Quality education leads to economic progress

Better education does not start with building a school or handing out books, says Charif Hamidi (31). He founded his company Ed4.0. to improve education in countries in the Middle East and Africa.

Image: ©Charif Hamidi

With Education 4.0, Hamidi wants to better prepare children for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, in which it is especially important to adapt quickly and learn new skills. As part of its impact programs, the Ed4.0 mobile classroom travels to villages to help teachers and schools improve education. Ed4.0 relies on scientific analyses and advice from Harvard and other universities. All based on the mantra: “Access to quality education leads to economic prosperity, which in turn makes social justice possible.” Hamidi: “This sequence has already been proven by many academics.”

“Mandela once said that it is not beyond our power to create a world in which all children have access to a good education. I want to see that happen in our lifetime.”

In addition to schools, Ed4.0 also advises governments, organizations and businesses. One of its clients is a large agricultural company, which Hamidi cannot name for reasons of confidentiality. The company, which ships vegetables to Europe from an isolated location in North Africa, decided to invest in “human capital” by building schools in the area. However, the children’s school results did not improve. Hamidi says this is typical of what often happens with the good intentions of governments or non-profits. Ed4.0 is now advising the company on teacher training. “You cannot expect great student performance from poorly trained teachers. You can never invest enough in teachers."

Disruption in education

Growing up in a middle-class Moroccan family in Fez, Hamidi himself always had access to good education. From an early age, he took school seriously, although he does have a few criticisms about the Moroccan education system.

For example, in Morocco education is very linear, he says, with little individual guidance for students. Morocco’s approach is not exceptional, says Hamidi: “These are actually the same educational problems that many other countries face.”

As a bright student, Hamidi was in the gifted program and received a Fulbright Scholarship to complete his education in the United States. There Hamidi was introduced to differentiated education. Unlike in Morocco, students in the U.S. choose their own subjects. He went on to study at Park University in Missouri, and then worked in the U.S. and Europe in the banking and consultancy world from 2011 to 2017. That is where he acquired his American accent.

While working in the commercial sector, Hamidi also became involved in the policy of governments, investors and innovative companies in the education sector. He viewed education through the eyes of a consultant. For example, he wondered why technology had not actually brought “disruption” here, as it had done in the health sector and the financial world. “Education is of course being digitized,” says Hamidi. “Rather than asking students to turn to page 5 of their books, teachers tell them to scroll on their iPads.” Digitizing books may make education more accessible, but that is not disruption.”

"Building extra schools without improving the situation in the classroom doesn’t work."

You could compare it to building extra schools without improving the situation in the classroom. That doesn’t work, says Hamidi: “If you forget the quality component of education, you cannot achieve economic progress.” Ed4.0 mainly seeks to advance education in an analytical way, by analysing performance with technology and training teachers to better respond to individual differences between students.

Two-way traffic

To research and apply this idea, Hamidi founded Ed4.0 in 2016, together with his partner, Naida Kardas, who is an education expert. The choice to work in the Middle East and Africa was an easy one. “Most of the world’s young people live there. Those young students need all the help they can get, as their performance scores indicate.” In remote villages, the risk of interference in research results (for example due to use of iPads at home) is small. "If it is possible to improve education there, it is possible anywhere."

"If it is possible to improve education there, it is possible anywhere."

Hamidi converted an all-terrain vehicle into a mobile classroom that takes Ed4.0 from village to village. First, the team explores the situation on the ground by visiting schools and speaking to local authorities, administrators, teachers, parents and students. The vehicle contains books, iPads and tablets equipped with machine learning programs, which, for example, can identify patterns in children’s learning. All the equipment is charged via the solar panels on the roof.

A baseline measurement is taken to see how students perform before Ed4.0 changes something in the educational situation. Ed4.0 sends the data from that measurement to researchers at Harvard and in Massachusetts to analyse differences between children and devise improvements in teaching. “Just like a doctor writes out an individual prescription for each patient, there is a customized action plan for each student and teacher,” says Hamidi.

The most important part is to train teachers better. They learn to take differences between children into account – that doesn’t take time, it saves time, Hamidi assures me – and they become more motivated when they get a better picture of the progress of their students. There are always randomized control groups of children who receive standard education. Only then can Ed4.0 properly test whether their intervention has worked or not.

“Access to quality education leads to economic prosperity, which in turn makes social justice possible.”

For example, Ed4.0 can advise that classes be divided differently, but it remains advice and Ed4.0 cannot implement all kinds of changes randomly. “It’s a two-way street, we learn from them too. ” After all, schools must be able to continue independently after the intervention. “We don’t give a man a fish, as the saying goes: we teach him how to fish. ” After weeks of work in a village, Ed4.0 comes back at progressively longer intervals to see how things are going, ultimately once every few months or years.

Breaking the poverty cycle

All the while Ed4.0 delivers customized work, because: “There is no single magical solution for improving education.” In every case, Ed4.0 looks at the specific situation. For example, Hamidi heard that in one area in the Atlas Mountains, parents often did not dare send their girls to school, fearing that it was unsafe. Ed4.0 started a development centre for children up to eight years old, with one of the mothers of the children at the helm. The other parents dared to entrust their daughters to her, and at the same time she received teacher training from Ed4.0. “The group of children we started with then is now in the second year of secondary school.”

The villages that Ed4.0 visits have few resources, but that does not have to impair the quality of education. Almost all the villages Hamidi has visited so far had electricity. In some villages, telecom providers were so impressed with the work of Ed4.0, according to Hamidi, that they built a 4G network with the help of local authorities. “But it’s not all about technology,” Hamidi warns again. “Sometimes children in schools without access to iPads show better results than students from well-funded schools.”

“Sometimes children in schools without access to iPads show better results than students from well-funded schools.”

Hamidi is hopeful that the opportunities children get in life won’t only be determined by their parents’ income. This is something he himself has experienced at first hand. “I come from a very modest background but I had the chance to benefit from top-quality education and work with renowned organisations. It is my sincere belief that the cycle of inter-generational poverty can be broken.” He wants to make that possible for everyone. Nelson Mandela also saw that this is possible, says Hamidi. “Mandela once said that it is not beyond our power to create a world in which all children have access to a good education. I want to see that happen in our lifetime.”

Published by OneWorld

This interview was first published in Dutch by OneWorld.nl: Zijn mobiele school bezoekt afgelegen dorpen. Author: Katja Keuchenius.

Watch the virtual forum on YouTube

Do you want to hear more stories from youth in Africa and the Middle-East? The Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs organised the virtual forum Youth at Heart. Here young people from the Middle East and Africa discussed their experiences and thoughts about education, work and participation.

All sessions of the Youth at Heart virtual forum that was broadcasted on 2 November 2020, can be watched on our YouTube channel: Livestream 4 studio's on YouTube