Event Title: Efficient Learning for the Poor
Sponsor: World Bank Infoshop
Location: World Bank J Building
Date: Tuesday September 25, 2006
Time: 12:00 p.m. – 2:00 p.m.
Approximate Number of Attendees: 91
Intern Attending: Saadiqa Lundy
Speaker: Helen Abadzi, author of “Efficient Learning for the Poor: Insights from the Frontier of Cognitive Neuroscience”, and Peggy McCardle, National Institute for Child Health and Human Development (NICHD).
Helen Abadzi, the author of a recent World Bank Publication, “Efficient Learning for the Poor: Insights from the Frontier of Cognitive Neuroscience”, discussed some of the basic themes of her book. Her book provides evidence based instruction, and a framework that policy makers can use to help poor children learn more efficiently.
According to Abadzi, access is not enough. Having access to a school does not guarantee that children will learn to read and write. In their efforts to fulfill the Millennium Development Goals (MDG’s), organizations and world leaders are coordinating to achieve the second MDG, universal primary education. As part of this effort, donors are giving millions of dollars to build schools in developing countries. However, Abadzi argues that it will take more than a physical building to ensure that poor children become fluent readers. Peggy McCardle commented that, “if you are going to invest in this you’re going to have to have some accountability.” Her point was that we need to ensure that this money is actually being used in the most productive ways possible.
Ms. Abadzi moved on to discuss some of the challenges specific to education of poor children. To begin with, schools for the poor offer little individual attention to their students. A typical classroom might have one teacher to eighty students, few if any textbooks, poor instructional time use, class time wasted, teacher absenteeism, and lack of parental involvement and feedback. These issues, as well as malnutrition, impede a child’s ability to learn. If a child is malnourished he or she will not learn well. To process information efficiently, the brain needs the support of a healthy body. Thus, when we talk about education, we need to look at the larger picture and all of the different factors effecting whether or not a child succeeds in school.
Children in such schools face so many challenges, and thus it is paramount that they develop foundational literacy early on. The early stage of development is crucial for children because during that period their brain works like a sponge and can absorb information easily. Children can learn languages much better during this ephemeral stage, which usually lasts right up to the time they start school. Any instruction that they may receive after that stage will require lots of practice and interactive learning. According to Abadzi, schooling through a foreign language requires extra time and practice which the poor may not get. Because most children from developing countries are taught in a foreign language before having mastered their native language, they experience more difficulty grasping the basic skills needed to become fluent readers. Unfortunately, the class size is usually to overwhelming for teachers to give each student the amount of individual time they need to get a proper grasp of the material. Therefore, Abadzi suggested that children should learn basic reading skills and concepts in their native language. This is very important because their ability to master basic reading skills and concepts by the end of grade 1 or 2 will affect their performance throughout school.
Abadzi discussed different ways to get the best results with the millions of development dollars available. For example, she said that we need to promote policies and strategies that help the brain to process info more efficiently, and we need to improve the use of instructional time. She also addressed the some of the issues and controversies around educating impoverished children. For example, one issue is that neurocognitive research and reasoning is not well known and thus its findings are rarely taken advantage of. Also, one controversy she discussed was whether or not poor children should be taught differently from the middle class. Finally, she concluded by saying that the main challenge is to ensure that students leave school with basic skills.
Ms. McCardle reiterated some of Abadzi’s main points. She said that children must be taught basic skills first, before introducing them to other parts of reading. To conclude, she pointed out that if students achieve foundational literacy, even if they dropout of school, they retain the power to learn later in life.