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Lant Pritchett on Why We Struggle to Think in Systems (and Look for Heroes and Villains Instead)

Duncan Green's picture

rebirth-education-lant-pritchettThis 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.

How do We Move from Getting Kids into School to actually Educating Them? Provocative New Book by Lant Pritchett

Duncan Green's picture

rebirth-education-lant-pritchettI 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.

‘Working for the Few’: Top New Report on the Links between Politics and Inequality

Duncan Green's picture

As the world’s self-appointed steering committee gathers in Davos, 2014 is already shaping up as a big year for inequality. The World Economic Forum’s ‘Outlook on the Global Agenda 2014’ ranks widening income disparities as the second greatest worldwide risk in the coming 12 to 18 months (Middle East and North Africa came top, since you ask).

So it’s great to see ‘Working for the Few’, a really excellent new Oxfam paper by Ricardo Fuentes and Nick Galasso, tackling an issue best summed up by US Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis in the aftermath of the Great Depression, ‘We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of the few, but we cannot have both.’ i.e. the politics of inequality and redistribution.

The Brandeis quote is particularly relevant because this time really is different. After the 2008 global meltdown, we have not seen anything like the New Deal, in terms of redistribution or reform. The paper argues that this is because political capture by a small economic elite is much more complete this time around.

How's Your Inner Autocrat Doing These Days?

Sina Odugbemi's picture

One of the things I find endlessly fascinating about human beings is the gap between our avowed values and our behavior when we come under pressure. I have come to believe that your values are the ones that shape your conduct when you are dealing with a tough, high pressure situation or a life crisis, not the values you spout when you are showing off at the dinner table. Pieties are all too easy. What do you do when the going gets tough? What values truly underpin your conduct? I notice this most often when people claim to be profoundly devout, and they want you to know it. They claim an aura of sanctity. I have learned not to argue with them. I wait until they have to deal with complexity and then see what they do. You’d be amazed what some of these people get up to. More often than not, piety flies out of the window.

Look around you today. We are all supposed to be democrats these days. We love openness, inclusiveness, and transparency— everybody counts, every voice matters. But what do we do when the going gets tough? Let’s reflect on a few current situations around the world.

Anecdotes and Simple Observations are Dangerous; Words and Narratives are Not.

Heather Lanthorn's picture

In a recent blog post on stories, and following some themes from an earlier talk by Tyler Cowen, David Evans ends by suggesting: “Vivid and touching tales move us more than statistics. So let’s listen to some stories… then let’s look at some hard data and rigorous analysis before we make any big decisions.” Stories, in this sense, are potentially idiosyncratic and over-simplified and, therefore, may be misleading as well as moving. I acknowledge that this is a dangerous situation.

However, there are a couple things that are frustrating about the above quote, intentional or not.

  • First, it equates ‘hard data’ with ‘statistics,’ as though qualitative (text/word) data cannot be hard (or, by implication, rigorously analysed). Qualitative twork – even when producing ‘stories’ – should move beyond mere anecdote (or even journalistic inquiry).
  • Second, it suggests that the main role of stories (words) is to dress up and humanize statistics – or, at best, to generate hypotheses for future research. This seems both unfair and out-of-step with increasing calls for mixed-methods to take our understanding beyond ‘what works’ (average treatment effects) to ‘why’ (causal mechanisms) – with ‘why’ probably being fairly crucial to ‘decision-making’ (Paluck’s piece worth checking out in this regard).

Weekly Wire: The Global Forum

Roxanne Bauer's picture

These are some of the views and reports relevant to our readers that caught our attention this week.

How women will dominate the workplace BRIC by BRIC
CNN Opinion
Despite recent wobbles in the BRICS economies, most economists agree that the majority of world economic growth in the coming years will come from emerging markets. The story of their rise to date has been one in which women have played a large and often unreported role. I believe that as the story unfolds, women's influence will rise further and emerging markets' path to gender equality may follow a very different route to that of most developed countries. READ MORE

James Harding: Journalism Today
BBC Media Center
To so many journalists, Stead has been the inspiration, the pioneer of the modern Press. His zeal and idealism, his restless fury at inequality and injustice; his belief that dogged, daring investigations could capture the public’s imagination and prompt society to change for the better; his muscular opinions, his accessible design and his campaigning newspapers – and, no doubt too, a dab of ego, showmanship, and human folly – has made him the journalist’s editor. I remember standing in the newsroom of The Times in late 2010 when the then Home Editor told me of a story that Andrew Norfolk, our correspondent based in Leeds, was working on. It was about child sex grooming: the cultivation of young, teenage girls by gangs of men who plied them with drink and drugs and passed them around middle-aged men to be used for sex. And I remember thinking: ‘This can’t be true, this feels Dickensian, like a story from another age.’  READ MORE

Storytellers Redux: A Development Slam

Maya Brahmam's picture

We had an interesting experiment last month with our very first Development Slam – modeled on the idea of a Poetry Slam – that was held with Aspen Institute’s New Voices Fellows and the World Bank Group’s storytellers.

The Slam allowed people to share their experiences in an interactive way with their peers and allowed the audience to participate as well via an open mic.

Campaign Art: Topsy

Roxanne Bauer's picture

People, Spaces, Deliberation bloggers present exceptional campaign art from all over the world. These examples are meant to inspire. ​

Using an AIDS patient's dramatic recovery, Topsy Foundation demonstrates the effect its ARV treatment programme can have on those battling the advanced effects of HIV/Aids. When treated, a person on the verge of death can return to health in a matter of months.
 

Topsy


Source: Topsy Foundation
 

Quote of the Week: Martin Luther King Jr.

Sina Odugbemi's picture

"Men often hate each other because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don't know each other; they don't know each other because they can not communicate; they can not communicate because they are separated."

 

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story, 1958

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