The second goal of the UN Millennium Development Goals is to ensure universal primary education by 2015 – for children everywhere, boys and girls alike, to complete a full course of primary schooling.[1] While we’re getting close to achieving that goal – with 90 per cent of children enrolled in primary education in developing regions in 2010, up from 82 per cent in 1999 – enrollment isn’t enough to achieve our educational promise.[2] The statistics speak for themselves:

67% of students in Sub-saharan Africa drop out before finishing primary school [3]

only 33% of children in developing countries are meeting minimum curriculum requirements [4]

22% of students in those countries actually graduate illiterate.[5]

As a result, over 250 million children around the world are still illiterate – 67 million of those are out of school, while the remaining are in school but have not acquired the most basic reading, writing and numeracy skills. Investments in education risk being wasted.

This is important because literacy is the root of many – if not most – other social ills. Children who can’t properly read and write by age 9 end up playing catch up for the rest of their lives. Learning deficits in the early years accumulate, and low performers quickly fall behind. They never quite recover.

The reason is that literacy literally changes our biology. Evolutionarily inherited from our primate cousins, our brains were never designed for reading or writing.[6] As we learn to understand inked letters on white paper, we essentially recycle our old primate brain circuits and modify them. As reading improves, the left occipito-temporal region increases in activity at a precise location called the “visual word-form area” – a genuine cortical signature of reading acquisition. Considerable changes also take place in the superior temporal sulcus and left inferior prefrontal cortex, the two language areas of left hemisphere. Finally, the anatomy of the brain physically evolves as the rear part of corpus callosum thickens, implying a significant increase in exchange of information across the two hemispheres.[7]

Beyond evolving our neural pathways, literacy is the basis of education and brings all kinds of other human, social, democratic, and economic benefits. Wages increase by more than 10 to 20 percent for each additional year of schooling.[8] In fact, every additional year of primary education boosts eventual wage rate on average by 5 percent to 15 percent, while every additional year of secondary school beyond the mean boosts wages on average by 15 percent to 25 percent.[9] In addition to the obvious economic benefit, higher levels of education has been proven to have direct impact on other social metrics such as lower infant mortality rates, higher gender equality, and improved success in higher education.[10] Higher levels of education in turn beget innovation, civil and democratic progress, and economic productivity. Ultimately, education is not only the basis for progress, but also the basis for social mobility. A recent UNESCO stat is most telling:

“Teaching basic writing and reading skills [would] lift 170 million people out of poverty, effectively removing 12% of the world’s poverty.”[12]

The impact the literacy has on our biology as well as on our society makes it one of the greatest challenges of our time. While many organizations – large governmental and nongovernmental organizations as well as companies and small profits – are trying to tackling it, it seems like we need a new approach to engage and incentivize the learners as well as their parents to invest time and resources in basic education. With software becoming increasingly powerful and hardware costs crumbling, I’m hopeful technology can trigger a change of paradigm in the way we solve this problem.

[1] Millennium Project, “Goals, Targets and Indicators”

[2] United Nations, Millennium Development Goals, “Beyond 2015”

[3] UNESCO, Global Education for All Meeting, UNESCO-Paris, Nov 20-23, 2012, Sub-Saharan Africa 2012 EFA Report

[4] Helen Abadzi, Reading Essentials (Udemy Course)

[5] UNESCO, Sub-Saharan Africa 2012 EFA Report

[6] This is what neuroscientists such as Stanislas Dehaene have called the Reading Paradox: reading started 5,000 years ago – not enough time for our brains to develop specific reading areas.

[7] Stanislas Dehaene, Reading in the Brain, Penguin Books, 2009. Chapter 2: Brain Areas at Work when we Read, Chapter 3: Single Neurons and their Organization in the Reading Circuits, and Chapter 5: How Children Learn to Read.

[8] Lawrence Summers, Investing in all People, EDI Seminar Paper, No 45, p. 8

[9] US Department of State, “Educating Women and Girls”, eJournal USA, volume 15, no 12, June 2011

[10] UNESCO, “Why Literacy Matters”, Education for All Global Monitoring Report, Chapter 5, 2006, & Central Georgia Technical College, The Impact of Literacy

[11] UNESCO, Sub-Saharan Africa 2012 EFA Report

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