“Family Engagement Must Be at the Center” – A Conversation with Rebecca Chandler Leege
After serving as Chief Impact Officer for five years, Rebecca Chandler Leege was appointed CEO of Worldreader. With more than 25 years of leadership experience across education, child protection, and gender sectors, Rebecca led Worldreader to serve over 300,000 readers in 2023, reaching 22 million readers since the organization’s foundation. In this interview, she shares her thoughts on the future of education and the urgent actions needed to make 2024 a turning point for young learners around the world.
Thank you for wrapping the year with us, and welcome back. You recently brought the message that “education is at the heart of human transformation” to COP28 in Dubai. What’s the role of education in shaping a more just and sustainable future for all?
In Dubai, I took part in some extraordinary conversations on resilient, future-focused education. But I also realized that the vast majority of the discourse focuses on school systems and how we can adapt and strengthen learning in the classroom. Surely that’s fantastic, yet I can’t help but wonder – what are we doing for children and learners outside the classroom?
We’re in the midst of a climate and learning crisis. And it’s the world’s children, and especially our youngest learners, who bear the brunt of this crisis. Today, two-thirds of ten-year-olds globally can’t read and understand a simple story. One in five of the world’s children are out of school, and more than half don’t have access to early learning support.
With the climate crisis disrupting the education of almost 40 million children every year, how will we ensure that not only young learners but also their families and communities are supported in and outside of school?
Without equitable, climate-resilient education, entire generations will miss out on the opportunity to reach their full potential and build a sustainable future. To prevent this, we must empower learners right from the start, at an early age, at home, and wherever they are in the community.
Despite some slow progress, the world is currently falling behind in achieving UN Sustainable Development Goal 4 (SDG4). How do our efforts need to transform to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education for all?
I think it’s important to celebrate the things we’re doing well. Compared to just a few years ago, more local governments and ministries are recognizing the importance of early childhood education and developing pre-K curricula. It’s also true that more people than ever have access to technology, especially Internet-connected mobile devices.
At the same time, we’re still not elevating the voice of families, a crucial step towards SDG4. Research has long shown how the first five years of a child’s life are key to their development and learning, and we know how during those first years, family plays the most instructional role for a child. New digital opportunities and employability remain hot topics, but why do we continue removing parents from our discourses on youth? We know our youth today are also parents of pre and primary-age children. If we want caregivers to help children succeed, then family engagement must be at the center of our efforts, balancing the tremendous investments we make in formal education settings with equal attention to informal settings, because that’s where most changes will happen.
And while it’s true that more families, children, and learners have devices with Internet access, the digital divide is also a matter of use and quality of use. Worldreader has been helping bridge the gap since day one, making our digital reading solutions accessible anytime, anywhere, on any device. But we also focus on bringing greater digital awareness and strengthening the digital skills of the entire family through our BookSmart app and reading activities.
That’s because technology shouldn’t be a babysitter, it should be an educational tool in the age of information. Education is among the slowest-evolving sectors, yet technology will look radically different five years from now, and parents will have access to information like never before. If we want to leap-frog educational progress towards SDG4 targets, it’s paramount that we harness the power of technology with intention and sophistication, so that communities have dynamic and engaging digital environments that help children flourish, both in and out of the classroom.
2023 was a momentous year for Worldreader, including a change of leadership that saw you appointed as CEO. What can we expect from Worldreader in 2024?
Our goals are very clear. We’re going to continue campaigning communities to support reading, and getting more sophisticated on how we market to youth and parents today, to engage in reading to and with their children across different cultures.
We’ll continue to be laser-focused on families. From a research perspective, organizations like Worldreader keep being asked to prove the importance of family engagement but the research is already there, proving stronger brain and cognitive development and mental well-being in early-initiated childhood reading for pleasure. We’re now acting on what studies show needs our attention – family, early childhood, and reaping the benefits of mobile technology.
What is one book we should all read in 2024?
It’s more and more imperative that as leaders we foster even greater leadership amongst our teams and beyond as we strive to achieve impact in the world. We must ask ourselves, are we doing all we can to be multipliers for good? I’m excited to read Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter by Liz Wiseman at the start of the year and encourage you to join me in reading it as well.