Who Owns Learning? By Hugh McLean

April 2014

By Hugh McLean, Open Society Foundations, London.

Teaching about learning and learning about teaching

LearningI worked for an NGO in South Africa in the 1980s called Learn and Teach.[i] It was an adult literacy organisation inspired by Freire and based on the insight that understanding the interconnections between learning and teaching is fundamental to good pedagogy. This made intuitive good sense then as it has all my life. So it is strange, 30 years on, to witness a global debate on the post-2015 education goal in which there is a tendency to talk about learning as if it were disconnected from teaching, detached from teachers, different from education and somehow recently discovered. How did we get here and what is going on?

Of course there is a global crisis in education that involves learning. It has a number of features at least of which two are relevant here: many education systems fail to deliver basic education skills for low-income learners; and the education quality most parents want has become a privilege relatively few can afford. The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) finally focused world attention on the universal completion of primary education and the number of children out of school halved relatively rapidly by about 2005. However, all the available data shows that the increase in school access did not result in the learning that, undoubtedly, was expected; in fact that the pressure from high enrolments on classrooms and systems may even have had a worsening effect on education quality. However, there are still an estimated 57 million primary-age children out of school; their crisis remains one of access and of course for them education access means learning.

The Education For All (EFA) goals carry forward a long-standing global commitment to quality education from Jomtien in 1990 which was confirmed Dakar in 2000. This commitment is fundamental and was always going to be harder to achieve than simply getting children into school. It is disingenuous to talk of the crisis in education quality as if it has only just been discovered; and crucially, doing so avoids the need to work out why urgent action to improve learning was not taken before. The MDGs, after all, provided what EFA after Jomtien could not, a centrifuge for global governance: high-level mechanisms for organising and regulating essentially independent social relations and national interests. However, these processes are aligned with powerful interests and are as far removed froducation-and-development-in-the-post-2015-landscapes/detail/skills-work-and-development-in-the-high-level-panels-post-2015-visionm the reality of local delivery as they are from direct democracy. They reflect the prevailing neo-liberal preferences of governments in developed economies for top-down managerial approaches and marketised solutions for the social sector. Simon McGrath, writing in NORRAG News, points to how these assumptions underpin the post-2015 High Level Panel Report, which he reads as a “reworking of the MDG compromise between neoliberalism and human rights.”

It should be no surprise that the concerns about persisting poor education outcomes in low-income countries that emerged at the global governance level in the mid-2000s looked to narrowly-imagined, data-driven solutions such as EGRA and EGMA – the prominent early grade reading and mathematics assessments, funded by USAID. The LMTF (Learning Metrics Task Force), driven by special donor-interests, is focused on improving measurement, not learning. It must know that quality outcomes depend on quality teachers, quality tools and quality learning environments that are safe and secure for students and that the fundamental requirement for improving learning outcomes, therefore, is national resolve to fix the education system. This includes providing adequate support for teachers. There is no deus ex machina to help governments, donors, and international agencies escape this reality.

Business management theory, already concerned in the mid-1980s by the effects of a narrow focus on achieving targets on overall quality, moved on from management by objectives (MBO) to systems thinking and ideas about business process management. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) debate suggests global governance is stuck in the narrow logics of the old MBO mantra: what-gets-measured-gets-done. It is essential that the key agencies that bridge global governance concerns with on-the-ground reality, such as the GPE, the World Bank and UNICEF, retain a commitment to supporting education systems more comprehensively.

A working paper for the Centre for Global Development (CGD) by former World Bank Economists, and funded by the Hewlett Foundation, presented a case in 2006 for a Millennium Learning Goal instead of the Millennium Development Goal for UPE. It pointed out that the MDG focus on school completion spawns bureaucratic accountability for quantity only; it argues that the goal should be about learning and that indicators should be based on age cohorts rather than school grades. In her critique, Angeline Barrett welcomes the emphasis given to student learning by economists concerned with education and economic growth, but echoes the warning of educators that narrow, learning-outcome targets inevitably lead to teaching-to-the-test, ultimately undermining quality in education. Barrett argues instead for targets centered on the teaching-learning processes and for a post-2015 global goal that aims to get “all children everywhere to participate in learning that is inclusive, relevant and democratic” with indicators that are set nationally rather than globally. This places the emphasis on the ground in schools and classrooms. The CGD paper does not mention teachers and comprehends no link between teaching and learning, it mentions teacher qualifications only to dismiss them as an input “thought to be associated with quality”.

The dislocated emphasis on learning and learning outcomes in the current discourse around the post-2015 global goals de-emphasises the systemic associations with education inputs and processes that are integral to ideas such as quality assurance, education quality, education access, education equity and pedagogy that unites teaching and learning. This dislocation may appeal to donors still in the grip of financial austerity, a global testing industry or IT companies looking for economies of scale, or national governments focused on measurement rather than reforming whole systems. It is not in the interests of most pupils, parents and teachers.

Andy Hargreaves and Dennis Shirley, remind us that “statistically, teaching is the strongest influence within schools on student achievement…There are examples of education excellence without accountability, or common standards, or digital technology. But there are no instances of educational excellence without high-quality teachers and teaching.”[ii]

Hugh McLean is a Director of the Education Support Program at the Open Society Foundations, London. Email:

This blog is based on an article in NORRAG News 50 on ‘The Global Politics of Teaching and Learning: The Real Story of Educational Cultures and Contexts’ – available free at in May 2014. 


[i]The associated Learn and Teach Magazine, which spun-off as a separate venture in 1983 and lasted a decade, is enjoying a small Facebook revival and can be seen here:

[ii]Andy Hargreaves & Dennis Shirley (2009) The Global Fourth Way: The Quest for Education Excellence. California: Corwin.



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