Express yourself: Promoting freedom of expression for children through education
Around the world, we yearn for economic and political self-determination, because we yearn for the liberty to express ourselves. Our expressions – whether words or pictures, art or music, the physical sport of soccer or the intellectual sport of numbers – hold our ideas, our dreams and the images we have of ourselves. A child without education and freedom of expression cannot develop. That has been the goal of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and it is a goal that should move us all, and has for two decades.
My perspective is from the private sector, as head of an education and media company that tries to help people of all ages in more than 60 countries express themselves by helping to educate them both formally and informally. “It is the education which gives a man a clear conscious view of his own opinions and judgments, a truth in developing them, eloquence in expressing them, and a force in urging them” religious and educational philosopher John Newman wrote back in 1852. Twenty years ago, the Convention outlined a similar principle: that if a child had a ‘right’ to education, then he might as a consequence obtain access to the information and freedom of expression that would, in the words of the Preamble, help him be “fully prepared to live an individual life in society.”
Education, information and expression
While the Convention includes more than 50 articles, I want to focus here only on the power of those three areas – education, information and expression. These have enlightened specific initiatives in our company and shown us how to play a role – often in partnership with governments and non-governmental organizations – in ensuring that children have access to education and that they have diverse experiences in the process.
To take three examples that we know well:
In Angola, we are working with the Ministry of Education and the Monteno Institute for Language and Literacy, a South African not-for-profit group, to introduce 1 million students to textbooks in the indigenous languages they speak at home but have never seen in print. This is an undertaking that Angola’s Government believes will raise its struggling literacy rate.
With partners such as the Government of the United Kingdom and not-for-profit organizations JumpStart, BookTrust and Book Aid International, we have engaged in large-scale projects that get books into the hands of children and encourage parents to read aloud to them.
One of our websites, ‘Poptropica’, combines gaming with education - in a way that has attracted 40 million children in 70 countries speaking 90 different languages - to engage with each other in learning math, science, history and other subjects.
Sustainable purpose: private sector contributions to the greater good
Too often, we assume that a private company’s purpose is profits, and its concentration on the larger society is just an obligatory sidelight. A private company dedicated to the long term is surely sustained by profits, because it has no other livelihood; but this company is driven and defined by the social purposes it serves. Helping children expand their mind and find their voices through education and information is a large part of our purpose.
There are, of course, challenges facing all organizations, private and public, trying to help achieve the freedom of expression goals of the Convention. Commercial broadcasters and newspapers, as all media, have been pressured and changed by the economics of the digital age. The effect could be to reduce both the outlets and programming that might speak to children. Education budgets in many countries are underfunded in this time of economic strain. In some countries, stimulus funding will help ease the pressure, but cuts will still be made. Around the world, countries face a teacher shortage that could jeopardize their bold commitment to education improvement, imperilling the UN’s Millennium Development Goal 2 to have primary education available to all children by 2015.
Innovating change: technology and an interconnected world
We will have to be bold if we are to overcome the consequences of these issues. But, still, there are plenty of reasons to be hopeful that the next 20 years can become a time of information, learning and human expression. Perhaps the greatest reason to be hopeful is that the digital revolution simply enables us to share stories and ideas in inclusive ways that were never possible before. Technology allows a wealth of dazzling and instructive content to be distributed to children all over the world on mobile phones and computers – allowing them to learn at their own pace and in their own space and time. In some countries, wireless technology has leapfrogged landlines, winging educational material to remote areas that were previously out of bounds economically and physically.
Allowing children to organize themselves into social networks also helps them to find their voices. Gathering together virtually and hearing each other speak helps children of all nationalities and backgrounds to forge – or at least identify – common bonds that were once either invisible or out of reach. Although these networks may need some rules, they can be powerful tools of social exchange, accentuating what connects us, rather than what divides us.
Of course, even the very latest, most beautiful software cannot replace teachers – those flesh-and-blood emissaries of facts, figures, understanding, stimulation, excitement and just pure magic for millions of children every year. But the software can help multiply them by automating some of the teacher’s functions: collecting diagnostic information about the child’s learning pace and chronic needs; allowing children to assess themselves and plug gaps in their learning; delivering information to schools and parents that help them fulfil their role.
As the Convention on the Rights of the Child celebrates its 20th anniversary, the private sector has every reason to be grateful for the emphasis it brings to the power of developing a new generation of citizens, and the reminder that children are the flowers of our societies. We take great joy in having been provoked by the Convention’s ideals, and in looking forward to what we can do to promote them in the future.
Marjorie Scardino is Chief Executive of Pearson, the international education and media business made up of Pearson Education, Penguin and the Financial Times Group. Until January 1997, she was chief executive of The Economist Group, and, prior to 1985, she was a partner in a law firm in Savannah, Georgia (United States). Marjorie and her husband, Albert Scardino, founded and published the Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper The Georgia Gazette. They have three children.
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