What makes more of an impact, focused education in the very early years, high school, or +university?

There is little question that in terms of efficiency of investment, early education takes the biscuit: most programs at that point are relatively cheap and with very positive effect. However, this is not helpful to the majority of the population long past their toddler years.  For those struggling to find employment, we as a society seem to have difficulty identifying the type of intervention or educational programming that could help. 

How does an education system shape the society or culture in which it operates?  

Thinking of education in terms of the human capital it fosters… societies that provide skills for many citizens are the ones that will truly benefit from a successful economy. Simply put, societies cannot rely solely on the accomplishments of entrepreneurs.  Companies, and thus the ecosystem in which they operate, are at a severe disadvantage when there is a general low level of education.  

When you consider education more broadly, as an instiller of democratic values for example, it seems pretty clear (if not totally evident from the data we have available) that unequal societies without even a modicum of opportunity that education affords are likely to be unstable.

Technology has had a huge impact on all aspects of education… 

Yes, indeed. Positives include accessibility of resources for students, multimedia usage, polling systems to tap moods in the classroom, videoconferencing, etc. Having said that, technology also serves as a great distractor – laptops in class are known to lower performance and students and teachers are all flooded with constant emails and communication. It takes great effort these days, because of the ease of technology, to take time for deep thinking; it is just so easy to google “the answer.” 

Tell us a little bit about your own education experience.

I clearly have way too many years of education and am in the land of diminishing returns…

I did primary and secondary schooling in my hometown of Oviedo, in Asturias (northern Spain). Then, I was drawn to both the humanities and the sciences and could not bring myself to choose between them, so I ended up doing a Mathematics and Philosophy undergraduate degree at Oxford University. It was during this time that I realized the value of independent study outside the lecture room – and the work that goes into creating new content that is not mere replication of already existing findings. After that, I worked as a consultant and did a Master in Public Policy at Harvard, where I stayed for a PhD.

And now at IE, I am on the faculty of the School of Global and Public Affairs, teaching Introduction to Public Policy in the Bachelor in International Relations and the dual degree in Business Administration and International Relations.  Next year I’ll also be teaching Inequality, Human Rights, and Social Inclusion in the Master in International Development.

What are some examples of education done well?

I think it is easy to obsess about measurable inputs in education, such as hours of instruction, numbers of subjects taken, grades, etc.  Many of the education systems with consistent impact, such as in Finland, are not overly focused on these things. They get great teachers, give them a lot of freedom and then good things happen to their kids. My own experience at Oxford is something that I frequently come back to – there was a great learning environment and relatively little preoccupation with “contact time,” ticking boxes on syllabi, or even grades. I’m a big fan of Liberal Arts education in the United States for those reasons.

I’m currently working on research regarding the development of skills for vocational education and adult learners, and it is impressive how countries like France have turned around very stale systems by using resources like the European Social Fund in a positive way. Spain, on the other hand, is not a great example of that.

Regarding Spain, you’ve just come back to the country after living in the United States. How has that transition been? 

Returning to Madrid after ten years has been interesting. I have only been back for a relatively short time but find it a much more international city than I left it. For both the good and the bad. There are more tourists (and they have found all my old haunts!), but the city and Spain in general is now much more connected to the international stage. Madrid is so vibrant – and I always say that it is Madrid that is the city that never sleeps.  Yet I admit, these days I am missing the unusual international food options and culture I enjoyed in Boston, New York City, and the San Francisco Bay Area, where I was living most recently.

In your opinion, how should education be funded?  

This highly contextual question occupies scholars all over the world! However, my 50 cents is that education – the great equalizer – should have public funding at all levels to ensure that everybody can benefit from it.  This does not mean exclusive public funding.  Nor does it mean that the organizations that provide education must be public (nor at every level, from primary to higher education.) While some wholly public education systems (such as those of Scandinavia) manage to do well for the majority, they are the exception.  Many governments prove adept at turning education systems into over-regulated bureaucracies that breed special interests and forget their original mission. So, I would advocate against uniform systems of public providers and for a more nuanced combination of public and private funding of both private and public institutions.

What are the common barriers to a flourishing (or even functioning) education system? 

There is far too much ideology in education and too little focus on what works. This applies to anything from public vs private models, skills vs content, and vocational vs college. As a researcher, I can say this, but it still needs to happen: people and government must get past their ideologies and push for creative solutions that work for everyone.

What books do you recommend for someone interested in education and public policy?

Amartya Sen’s Development as Freedom places education at the center of development, for reasons related to the economy as well as a creator of free citizens. For similar reasons, I recommend John Rawls’ Political Liberalism for what the book has to say about the role of education within policy. Most recently, I enjoyed Bryan Caplan’s The Case Against Education, which emphasizes (and probably takes too far) the notion that much of what we call education today, especially in higher education, is pure signaling rather than the transfer of valuable skills. Also: Grit by Angela Duckworth is worth a read, for its perspective on education reform and the importance of resilience and resourcefulness as a taught skill. 

What keeps you up at night?

I tend to be a fairly good sleeper. Most of the world’s problems will be there for me in the morning anyway, and can be tackled then. But these days it’s something quite tangible: my newborn, Noah.

Professor Lastra Anadon was interviewed and photographed by Kerry Parke in Madrid