Skip to main content

Learning for Life: IDRC invests in research to ensure a quality education for all


Education is a fundamental and widely recognized human right. IDRC is among the many Canadian and global institutions working to ensure the right to an education translates to tangible, accessible and quality lifelong learning for all.

IDRC believes in the power of innovative, Southern-based research to inform education policy and practice in lower- and middle-income countries (LMICs). This research does not exist in a theoretical vacuum. It is alive and active in classrooms around the world.

Today, we mark the 5th anniversary of the International Day of Education under the theme “to invest in people, prioritize education” by outlining a few of the ways that we invest in education research and innovations for people of all ages, and with a mind on reaching the most vulnerable.

EARLY CHILDHOOD EDUCATION: Scaling proven solutions for the right start

The evidence is clear that investments in education are the most effective and lead to the most equitable outcomes when they focus on the early years. But global disparities mean access to such programs is far from equal. In 2019, 75% of children worldwide were enrolled in pre-primary education, but in sub-Saharan Africa and in northern Africa and Western Asia, the rate was about 50% (GEM report, 2021).  

How can we close the gap? Education researchers, governments and communities are collaborating to implement and strengthen local programs that may benefit other regions through careful and informed scaling. For example, Plan International has been running a pre-primary summer program called LEARN for several years that gives children in remote villages in Lao PDR access to early childhood education. Through our partnership with the Global Partnership for Education’s Knowledge and Innovation Exchange, researchers have continued to implement this initiative across the country and are now working in Cambodia and Tanzania, where millions of children in remote areas do not have access to formal early learning. Activities include trainings for government officials, community leaders and parents who are now collaborating with teachers to not only mobilize children’s enrollment but also provide resources to sustain the centres and pay teachers. 

A young girl sits in front of a laptop computer
GPE/Carine Durand


PRIMARY EDUCATION: How research can help policymakers ensure everyone gets foundational skills

UNESCO estimates that more than 60 million children are missing out on basic education — the fundamental literacy and math skills offered in primary school. That estimate doesn’t even take the full cost of the pandemic into account. UNESCO is warning there are likely more children today who cannot read a simple story than before the COVID-19 outbreak.

Teaching at the Right Level (TaRL) is an innovation designed to get primary students on the right track, and is the focus of another KIX project. The idea of teaching at the right level is to prioritize a child’s learning needs over their grades or age. TaRL is a promising innovation that saves more children from falling behind in learning outcomes, but it can’t function without systematic changes within schools and at the policy level. Recently, the government of Côte d’Ivoire, using KIX research, said it intends to integrate Teaching at the Right Level across the country.

EDTECH: Research helps to design the right tool for the right job

Investments in primary education are often cited as the reason for the climb in global literacy rates to 87% (from 12% in 1820), but disparities remain. In parts of the world, particularly sub-Saharan Africa, literacy rates fall below 50% (WEF). What contributes to that gap and what interventions can close it? Research is helping to find some answers in digital technology, a sector that IDRC has worked in for more than a decade.

In a technology research project in Kenya, a grade one class using the literacy technology ABRA and READS showed significantly greater improvements in vocabulary, reading comprehension and reasoning as compared to those that did not. It also helped the teachers involved to upgrade their own skills (this research is continuing under GPE-KIX).

In a recent project in Chile, researchers evaluated an innovative technology program that uses games to increase math and science learning in low-performing primary schools. Compiled by researchers from the University of Chile, the Inter-American Development Bank and Cornell University, the study indicated students who used the technology performed better on math questions in the Chilean national standardized exam.  

TOGETHER FOR LEARNING: Ensuring quality education in difficult contexts

Scaling innovative approaches to learning and teaching to improve educational outcomes is a significant focus of the educational research we support. An example is the experiential learning objects (xLOBs) model in the West Bank. Led by researchers at Birzeit University’s Center for Continuing Education, this innovative approach to teaching and learning started in select schools in the West Bank in 2012. It didn’t take long before researchers saw that the learning design — pedagogical building blocks for teachers to produce an active and stimulating learning process — helped to significantly raise learning outcomes among Palestinian refugees in the West Bank. After 14 years of planning, research and development study and testing, Birzeit-Center for Continuing Education, in cooperation with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Refugees (UNRWA) are now scaling the implementation of xLOBs to all 96 UNRWA schools operating across the West Bank in grades one to nine. This is a significant stage in the evolution and adoption of the xLOBs model because they are being integrated within an educational system at a systemic level.

A group of young female refugees writing on a whiteboard in a classroom
IDRC/Catalina Martin-Chico


SECONDARY SCHOOL: Research helps to understand challenges experienced by female students during crisis situations

The risk of drop-out increases as children get older, particularly in lower middle-income countries. Economic pressures, along with cultural factors, are often to blame. Either families cannot afford the often-increased costs of secondary school, or they need adolescent children to contribute to the household income. Adolescent girls are affected most by these pressures, which have been compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic. School closures hit girls and other vulnerable groups particularly hard, as demonstrated by the KIX COVID-19 Observatory project that tracks education policy and practice responses to the pandemic in 40 sub-Saharan African countries that are part of the Global Partnership for Education. The project found that some education systems did adopt measures to protect girls against sexual violence and teenage pregnancy. They achieved this through targeted campaigns and building awareness about gender-based violence and adolescent reproductive health and promoting school re-entry upon the reopening of schools. But results are uneven. The Observatory also found systems do not always collect gender-disaggregated data and track student progress in a way that we can understand and address the needs of girls.

HIGHER EDUCATION: Meeting market expectations

Post-secondary institutions, whether academic or technical, must innovate and develop to prepare graduates to meet current job market demands. This is a struggle for many places of higher learning, but the challenge is even greater in lower-income countries that have seen already modest budgets for post-secondary education shrink further in recent decades.

IDRC supported a multi-country research initiative to explore ways to strengthen engineering ecosystems in sub-Saharan Africa, where there is a shortage of qualified engineers. The study was able to identify the main problems: a dramatic decrease in national funding for African higher learning institutions, weak links between industries, training, and research and development, and “brain drain” as engineering graduates migrate to other regions. Researchers offered recommendations to strengthen academic linkages with industries.

WOWEN IN HIGHER EDUCATION: Research to help close the gender gap in science

Progress has been made towards gender parity in higher education, but the gap is much wider in science fields. The gender gap in science begins at the primary-school level and worsens at each progressive academic stage. By the time women enter higher education and then the world of work, they face even greater barriers, with female scientists having shorter and less well-paid careers than their male counterparts.

We support women in advanced science education in several ways across the Global South. Since 2017, IDRC has partnered with the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency to support more than 200 women doctoral students and early career scientists in low- and middle-income countries through the Organization for Women in Science for the Developing World. Each fellow receives up to USD 50,000 to lead research projects, establish research groups and mentor others at their home institutions to help solve the types of problems faced by developing countries and global society at large.  

Read about the latest cohort and their areas of research  

SKILLS TRAINING: Informing policy and solutions in technical education

A university degree does not necessarily lead to better economic prospects. To better equip youth for the world of work, IDRC-supported research has focused on improving technical and vocational education and training (TVET) programs. For example, in a project we support in Burkina Faso, Cameroon and Chad, researchers studied the levels of inclusion in TVET programs and how well graduates transitioned into the workforce. Recommendations to education ministries include increasing support to TVET institutions to make them more accessible and attractive to students, promoting greater private-sector involvement in curriculum development and recruiting teachers from relevant industries.

Research in Kenya focused on TVET programs that support student entrepreneurship through initiatives such as private-sector mentoring, incubation and internships. The lessons learned are helping TVET institutions refine their approaches and remove gender barriers and stereotypes to support student entrepreneurial potential.

A group of students work on technical machinery
UN/Abdul Fattai


TEACHER TRAINING: Finding solutions to a teaching crisis

Quality teaching is key to ensuring learning opportunities for all. Education systems need plenty of qualified teachers who can access the necessary resources to update their skills and meet new challenges and contexts. The dearth of trained teachers has been increasing in some regions. According to UNESCO, 85% of primary teachers globally met local minimum training requirements in 2018, but only 72% did so in South Asia and only 64% met the requirements in sub-Saharan Africa. With class sizes swelling with rising populations, there are not enough teachers to meet demand.

Research is helping to understand the problem and test solutions and innovations to turn those numbers around. The situation is complex, but technology offers hope in some contexts. This working paper from the TPD@Scale Coalition for the Global South argues that harnessing the power of technology is essential to address the challenge of providing equitable, quality professional development to all teachers. That’s why the Coalition — led by the Foundation for Information Technology Education and Development in the Philippines and made up of ministries of education, international organizations, training institutions, research centres and other education and technology stakeholders — produced the TPD@Scale Framework with policymakers in mind. This compendium offers examples of large or potentially scalable teacher professional development programs using information and communications technology across low- and middle-income countries.

EDUCATION: A quality future for all

“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world,” Nelson Mandela told high school students in 1990, shortly after his release from prison in what was then apartheid South Africa. Despite decades of work, the power of an education to change the world and the right of every person to access an education remain ambitions that have yet to be fully achieved.  

This year marks the half-way point towards the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, a collective promise by all United Nations Member States. This promise includes ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education and promoting lifelong learning opportunities for all. If the Sustainable Development Goals are to be met, we must build on existing solutions to set the foundation for progress through to 2030 and beyond. 


Serhiy Kovalchuk, Program Officer, KIX, IDRC; Joy Nafungo, Senior Program Officer, KIX, IDRC; Ruhiya Seward, Senior Program Officer, IDRC; David O'Brien, Senior Program Specialist, IDRC; Matthew Smith, Senior Program Specialist, IDRC; Ann Weston, Senior Program Specialist, IDRC


Erin Gilchrist, Knowledge Translation Officer, KIX, IDRC; Florencio Ceballos, Senior Program Specialist, IDRC; Flaubert Mbiekop, Senior Program Specialist, IDRC; Paul Owki, Senior Program Specialist, IDRC