Listening to the world’s students

The pandemic’s disruption to classrooms has forced educators to see youths as partners and developers in learning.

Teacher Leonard Gamaigue was inspired to set up a mobile school when he saw children playing at a nomad camp near N'Djamena, Chad, Sept. 1.

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, roughly 483 million children worldwide have had no learning opportunities during the past two years, and 147 million missed more than half of their in-class instruction, according to the United Nations. In Karnataka, India, the number of grade four students able to read grade two text has halved.

Over the past three days, however, a gathering of educators, officials, and development experts at the U. N. has underscored that the pandemic did not just result in lost time in the classroom. It has also spurred beneficial new debates about how to promote inclusivity in education, strengthen the teaching profession, boost funding in developing countries, and tap digital technology to reinvent lesson plans.

The pandemic’s most important impact on education, the gathering has shown, may be the way it has changed one of the most important activities in learning: listening – particularly to those who are more typically the recipients of education rather than its developers.

The U.N. asked nearly half a million youths worldwide for their learning priorities and aspirations. The result was a formal youth declaration that framed the summit. “I did not come here to talk,” Secretary-General António Guterres said in his opening remarks. “I came here to listen.” 

That humble approach offers a timely corrective amid troubling signs that global youths are disengaging from civic activity. Across Africa, for example, youth votes as a percentage of total ballots cast declined in what were potentially pivotal elections in Kenya, Angola, and Senegal. Their withdrawal reflected wider disillusionment about the state of democracy in their countries as well as their economic prospects. As one youth respondent told a recent Chatham House survey, “The present political elite look at youth as either tools or rivals, not as partners.”

Yet the U.N. education summit has shown that youths are eager to be heard when offered an opportunity – and that they are deeply aware of the global trends shaping their futures. “We, the youth of the world, recognize that our contemporary world is teeming with multiple and tumultuous crises,” the youth declaration stated. “In order to redeem and remake the state of the world, we must first transform the state of education ... not as passive beneficiaries but as partners and collaborators every step of the way.”

At a time when students face multiple disruptions to learning, whether from natural disasters or from policies like the Taliban’s ban on education for girls, such challenges require safeguarding every child’s right to an education. As the students and experts meeting at the U.N. over the past few days emphasized, that right includes not just an opportunity to be instructed – but also to be heard.

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