The gap between schooling and learning is under the spotlight of late –and a new book by CGD’s own Lant Pritchett (draft chapters available here) is sure to increase the wattage. The story that Lant has to tell is not the happiest –widespread evidence from across the developing world that many kids who sit in classrooms for years often learn almost nothing for their time.
One big factor behind that low return to class time is the grim quality of teaching. Educators often absent from the classroom, who fail tests on the material they are meant to be instructing, using syllabi designed for only the most able (and well prepared) students. Reading Pritchett’s draft makes you somewhat skeptical about the speed with which such quality problems are likely to be fixed. And one response to that grim quality is to look beyond the teacher –and the classroom—to technologies that can help learning.
There are a lot of technologies designed to help students learn more in school. Think of the textbook, or computers in the classroom. But their record appears to be mixed. In the case of both textbooks and computers, literature reviews suggest they often have little impact and in-depth case studies suggest the engagement and the ability of the teacher remain key. So perhaps we need to go further out –to learning at home.
Cross-country studies suggest the home environment is central to learning outcomes –with the number of books owned by parents a better predictor of test scores than almost any school characteristic, for example. If kids can learn more at home, then, that might have a big impact on overall learning outcomes. One way to help them do that is to take an activity they’re already doing at home and make it more educational. And one thing they are doing a lot of –almost everywhere-- is watching TV.
Subtitling TV programs with text in the same language as is being spoken on the screen might turn the gogglebox into powerful educational tool to help semi-literate viewers become better readers. Brij Kothari writes about his use of same language subtitling in India here. The country has a TV audience of about 600 million, a lot of whom watch Rangoli --a national broadcast program showing songs from Bollywood. Kothari’s team persuaded the producers to put subtitles under the songs which, coincidentally, increased the show’s ratings by between 10 and 15 percent. But, more to the point, survey evidence of viewers conducted in 2002 when the subtitling began and then five years later suggests a significant impact on the literacy levels of Rangoli viewers. Young TV viewers who watched Rangoli at home had half the illiteracy levels of TV viewers who did not watch the show after five years of schooling and watching.
Same language subtitling suggests the potential importance –and cost-effectiveness-- of educational interventions that take place at home. This is one study, of one case. It would be great to see both further replication and further analysis of same language subtitling, as well as other home learning approaches that might be used in developing country settings like Khan Academy or home-based radio instruction. More broadly, as the discussion of education moves from schooling to learning, hopefully it will also move out of the classroom into the world at large.