Although, I try to follow the research in my field regardless of where it is conducted, I usually don’t pick studies from the U.S. or other developed countries for discussion in this space. However, when the study involves interventions to improve various outcomes for adolescents, reports some encouraging findings, and may be applicable in the developing world, we can make an exception. So, today’s post is about a study that takes place in a public high school on the south side of Chicago…
While I have not seen any research evidence to support this particular contention, I have been in a number of presentations over the years about the 'Finnish success in education' in which the fact that Finnish children watch cartoons with subtitles is mentioned as a contributing factor to their literacy development. Even if there are no peer-reviewed journal articles about the impact of this practice in Finland (if anyone knows of any, please do feel free to send them along!) or many other places (subtitling on television has of course been a common practice in many countries of the world for quite some time), there is some pretty compelling evidence from a little initiative in India that has been reaching big audiences for over a decade that this sort of thing can make a small but meaningful difference in the lives of many illiterate and low literate people. Sometimes innovation is the result of doing something 'old' in a 'new' place (often with a slight twist).
Back in November, PlanetRead was awarded the first-ever 'International Prize' as part of the new U.S. Library of Congress Literacy Awards [disclosure: I am a member of the advisory board for these awards] in recognition of its pioneering work in the practice of Same Language Subtitling (SLS), "the idea of subtitling the lyrics of existing film songs (or music videos) on TV, in the ‘same’ language that they are sung in. Call it Karaoke on Bollywood for mass reading! A deceptively simple innovation, SLS is already delivering regular and inescapable reading practice to 150 million weak-readers in India."
One notable characteristic of each of the three inaugural winners of the Library of Congress Literacy Awards is that they largely work outside of traditional 'educational' institutions as part of their efforts to promote reading. In the case of Reach Out and Read, this means connecting with parents and young children in pediatric exam rooms. 826 National supports store front writing and tutoring centers in local communities. PlanetRead focuses its outreach on a place where, like or not, many people spend a lot of their free time: watching television. Brij Kothari, the founder of PlanetRead, joked during the awards ceremonies at the Library of Congress, some people might say that TV is the enemy of reading, to which we reply: embrace the enemy!
Shanta: Jishnu, your blog post and mine on cash transfers generated a lot of comments. Some people argued that giving poor people cash will not “work” because they will spend it on consumption rather than on their children’s education, which is something we care about. What do you have to say to that?
Jishnu: I don’t think the question “does giving cash to poor people work?” is well-defined. It can only be answered in the negative if we (the donors who give the cash) impose our preferences and judge what poor people spend on relative to those preferences. But if we give poor people cash so they will be better off, then—by definition—they are better off, regardless of how they choose to spend the extra money.
This passage in Lant Pritchett’s new book, The Rebirth of Education, (reviewed here yesterday), had me gurgling with pleasure. It explains, in vintage Pritchett prose, why we all find it so hard to think in terms of systems, rather than agents (i.e. heroes and villains). He totally nails the origins of that glazed look I see in the eyes of my Oxfam colleagues when I start going on about systems, complexity, emergence etc:
“I am going on at length about this because this book is about explaining and fixing poor learning outcomes by fixing broken systems, not fixing people. But I have to go on about this because system explanations just have no appeal to people, myself included. Agent-centered explanations are powerfully appealing to us, on a very deep level. Believe me, if your child says, “Daddy, tell me a story,” you can be sure he or she wants a story with agents, heroes and villains who have goals and make plans and overcome obstacles.
Each January, about 85 government ministers or so -- together with some members of their staffs, leaders of the education departments in international organizations, large NGOs and multinational companies, and other 'high level decision makers' -- gather in London to speak informally about topics of common interest during the Education World Forum, which bills itself as the 'world's largest gathering of education and skills ministers'. It's a rather unique and impressive collection of people with the power to make decisions affecting hundreds of millions of students and teachers around the world. This annual meeting was previously called the 'Learning and Technology World Forum'; despite dropping the word 'technology' from its official title a few years ago, talk of tech was inescapable during this year's Forum, whether onstage or in the hallways. If I were asked to identify three general themes that permeated discussions throughout this year's three-day event, they would be 'technology', 'systems' and 'data'.
For many groups, the Education World Forum offers a high profile venue to announce new initiatives, launch new publications, and present findings from recent research. My boss at the World Bank, Elizabeth King, for example, officially launched a new 'SABER' education data technology tool during her keynote speech on the second day ("When it comes to learning, education systems matter"). While the links between these three themes were perhaps not always explicit in Beth's speech, the important role that new technologies will play in helping education systems to collect and analyze key data about the health of the education system, especially as pertains to whether or not students are learning (and, if so, how), was echoed and amplified by many of the other speakers in both EWF plenary sessions and related side events.
While the Forum has become increasing open over the years, embracing the use of social media throughout much of the agenda, for example, and quickly making available on YouTube key speeches and presentations, the off-the-record ministerial exchange sessions that happen on the second day are, as per the EWF social media policy, meant to be a largely Twitter-free zone. The hope is that, if/when/where given space to ask the 'dumb' questions of their peers, and freed from having it reported that someone, in response, provided some 'dumb' answers, Forum participants might feel comfortable enough to have what turn out to be some rather smart conversations about topics for which they had not been prepped, and about which no formal position papers had been prepared back home.
At one of the informal Forum ministerial exchange sessions a few years ago, rather exasperated that much of the conversation was concentrated on discussions of the lowest costs that various countries had paid for student laptops, I posed the following scenario, and question, as a sort of 'thought experiment':
I approached Lant Pritchett’s new book ‘The Rebirth of Education’ with glee and trepidation. Glee because Lant is one of the smartest, wittiest and best writers and thinkers on development. Trepidation because this issue is an intellectual minefield of Somme-like proportions (remember the epic Kevin Watkins v Justin Sandefur battle?). And sure enough, Lant took me into all kinds of uncomfortable places. Allow me to share my confusion.
First the book. Based on a data-tastic summary of a lot of research and case studies, Lant argues, in the words of the book’s subtitle, that ‘Schooling Ain’t Learning’:
- In India less than half of children surveyed in grade 5 could read a story for second graders (and over 1 in 4 could not read a simple sentence), and only slightly more than half could do subtraction. Results over several years were getting worse, not better. See graphic for more examples.
- In Tanzania over 65 percent of students who sat the 2012 examination for secondary school (Form IV) completers failed, with the worst possible results.
- A majority of 15 year-olds in low- and middle-income countries have only learned enough to reach the bottom 5 percent of their peers in high-income countries.
In Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s sprawling capital, Mulu Warsa has found a formal-sector job as a factory worker thanks to her high school education. In Niamey, a city at the heart of the Sahel region, Mohamed Boubacar is a young apprentice training to be a carpenter. And in Sagrosa, a village in Kenya’s remote Tana Delta district, Felix Roa, who works on a family farm and runs a small shop, dreams of a better life if he can find the money to expand the business and move to a more urban area. His family is too poor to support him through secondary school.
DAVOS, Switzerland – When we talk about particularly difficult issues at the World Bank Group, I always ask my team a simple question: What’s the plan?
If they have a plan, the next question I ask is whether the plan is serious enough to match the scale of the problem. Here at the World Economic Forum at Davos, one of the main issues before us is an extraordinarily tough one – how do we reduce the growing income inequality around the world? Income inequality has grown to enormous proportions but my question to World Bank staff and folks here in Davos is the same: What’s the plan to lessen income inequality across the world?
Income inequality can appear to be an intractable problem. But the fact is we already know a lot about how economies can grow in a way that includes even the poorest. We need a plan to tackle inequality and we think there are at least five things that we can do right now that could help.
This morning I had the pleasure of delivering the keynote speech at the Education World Forum in London, a large annual gathering of education decision-makers from around the world. More than 80 ministers of education are attending the forum, plus many more high-level participants from donor agencies, private business and academia. I spoke about how much the global education community has to celebrate—the developing world has tripled the average years of schooling of an adult in just two generations, and in the past 15 years the ratio of girls to boys in primary and secondary education rose from 84 to 96 percent—but also about how much there is left to do less than a year to 2015.
In response to a recent EduTech blog post on “the 'ideal’ educational technology devices for developing countries”, I received numerous responses that effectively said: “We already know what this ideal device is: the mobile phone”. While the use of mobile phones in education is a regular topic explored on this blog, and the mobile phone is a device that I regularly recommend that ministries of education consider when planning for technology use in schools more than they currently do (in my experience few education authorities do consider utilizing phones as tools for learning in any real way), I would not go so far as to say that it is the ‘ideal’ device for use in educational settings in developing countries. Context is always king.
It may be true that, in many cases, the ‘best device is the one you already have, know how to use and can afford’. In some contexts, mobile phones conform to this definition quite well (although many school systems around the world do continue to ban or severely limit their use on school property). Depending on the context and usage scenario, others do too, including the two that I used to compose the first draft of this blog post: a ballpoint pen and a notepad (the old fashioned kind with actual paper, not the one that comes bundled with Microsoft Windows).
Because I often prominently highlight the potential of mobile phones to be used in educational contexts in developing countries in the course of my work at the World Bank, I am often asked for specific examples of this use. Here’s a rather interesting one that you may not have heard much about: