Two years ago, when Jack Ma, co-founder and former chairman of the multinational Alibaba Group, made that pronouncement at the launch of the Forum for World Education (FWE) in Paris, no one knew the COVID pandemic would soon close schools for 1.5 billion students around the globe and make formal learning entirely dependent on access to broadband. Yet it was clear even then that, despite the growing number of people attending school and earning advanced degrees, education in the 21st century is leaving vast numbers of people behind.

In wealthy societies like the United States, the “forgotten half” includes those who are not completing college or successfully engaging with a traditional liberal arts education. Many are casualties of the systemic racism that has created a two-tiered school system. Others, like the billionaire entrepreneur, philanthropist and dyslexic high school dropout Sir Richard Branson, who also spoke in Paris, are “frustrated and demoralized by an inflexible approach to learning that chokes and suppresses spontaneity, lateral thinking and creativity.”

In developing nations, up to 90 percent of adults lack formal education and work in gig economies that take no note of their resilience and entrepreneurship and offer them no pathway to a better life.

The failure of education affects more than the uneducated and uncredentialed. As new and increasingly technical fields come into being, industry lacks the skilled labor to create competitive workforces. Nations are handicapped in confronting challenges that include climate change, the global refugee crisis, the ongoing COVID pandemic, and pervasive racism and political extremism.

Convening the Conversation

Enter FWE, a nonprofit created to convene leaders in education, industry and government in an ambitious and far-reaching conversation about the future of inclusive education, the workforce, societal progress and a sustainable world.

“There are many ‘forums’ out there, but few that incorporate different views through representation of educators, governments and business people,” says Andreas Schleicher, Director for Education and Skills, and Special Advisor on Education Policy to the Secretary-General at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). “The strength of FWE is to connect people across cultural boundaries and ways of thinking.”

Founded by a group that included the late Paul Kelly, who headed the investment banking firm Knox & Co., and Guangfa Wang, Chairman of Beijing Fazheng Group, FWE conducts neither research nor boots-on-the-ground interventions. Rather, the organization, headquartered in Cambridge, Massachusetts but partnering closely with OECD, the Jack Ma Foundation, the Fazheng Foundation, and universities and nonprofits in 17 different nations, seeks to mobilize the global community by serving as a convener, knowledge broker and translator of research.

Since its inaugural event, at which the 68-year-old British educator and historian Sir Anthony Selden stood on his head to demonstrate memorable teaching, FWE has fulfilled that purpose primarily through a provocative series of webinars. Speakers have included:

  • Princess Laurentien of The Netherlands, UNESCO Special Envoy on “Literacy for Development,” who argued that children must be co-creators of schools and education strategies;
  • Thomas Friedman, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the 21st Century, who forecast “a period of creative destruction in education that will be the equivalent of a meteor hitting the planet”;
  • John Palfrey, President of the MacArthur Foundation, who said that broadband should be a public utility, “like heat or water”;
  • Madon Padaki, creator of India’s Head Held High Foundation, which has transformed thousands of illiterate youth into corporate professionals and aims to move millions more out of poverty by 2022.
  • Members of FWE’s Young Leaders group – rising thinkers in Africa, Latin America, Asia and other regions who are pursing promising new ventures in their home countries.

But now, as the COVID pandemic has worsened longstanding inequities in wealth, health and education, FWE seeks to transform itself from a “think tank” to a “do tank” by forging closer ties with business communities, leading innovators and philanthropists.

“Business needs to use its bully pulpit to stimulate a societal commitment to education, and it needs to be very clear about what it’s looking for in terms of employee skills,” says FWE Steering Committee member Susan Sclafani, former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education for Vocational and Adult Education. “Also, business must open its doors to create externships for teachers and students. Kids want to become policeman, firemen and doctors, but they don’t know what a physicist is, or a computer analyst.”

Increasingly, FWE’s work has focused on the field of career and technical education, and the promise it holds for providing foundational skills for millions of young adults who would otherwise be consigned to lives of poverty.

“In the United States, vocational education is stigmatized because it is too narrowly defined,” says FWE co-founder and Steering Committee member Christoph Metzger, former Dean of the School of Business Administration at Switzerland’s University of St. Gallen. “Beyond providing skills and techniques, it should enable learners to become more open and gain the experience to learn in other fields that may emerge. It’s an interaction between knowledge, skills and attitudes.”

FWE is also focused on the field of educational assessment and how to transform evaluations into diagnostic tools, used in real time, that provide learners, educators and employers with guidance on what workers know, understand and need to learn.

“We have divorced learning and assessment, so that now you pile up a lot of learning and then get asked to demonstrate it in a constrained and artificial way,” Schleicher says. “This lack of meaningful assessment is the source of all inequality in education, because we have only the illusion that everyone is learning, and we don’t understand people’s skills. In Germany, for example, we have many refugees and they are seen as a liability – but we have no idea, for example, of what a Syrian electrician can do. There is so much dormant talent in our societies!”