership for Education). Except I have a second dream job, which called me back to Toronto:   professor, presently on sabbatical, mother of three adolescent boys. I see myself as a wide ranging bricoleur who’s busy trying to find out why humans procrastinate (indeed!); and understand how we can improve our capacity to learn in ever larger and more complex systems – systems that seem to work against us at least some of the time.

Watch this blog sight – I’ll be rolling out a serious blog series come January 2019! In November and December we will just be having fun.  As I like to say for now:

“Gone swimming!”IMG_0420

Associate Dean – Research

FROM Julia O’Sullivan, Dean, OISE

I am delighted to announce the appointment of Professor Karen Mundy as Associate Dean, Research effective September 1, 2012.

Karen Mundy is currently Professor and Canada Research Chair in the Department of Leadership, Higher and Adult Education at OISE. A University of Toronto alumna, she holds an MA in Adult Education and a PhD in Sociology of Education and Comparative Education from OISE. Prior to joining OISE in 2002, she was an assistant professor, international and comparative education at Stanford University. Founder and Co-Chair of the Canadian Global Campaign for Education, she directs OISE’s Comparative, International and Development Education Centre (CIDEC). Her research interests include the global politics of “education for all” programs and policies; educational policy and reform in Sub-Saharan Africa; the role of civil society organizations in educational change; and global citizenship education in Canadian schools. A prolific scholar, she has published five books and more than four dozen articles and book chapters, including most recently an edited volume entitled “Public Private Partnerships in Education: New Actors and Modes of Governance in a Globalizing World.” Committed to playing an active role in policy dialogue about education and international development, she has contributed to many international policy papers and reports, and has acted as an external reviewer of the World Bank’s education activities in Africa; and an analyst of Canada’s aid effectiveness agenda in education. She has worked with foundations, international organizations and NGOs including the Hewlett Foundation, the Open Society (Soros) Foundation, the International Development Research Centre, CIDA, UNESCO and Unicef. Karen has an impressive record of service at OISE and the University (e.g. Interim Chair, Department of Adult Education and Community Development, CIDEC Director, and Co-Director of collaborative graduate program in Comparative, International and Development Education). An outstanding researcher and a CRC with an international reputation, Karen has an excellent understanding of trends in research funding, the pushes and pulls shaping research policy and research funding, as well as the commitment and tenacity to get out there and open doors for OISE.

I thank all nominators and nominees and the Appointments Committee: Peter Lewis, Associate Vice-President, Research, University of Toronto, and from OISE Susan Anderson, Ruth Childs, Jim Cummins, Esther Geva, Doug McDougall, Tricia Seifert, Suzanne Stewart, Rinaldo Walcott and Jeanne Watson. Most of all, my thanks toKaren for her willingness to take on this important role. I know you will give her every support and join me in congratulating her.

From Julia,

Julia O’Sullivan, PhD

Professor and Dean

Ontario Institute for Studies in Education

University of Toronto

School Choice and Inequality: A showdown between the World Bank and the OECD?

I am just back from Chile, for some preliminary research on the World Bank and its policy advocacy for private provision of K-12 schooling. In the Chilean case (where a large proportion of K-12 students attend private schools funded by vouchers), “the World Bank had nothing to do with it” – to quote some of our informants. Still, it is fairly clear from discursive analysis that many recent World Bank reports trumpet private provision as a magic bullet for improving educational outcomes – including its new benchmarking tool for public private partnerships in education, SABER.

Chile – often touted as a model in earlier World Bank policy syntheses – is not much mentioned in more recent World Bank reports, perhaps because of the stunning evidence of increasing stratification of schools that followed on Chile’s introduction of vouchers. Popular  social protests have focused on this stratification:  national policies supporting private schooling were the target in 2011 for a “Chilean winter” of student protests across the country  (a play on “Arab spring”).  Yet the social stratification evidenced in the Chilean experience is not treated as a significant risk in recent policy advice from the Bank. For the Bank, privately provided schools continue to be described as likely to improve the quality of learning outcomes for children, despite the limited evidence that they’ve supported better learning in Chile. How come?

Today an OECD study on school choice comes to exactly the opposite conclusion from the World Bank about the value of publicly funded choice mechanisms in education.  This looks to me like a “showdown” between two the most important global institutions operating in the educational policy space.  We should all question how two global public institutions can derive such very different policy conclusions from “evidence.”  

I’m also interested in what the  OECD study has to tell us about Canadian schools, where school choice continues to expand. I’m sensitive to this issue – in the middle of “choosing” a high school in Toronto with my 13 year old son.  I’m grateful for the alternatives, but as a Globe and Mail story today summarizes:  “only a few studies found a link between school competition and student performance, and the gains were small. Most of the research – including international comparison of test scores – found that it didn’t improve schools or impact individual student achievement. ….[furthermore…] affluent parents were more likely to exercise choice.

My Chilean colleagues have, like the OECD, concluded that achieving good quality education for all is less about  choice, and more about  good teachers.

Education for All and the Adult Learner

For the past decade, the international community has focused on elementary schooling as the key to achieving the goal of “education for all”. But what about youth and adults? We know now that many of the school leavers from the past decade of universal access have limited literacy and numeracy skills; the building blocks for access for future learning and skills development. One reason we continue to shy away from this critical problem is that large scale efforts to raise adult literacy in the past had trouble producing sustained gains for the adult learners. See this thoughtful study, for example, by Roy Carr-Hill’s on the Tanzania national literacy program of the 1970s and 80s.

Today an article in the New York Times gives us more evidence about the critical role that learning plays across the adult life. According to a large, longitudinal study, adults who engage in formal learning maintain higher levels of fluid intelligence across the lifespan. The punchline: investments in learning, even in adulthood, produce huge gains in memory and cognition.

Learning for all: an investment the keeps really keeps on giving! Isn’t it time we in the global community developed effective programs to ensure that the right to a basic education is enjoyed by youth and adults?

Karen Mundy
University of Toronto

CIES Vice-President Nomination! (& Bio)

I’m excited to announce that I’ve accepted the nomination for the Vice Presidency of the Comparative and International Education Society for 2012. Its a chance to bring CIES back to Canada, and to OISE. Here’s my bio statement for the electoral contest, which is coming your way soon if you are a CIES member:

Karen Mundy: Biographical Statement for Nomination to the Vice Presidency of the Comparative and International Education Society

January 11, 2012

I began my career as a teacher and school librarian in rural Zimbabwe, where I began a lifelong interest in the role of external actors who shape educational policies and practices. I did not expect to become a career academic, and certainly not a career educator – but after a stint in a Canadian NGO, I made the fateful decision to pursue a graduate degree at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, where the mentorship of CIES past presidents Joe Farrell, Ruth Hayhoe, Vandra Masemann and David Wilson helped set things in motion. My first article in the Comparative Education Review appeared in 1992 – a term paper that the late CIES president David Wilson insisted I try to publish. I became an assistant professor at Stanford University in 1996, learning enormously from students and my colleagues Martin Carnoy and Chiqui Ramirez. As a pair, they bring the “convergence/divergence” debate that has haunted our field for most of the last half century into living colour like no others! In 2002 I was recruited back home to Canada, accepting a Canada Research Chair at the Ontario Institute for Studies of Education. At OISE I co-direct our growing program in Comparative and International Education, now comprised of 150 graduate students.

The central theme of my research is “global governance” in the field of education. I remain keenly interested in the politics, prospects and limits of intergovernmental cooperation in education – an arena that is undergoing sharp changes with the rise of the G20 and the massive reorganization of the global political and economic order. My research has also focused on civil society organizations as educational policy actors; the achievement of education for all; public private partnerships in education; and global citizenship education. I’ve become increasingly interested in the utility of comparative education research for educational practitioners, preparing in 2006 a book that introduces our field to this audience. I’ve worked with more than two dozen Ph.D students during my 15 year career; I enjoy co-authorship with them and am much sought after for advice on “work life balance” (I am the mother of three active boys). More information on my research, students, along with my new blog, can be found at http://karen-mundy.net/

Like so many comparativists, I’ve also been keenly attracted to the “real worlds” of international education in practice. In 2004 I founded a coalition of Canadian faculties of education, NGOs and teachers unions to monitor and enhance a stronger Canadian role in the achievement of the universal right to education (http://www.cgce.ca ). I’ve acted as an external reviewer of the World Bank’s education sector work in Africa and the Hewlett Foundation’s support for EFA advocacy activities. I sit on the advisory board of the NGO Room to Read and have been a consultant or researcher for projects funded by the UNESCO Global Monitoring Report, the Canadian International Development Agency, the Open Society Institute, Unicef Canada and the Mastercard Foundation.

Over the years, I have valued and treasured my association with CIES and its members. I joined the society in 1992, and sat for one term as the student rep on the CIES Board and chair of the new scholars committee. In recent years I have been a regular reviewer for the Comparative Education Review, a member of the Bereday award committee, and helped to craft the CIES initiative to commemorate Jacqueline Kirk after her death in Afghanistan. I have published regularly in CER – including the Bereday award winning “Educational Multilateralism and World (dis) Order”; my 2002 article “Transnational Advocacy/Global civil Society,” several book reviews, and two moderated debates.

As president of the society, I would hope to sustain and build on what I consider to be the best features of our society. CIES is a venue where civil (though still heated) debate between those holding different political and practical views has continued to thrive; where new ideas can be floated without fear of ridicule or reprisal; and where the contributions of theorists and practitioners, economists, sociologists, philosophers and pedagogues intermingle. It is also a uniquely supportive environment for students and new scholars –a venue not only for cross national but also for intergenerational learning. I would be honored to expand on these strengths, while enlarging our engagement with the digital world and mining new opportunities for stronger linkages with the many other comparative education societies flourishing in our rapidly changing world.

Education for all: A Canadian vocation – Karen Mundy

Children attend primary school in Mali, where CIDA is helping the government boost enrolment and provide quality education.

At a pledging conference earlier this month, Canada pledged a mere $21 million in new money to support the Global Partnership for Education over the next three years. In contrast, Australia committed $278 million US and the United Kingdom committed $353 million US. Can Canada afford to let its educational support for children in the poorest parts of the globe lag?

By Karen Mundy

Published Nov 22, 2011 1:21 AM

This morning, in every part of Canada, thousands of parents will wake up, wash children’s faces, and send them off to school.

Each of us has come to expect access to educational institutions that, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and a recent report by McKinsey and Company, rank among the best in the world.

Yet for more than 67 million children around the world, attending school is still a distant dream. Even those lucky enough to make their way to a classroom face steep challenges. Poor facilities, poorly trained teachers and few books mean that learning is not a guarantee.

via Education for all: A Canadian vocation | Embassy – Canada’s Foreign Policy Newspaper.