It was an organization that started with a vision to inspire others to action; it ultimately created a global movement. It is rooted in a larger aspiration to diversify the economy in the tiny Middle Eastern peninsula where it was founded; today, its global community brings together education stakeholders from over 200 countries. When it was founded, its current CEO, Stavros Yiannouka says the goal was to build “the Davos of education.” And much like the annual Swiss meetings, which convene to discuss the state of the global economy, the World Summit for Education (WISE) has become the premier stage for educational innovation.

WISE just concluded its 2019 summit, a biennial event that welcomes education stakeholders to discuss education innovation in Doha, Qatar. This year’s conference welcomed over 3,200 experts and stakeholders from over 100 countries. As we look forward to the next WISE summit in 2021, we reflect on the organization’s origins and accomplishments.

Early Origins: Qatar Foundation

Her Highness Sheika Moza bint Nasser. Photo courtesy of WISE.

WISE was founded from a larger organization: Qatar Foundation. His Highness Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani and Her Highness Sheika Moza bint Nasser established Qatar Foundation in 1995 to foster a more diversified economy in their small peninsular nation. Qatar’s economy is highly dependent on oil; today, the petroleum product accounts for 70% of government revenues as well as 85% of export earnings. Qatar Foundation, however, is committed to fostering a future in Qatar in which the economy is more skills focused—a knowledge economy. The foundation’s focus is not just limited to Qatar’s school-age population. Rather, the Qatar Foundation is working hard to foster innovation within the entire community.

Qatar Foundation funds several facets of community enrichment in Qatar. The foundation co-owns Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, which features a unique collection of modern and contemporary Arabic art. It supports a national debate organization and a diabetes awareness organization. Qatar Foundation also established a green building council devoted to supporting sustainable building practices. Further, it supports arts initiatives in Qatar, including a musical academy and a traveling philharmonic orchestra.

However, outside of focusing on the Qatari community, the Qatar Foundation’s efforts have also taken a global focus. The Foundation has established education efforts across the Arab world, including an institute that promotes family-centric policies across the region and a reality TV program where contestants compete to present scientific solutions to global challenges. The Qatar Foundation has also expanded its impact outside the Arab world. The Qatar Foundation International (QFI) seeks to connect the Arab world with the global community, providing students in Qatar, the Americas, and the UK with the education necessary to make them global citizens.  Perhaps most notable, however, is the global program that the Qatar Foundation has named its flagship education forum: WISE.

WISE: The Components of a Global Movement

Stavros Yianouka, CEO of WISE.

WISE was founded in 2009 to bring together decision makers, teachers, and educational experts to solve global challenges in education. The vision behind WISE, according to CEO Stavros Yiannouka, is “to mobilize a community of action…to forge partnerships [and] to create a movement around wanting education to become a genuine human right.”

Ultimately, it seems that this vision is becoming a reality. When asked about his organization’s biggest highlights over its first decade, Yiannouka remarked that the organization had truly become a global movement. Indeed, the WISE community includes voices from almost 200 countries working together to solve global challenges, such as poverty or conflict, through education. Its biennial WISE summit brings thousands of policy makers, thought leaders, and education experts from all over the world to discuss current educational challenges in Doha.

One highlight of the WISE summit includes the WISE Prize, an award established in 2011 by Sheika Moza bint Nasser to recognize an innovative, world-class contribution to education. Past WISE prize winners have built universities focused on student leadership and addressed disparities in women’s education. The 2019 winner, Larry Rosenstock, founded a network of charter schools across the United States that challenged existing conceptions of vocational education. Outside of the WISE prize, the organization awards six outstanding projects in education each year with the WISE Awards. WISE has received over 3,200 applications from over 151 countries since the award was established in 2009.

In addition to awarding pioneers in global education, WISE sponsors detailed research inquiries that explore some of the most salient challenges in the field. Previous reports have explored the ways in which states educate elite athletes and the ways in which education can promote children’s wellbeing.

One particularly engaging study published this past year by WISE investigates learning ecosystems. WISE is intimately familiar with learning ecosystems, defined as “open and involving communities of diverse providers” catering to a variety of educational needs. Working beyond traditional schooling, educational ecosystems harness a wide range of community resources, social interactions, and technological tools to provide learners with a holistic educational experience. WISE gained this familiarity through its own learning ecosystem, the crown jewel of the Qatar Foundation’s 25-year-old initiative to build a world class education system in Qatar: Education City.

Education City: Qatar Foundation’s Crown Jewel

Photo courtesy of WISE.

Education City is aptly named. A learning ecosystem located in Doha, Qatar, Education City links research universities with start-up incubators and cultural institutions. It is home to nine universities, including branches of Ivy League schools (Georgetown and Cornell) and the number one university in London (University College of London). It also offers pre-university education, featuring secondary schools that offer IB-accredited programs and an advanced STEM school. Education City hosts several schools that promote innovative solutions to educational challenges. It offers schools for children with autism and children with learning disabilities. It houses a progressive school where students can design their own curriculum.

However, in addition to these institutions that offer new ways to meet educational challenges, Education City also hosts several institutions, which harken back to Qatar’s Islamic heritage. Its Hamad Bin Khalifa University (HBKU) offers an Islamic studies program, a modern madrasa that revitalizes the idea of the mosque as a place for both worship and study. Education City’s mosque also emphasizes this mission—its tagline is ‘more than just a place of worship,’ and it has hosted a variety of events for the community.

Further, as a learning ecosystem, Education City allows all learners to benefit from a wide variety of resources outside of traditional schools and research institutions. It hosts start-up incubators and technology parks. Education City is also home to the National Library, which provides a wide variety of innovative resources to the community, including workstations, which house 3D printers, recording equipment, and virtual reality accessories.

The National Library also helps Qatar Foundation foster an appreciation for the arts within Education City. Each month, the National Library hosts the Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra (QPO), which works to instill a love of music within the community. Other efforts support an appreciation for the visual arts. For example, Qatar Foundation’s Art Trail initiative offers guided tours of the artwork located around Education City.

Unlearning and Relearning: The Future of WISE

Dr. Asmaa Al-Fadala, Director of Research, handing out awards to this year's WISE summit honorees. Photo courtesy of WISE.

This year’s WISE summit theme was “Unlearn, Relearn.” In a recent interview, Stavros Yiannouka explained that the idea for the theme came from a particularly compelling quote which argued that the illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who lack skills in reading, writing, and arithmetic, but rather “those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”

This year’s summit provided participants with plenty of opportunities to learn, unlearn, and relearn. Her Highness Sheikha Moza bint Nasser announced a new plan to help millions of children learn across the world when she reaffirmed her commitment to universal primary education. Conference goers had the opportunity to relearn conceptions of classroom mental health in a panel discussion where wellbeing was described as a skill that must be taught in schools. And ultimately, all had a chance to unlearn their conception of adequate vocational education when technical education innovator Larry Rosenstock was awarded the 2019 WISE prize.

However, the future of WISE will do much more than establish unlearning and relearning. In the years to come, Yiannouka says that he would like to see WISE become “more of an innovation hub” directly involved in educational developments rather than just leading the conversation around education innovation. With all that the organization has accomplished in the past ten years, it will be exciting to see what this next decade holds for WISE.

Allyson Berri
Allyson Berri is a Diplomatic Courier Correspondent whose writing focuses on global affairs and economics.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.