Too cool for school

"Perhaps it's time to re-examine the notion that kids really love going to school."

“Perhaps it’s time to re-examine the notion that kids really love going to school.”

Despite, as Lee pointed out, having a bloody good time at the Cowley Road Carnival yesterday, I rolled out of bed in time today to get to the Young Lives conference on inequalities in child outcomes. I’ll share some thoughts on the other plenaries later on, but I was particularly entertained by the final talk of the day by Lant Pritchett on why kids in developing countries might not always want to spend all of their time in school.

Pritchett’s point was fairly simple: in many settings school can be a pretty awful place to be, especially if the curriculum is moving faster than you can keep up with it. Eventually, all but a select few are left behind, leading to a “flattening out” of the learning curve. At this point, you can’t really learn anything when you are this far behind, so why stick around? At one point – and without warning – Pritchett presented an entire slide in Spanish, to give the audience a sense of how this must feel.

His argument was backed up by some fairly disconcerting evidence – Karthik Muralidharan had presented results showing that learning trajectories were nearly flat in many Indian schools, the result of a system which adheres too strictly to a curriculum designed to weed out the best at the expense of other children (which Pritchett referred to as the Russian gymnastics theory of education).

This all reminded me of my time spent running a survey in Dar es Salaam – for simplicity and safety I would meet with my enumerators within a primary school compound. Often, when the school’s security guards opened the front gate for me, they’d physically strike at children with a switch to prevent them from slipping out and running off. Not exactly the picture painted by most of those working on education in developing countries.

While Pritchett laid most of the blame on overambitious curriculum, there were some complains about teachers themselves, especially from the audience, who pointed out that dismal learning outcomes were equally a result of teacher discrimination and absenteeism.

This is a popular line to take nowadays – and has led to a focus on interventions which directly change incentives for teachers, such as improving local accountability, performance pay, or using cameras to make sure they show up. Of course, these interventions feel increasingly marginal when the entire system is broken.

We also tend to forget that schools can also be miserable places for teachers. You might have to live in places you really don’t want to live in. Teaching dozens of children whose learning outcomes are all over the place. Not everyone can be Edward James Olmos. When I lived in Malawi, I briefly volunteered at a local orphanage – attempting to teach math to a group of kids aged 8-15, whose understanding was all over the place. I lasted one day.

Perhaps the most successful interventions are those which are complementary – incentivising both teachers and students to show up and make things happen.

PS – there should be a video of Pritchett’s talk up sometime soon – watch this space. Dude is so famous he doesn’t even bother wearing a name tag.

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