The Puggle: April 2024 edition

April relentlessly reminded us that we live in an era of intensifying polycrisis: pandemic(s), war(s), climate disaster(s), increasing displacement, and rising food insecurity… Even the adults are worried. How, then, must children feel, growing up more aware than ever of the instability characterizing this world that is ultimately theirs to inherit?

There is growing consensus that global education systems must reckon not only with a learning crisis, but also with a rising student well-being crisis

Source: Why the world needs happy schools: global report on happiness in and for learning, UNESCO

Thanks to decades of sustained advocacy by educationalists, the long-overlooked learning crisis has finally garnered increased investment and effort from global decision-makers – a welcome and much needed shift, even if we still need to remedy the inequitable resource distribution and lack of adequate monitoring that continue to leave the vast majority of marginalized children in learning poverty

The education sector is also increasingly prioritizing efforts to understand the state of children’s well-being – a shift largely driven by emerging evidence establishing a clear link between student well-being and learning outcomes. The initial findings, while alarming, mark a significant step forward towards meaningfully improving children’s psychological well-being. OECD’s second Survey on Social and Emotional Skills (SSES) — the most comprehensive international effort to generate evidence on student noncognitive skill attainment & distribution — shows marked deterioration in student optimism, trust, curiosity, tolerance, sociability, and creativity following COVID. Similarly, the 2024 World Happiness Report reveals that life satisfaction continues to decline for young people, especially girls, in most regions of the world post-COVID. 

Source: World Happiness Report 2024, Wellbeing Research Centre – the University of Oxford

OECD’s SSES also finds large gender gaps that materially disadvantage girls’ well-being: girls report significantly lower emotional regulation skills (stress resistance, optimism, emotional control), energy, trust, creativity, and self-control than boys. These gender gaps in critical noncognitive skills predispose adolescent girls to lower life satisfaction and psychological well-being, as well as higher academic anxiety than boys. For poor girls, the risk compounds, as poverty also increases the likelihood of lower well-being

Source: OECD Survey on Social and Emotional Skills 2023

Interestingly, though girls do score higher in empathy (could this undergird girls’ lower emotional regulation skills?), tolerance, responsibility and achievement motivation (could this relate to their higher test anxiety?), these skills are more strongly associated with better psychological well-being for boys than girls. Further research is required to understand the gendered drivers of this diminished association, as well as how to mitigate this in the long-run.

These sobering findings underscore  “that vulnerable children from marginalized communities need transformative experiences that impart life skills” and shift their concept of self “and not just more academic interventions.” Yet as total funding to the health sector increased by over 34% from 2019 – 2022, global funding for education further decreased by at least 8.7% reinforcing this false choice narrative between learning and well-being. We need not choose between learning and well-being — both are requisite for a quality education and interdependent on one another. 

If “Investing in education is the greatest investment we can make in our common future, in peace, and sustainable development, and particularly in gender equality…”

It remains imperative for the education sector to continue advancing innovative efforts that reduce inequities in learning. Undoubtedly, cognitive skills such as literacy, science, and math can enable future generations to solve the stubborn issues of today and discover the new frontiers of tomorrow.

Going forward, the education sector must better prioritize efforts to build the noncognitive life skills that can equip children — especially the most marginalized — to take on climate change, worsening geopolitical fragmentation, biased technological progress, and the many other trials of today’s world. Even without the pressure of multiple, concurrent crises, such skills are critical to navigating human life (including love, loss, supply chains, health, and happiness). Moreover, as the anti-rights movement leads to increased misogyny and gender based violence, education systems should give special emphasis to programming that equips students with the skills to challenge harmful gender social norms and safeguard their equality. The Tanzanian Ministry of Education, Science & Technology’s integration of CAMFED’s gender transformative Learner Guide into secondary school curricula demonstrates how to effectively do this at scale with cultural competency.

Finally, to enable this all, country governments and international development funders should meet the minimum benchmarks set for education financing so that children can receive the quality education they deserve to develop as a whole child, equipped to pursue happiness, enjoy stability, and even possibly better this world for future generations to come.