Yidan Prize Conference Series returns to Cambridge

Leading figures from education research and practice, psychology, and international development came together on 11 March 2020 to learn and exchange ideas at the Yidan Prize Conference Series: Europe.

Hosted once again by the Jesus College Intellectual Forum and University of Cambridge Faculty of Education, the conference showcased world-leading research and explored how education can address major global challenges.

This year’s programme focused on wellbeing and education, examining how schools, teachers and education systems can support children with mental health problems, and the role of education in international development. Highlights of the day included Professor Usha Goswami delivering her Yidan Laureate Lecture and the announcement of a new University of Cambridge Professorship.

The event was free to attend and livestreamed to open attendance up to as many people as possible across the world.

Yidan Prize Laureates celebrated

Dr Charles Chen Yidan, founder of the Yidan Prize, opened the conference by praising the work of the 2019 Yidan Laureates Professor Goswami and Sir Fazle Hasan Abed KCMG: “The 2019 Laureates represent two very different approaches to ensuring that our children go on to lead happy, productive lives, but they also intersect. Both point to the need to achieve a better, deeper understanding of children’s needs. Through their work, we now see promising ways to help millions of lives around the world. With technology, and active participation of our partners on this global platform, we can inspire hope for our future generations.”

"Through their work, we now see promising ways to help millions of lives around the world. With technology, and active participation of our partners on this global platform, we can inspire hope for our future generations.”
Dr Charles Chen Yidan

The Yidan Prize, the largest international award in education, is made annually to two outstanding individuals responsible for transformational changes in education research and development.

This year’s Yidan Prize for Education Research Laureate Professor Usha Goswami is a Professor of Cognitive Developmental Neuroscience at the University of Cambridge and a Fellow of St John’s College. Her Laureate Lecture explored her work into children’s early language acquisition, which has created a basis for new, effective interventions for dyslexia. “This award enables me to extend my rhythm research into oral language difficulties, a long-term ambition of mine. I’m incredibly grateful for what the prize makes possible,” Professor Goswami said.

A tribute was also made to the life and work of Yidan Prize for Education Development Laureate, Sir Fazle Hasan Abed KCMG, Founder and Chair Emeritus of Bangladesh’s BRAC, who sadly died in December. Founded in 1972, BRAC operates in over 11 countries across Asia and Africa, aiming to alleviate poverty and empower the poor. Almost 40,000 1-5 year olds are currently enrolled in over 1,400 BRAC play-based early childhood development centres across Bangladesh, Tanzania and Uganda.

New Professorship in education and mental health

Addressing the conference, Professor Stephen Toope, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, stated: “We see education as central to addressing the biggest challenges facing the world today … it is impossible to address any of our greatest challenges, whether climate change, communicable disease, inequality, or the future of democracy,  without recognising education as implicit in – in fact, fundamental to – the solution.”

Referring to the challenges of mental health and wellbeing, Professor Toope announced the creation of a new role, Professor of the Psychology of Education and Mental Health, based in the University’s Faculty of Education. The first post-holder will be Professor Gordon Harold, currently at the University of Sussex, who has led several, field-changing studies into the relationship between domestic adversity and young people’s mental health.

Professor Harold will join a wider Faculty research network on wellbeing and inclusion aiming to develop practical interventions and guidance for education professionals by addressing key, unanswered questions: such as how young people’s social relationships affect their learning, and how pupils and teachers can be better supported to cope with the various pressures of the education system.

Exploring today's education issues

Welcoming delegates to the conference, Sonita Alleyne OBE Master of Jesus College spoke about the history, present, and future of education research, remarking: “I stand here as a result of education.” She went on to praise Dr Charles Chen Yidan’s vision of: “100 Laureates over 50 years connecting and talking about education and making change.”

Keynote speaker Andreas Schleicher OECD Director for Education and Skills spoke about education policy and the positive effects if can have on pupils’ outcomes. Money and time are not good predictors for educational success in, he stated. Policy can assume that volume in the curriculum, hours spent and so on is important - but should focus on “what happens in instruction.” He also spoke about the need to prepare for the impact of the digital revolution which is moving technology ahead of people: “The question is really how do we move people ahead. The well-being of society depends on this.”

“There need to be deeper conversations about what higher education looks like, what it’s for, and how we value it.” Professor Anna Vignoles

Professor Anna Vignoles, Jesus College Fellow and Professor at the University’s Faculty of Education gave the second keynote speech. Making the case for using administrative and other types of data to better understand the impact of higher education, she said; “There need to be deeper conversations about what higher education looks like, what it’s for, and how we value it.” Addressing applications from areas of low participation in higher education, she commented: “Those who are the first in their family to go to university have difficulty navigating an increasingly complex higher education system and labour market.”

A panel discussion about education and international development focused on refugees - approximately 26 million worldwide – including a critically high number of children. Education is increasingly being delivered to these groups, but quality remains a serious issue. Work in Jordan with Syrian refugees by the Research for Equitable Access and Learning (REAL) Centre at the University of Cambridge was cited. Research Associate Dr Hiba Salem shared her initial experience of asking refugees what their hobbies were: they had none. A few months later, they talked about interests like literature and poetry: “For the first time they had space to think about their dreams.”

Experts in mental health and wellbeing discussed the need for all adults around a child to be conscious of mental health issues in educational settings, offset against the competition for finite resources to provide support. Evidence-based anti-bullying programmes, higher-quality data on mental health and structured training for teachers taking on more developed pastoral roles were all highlighted.

Bringing the conference to a close, College alumnus Edward Ma (2000) Secretary-General of the Yidan Prize Foundation, praised the conference particpants, citing: “Many ideas and discussions from brilliant minds. This is precisely the reason that the prize was set up, to be able to convene and curate these debates and discussions. We want more passionate educators to join us on this journey to make an impact on the world and make it a better place for everyone.”