Bringing the Science of Early Learning to Parents Globally: Aleem Walji, CEO, Aga Khan Foundation USA

Editor’s Note: The Early Learning Nation Studio recently attended the ReadyNation International Global Business Summit on Early Childhood, where we spoke with early learning researchers, policymakers, and practitioners. The full collection of video conversations can be found here.

With 95 percent of all children living in “the majority world in developing countries” – but with only 5 percent of the early learning research coming from these locations – Aleem Walji, CEO of Aga Khan Foundation USA, is focused on “the science of early childhood” and bringing knowledge on what it takes to develop a child’s brain to parents, policymakers, teachers, doctors, nurses and front-line caregivers around the world.


Transcript: Aleem Walji, Aga Khan Foundation USA

Early Learning Nation: Aleem, welcome. Thank you for coming to our Early Leaning Nation studio.

Aleem Walji: It’s a pleasure to be here. Thank you for having me.

Early Learning Nation: Early childhood development can mean different things in different parts of the world. What does it mean to you?

Aleem Walji: Well for me, it’s, when I think about the places in the world in which we live that are underdeveloped in so many ways, and I think about just low-hanging fruit, 80 to 90% of a child’s brain development happens before they turn eight. If that’s the case, the question is, what do we do in those early years that is going to transform the trajectory of a child’s life? A lot of that has to do with how you deal with parents and caregivers. They are the first teachers of a child, and they’re the ones that spend the most time. What is it that we can do to prepare them? That’s what it means to me.

Early Learning Nation: Do you see a real opportunity there on parents and caregivers, maybe not enough going to them, maybe there are so many daily challenges already?

Aleem Walji: It’s absolutely clear that the parents that are the children of the ones that we care about that are the most underprivileged, the parents themselves are underprivileged, so they have many, many challenges. But we also know that parents want what’s best for their children. Often they just don’t know what it takes, and what it’s going to require to help their children get ahead. How many parents know that between zero to eight 80% of your brain develops? When they know that, all of the sudden it’s like an a-ha moment, and they think, “Gosh, what can I do?” The idea of exposing them to language, to words, to play-based methods. We know that for 21st century skills, play-based methods are super important. Most parents don’t know that. Helping your kids to play is not a difficult thing.

Early Learning Nation: You’re talking about places all around the world, and some difficult to reach places. Do you have to initially create the awareness, zero to eight is central to the brain development, and then also give the opportunities or the ideas on what to do with that time, particularly when we’re talking about parents and places in the world where there are so many daily challenges that this might fall down the list just because there may be day-to-day survival requirements?

Aleem Walji: Awareness is clearly where it starts, but it’s not enough. You have to do work in communities, you have to give parents the skills, the tools, the methodologies. You can read a book to a child in a kind of passive way, but when you read a book to a child where you’re asking questions, where you’re asking them to form ideas about what might be happening with characters, that’s what stimulates the mind. That’s what provokes thought. That can be taught to parents.

Early Learning Nation: Describe some of your programs?

Aleem Walji: We work all over the world. We work on something called the science of early childhood. It turns out that 95% of the children in the world live in what we call the majority world in developing countries. Five percent of the research comes from those countries. So, 95% of what we know about early childhood, or about really almost children’s development, happens in the Western world. We’ve developed a course called A Science of Early Childhood with Red River College and the University of Toronto, and this is to make available to parents, to policy makers, to teachers, to doctors, to nurses, to front line caregivers, access to knowledge and learning about what it takes to help develop the brain of a child, and socio-emotional learning as well. That’s now reached 45 countries, and in languages ranging from Arabic, to Russian, to Portuguese… and a number of other languages.

That’s a part of what we do, but I guess another thing that I’m very proud of is in Egypt, we’ve been working with schools of nursing and midwifery. Nurses now, all over the country, are developing the basic knowledge and skills, both to know themselves, but also to teach the parents as to what’s going to make a difference.

Early Learning Nation: Is that key? It’s come up in a couple of conversations that I’ve had with folks. Finding, I almost think of them as distribution channels-

Aleem Walji: Yes.

Early Learning Nation: Of ideas-

Aleem Walji: Yes.

Early Learning Nation: Is that central to-

Aleem Walji: It’s powerful. It’s absolutely essential if you’re going to get to scale. I often say there’s just a few ways to get to scale. What goes big is what’s adopted by the private sector, what’s adopted by government through policies, what’s adopted through media, and what’s adopted by the mass public. That’s often because of what happens through the media, or through the private sector, or through government. You have to identify those nodes, those distribution channels, as you say, that are really going to make a difference, and schools are one, hospitals are another, nurses and teachers-

Early Learning Nation: Midwives?

Aleem Walji: Are both essential. Midwives are essential.

Early Learning Nation: I wanted to follow up on the point that you were making before about 95% of the data comes from five percent of the world.

Aleem Walji: Research.

Early Learning Nation: Research. Are you gathering data now from that other 95%?

Aleem Walji: Yes. That’s where it’s happening. We’re doing research in the developing world for the developing world, to be done by the developing world. Many of the things that we’re finding resonate. So, we’re finding, for example, the importance of parents and caregivers is essential. The importance of early nutrition. The importance of stimulation. The importance of play-based methods. All of that is common. What we find is different is how to make those things happen? How do you, at the level of the household, intervene in ways that are effective? How do you involve the father, another caregiver? How do you deal with a caregiver when the mother is gone most of the day? There are differences and nuances as to what the data shows us, but there are many, many commonalities, as well.

Early Learning Nation: To close out, we like to talk about creating an early leaning world. You create value all over the world. What would it take to deliver early childhood learning to all corners of the world?

Aleem Walji: The ultimate scaler here is not going to be preschools, it’s not going to hospitals, it’s not going to be educational facilities alone. It’s got to be creating a ground game with caregivers and parents. Children spend the majority of their time at home with their caregivers and with their parents. Until they become expert educators and expert providers of services and stimulation and nutrition, we’re not going to have a world free of poverty.

Early Learning Nation: Aleem, thank you. Thank you for your work, thank you for coming by our ELN studio.

Aleem Walji: Thank you.