According to Unesco's 2017-18 global education monitoring report, more than a quarter of a billion children globally are not able to go to school and receive the great gift of daily interaction with a teacher. Among more than 80 million active teachers in the world (in 2014 there were 84.2 million, according to the World Bank), one became a global sensation last month when she was awarded the Global Teacher Prize, often referred to as the "Nobel Prize for Education".
Andria Zafirakou, an arts and textile teacher from Alperton Community College in Brent, London, beat more than 30,000 candidates from 172 countries to the title of best teacher in the world. To say Ms Zafirakou goes the extra mile for her students is very much an understatement; she taught herself the basics of 35 languages to build relationships with the families of her students and keep them out of trouble. Ms Zafirakou is a true hero but had she not received this prize, the chances are you would have never heard of her.
Unfortunately teachers are not celebrated enough today, despite playing a key role in shaping the future of the world. In order to fix this social injustice, education entrepreneur and philanthropist Sunny Varkey – founder and chairman of Gems Education and a Unesco goodwill ambassador – created the Global Teacher Prize. Thanks to him, Ms Zafirakou is on the cover of mainstream publications around the world and through her, all teachers are acknowledged and celebrated.
Another brainchild of Mr Varkey's, the Global Education and Skills Forum, is promoting and advancing innovation in education. Today it is among the world's best education summits, held each year in Dubai in March, ahead of the Global Teacher Prize ceremony. The GESF gathers education experts, technology innovators, heads of state, actors, artists and athletes to celebrate teachers and design the future of education. Most importantly, it hosts thousands of students and educators from 152 countries this year to actively contribute to the agenda of innovation in education.
For a lot of people that means tablets, digital smartboards and sometimes even augmented and virtual reality. But this is all but useless if we do not understand how the brains of students, teachers and parents function on a daily basis. Today, more people are realising insights in social psychology, behavioral economics, cognitive science and neuroscience can help tailor both the content and the format of what is being taught in the classroom.
One influential individual who seems convinced of the benefits of using behavioural and brain insights to improve education is Jean-Michel Blanquer, France’s Minister of National Education. An important milestone was reached in January when he created the first ever Scientific Council for National Education. Composed of 21 experts, a third of whom are behavioural or brain scientists, the Council is tasked with using laboratory and field research to inform policy decisions on key educational issues. Let’s hope this initiative will inspire many other countries.
The importance of neuroscience to innovate in education is something Dr Vikas Pota, chief executive of the Varkey Foundation, has been well aware of for a long time. When he invited me to speak about neuroscience and education at this year’s GESF, we spent some time on the phone discussing how important it is to move beyond laboratories and collecting brain data in classrooms. “Portable neuro-technologies are a major breakthrough in education. They allow for rigorous measuring of how the attention of students evolves over the day and therefore help us design better teaching content and formats,” he said. He was spot-on and needless to say, given my background and current job, this was music to my ears.
Professor Scott Kelso, my scientific mentor of nearly 20 years, is one of the pioneers of using neuroscience to understand how human brains exchange information. With his collaborators, he has published a series of laboratory studies where the data of multiple brains was collected at the same time. They identified a so-called neuromarker of social coordination, allowing them to understand how bonds form and dissipate between people and to assess the level to which we influence and are influenced by others.
Last year Dr Suzanne Dikker, a neuroscientist at Utrecht University and New York University, took the study of brain synchrony to a classroom. For a study published in Current Biology, the team she led recorded the brains of 12 students several times over the course of a term. Being able to collect data from multiple brains in the classroom at the same time allowed the researchers not only to measure the brain activity of each individual but also to understand how brains interact and synchronise. The research concludes that "brain-to-brain synchrony between students consistently predicted class engagement and social dynamics".
Speaking of social interaction, at this year's GESF I spoke to Patrick Saoula, the only French teacher to become a top 50 finalist in the teacher prize. More than a decade ago, Mr Saoula was sitting in one of my neurobiology classes in Marseille. I felt so happy for him and was proud to have been one of his teachers. I often miss teaching. Both my parents were teachers. When I was an undergraduate, I taught six-graders in France before later becoming a university professor. Now, because of my job in neurotech, I only teach a few executive education classes a year.
According to Unesco, nearly 70 million new teachers need to be trained to achieve the UN's fourth Sustainable Developmental Goal (to "ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all"). We need to keep acknowledging and rewarding all of those who, like Ms Zafirakou and Mr Saoula, dedicate their lives to shape the future of our children, from the way they see the world to the way they adapt to the changes ahead of them. More than ever, teachers matter, for our brains and beyond.
Professor Olivier Oullier is the president of Emotiv, a neuroscientist and a DJ. He served as global head of strategy in health and healthcare and member of the executive committee of the World Economic Forum