An interesting article in the New Yorker, “Spare the Rod, School the Child” by Michelle Nijhuis, gives us urgent lessons with implications not only to our swiftly changing ecological environments, but also may bear lessons for our educational environments as well.
Possible lessons we can derive from the article:
- Listen to the locals.
- Causal links are not often clear to academics nor policy wonks, by the nature of their isolated specializations
- Natural and environmental resources can be intimately tied to social outcomes
In Ghana, it was discovered that a decline in fish populations could be directly correlated to a rise in children kept at home from school. Why? Because baboons were causing so much damage that “many Ghanaians were keeping their young children out of school to help guard family farms.” Why were baboons destroying farms? Because their populations had grown since their competitors were becoming bushmeat. Why were people increasingly eating bushmeat? Because fish populations were declining.
The native Ghanians knew that fish were the cause of this. The researcher who ended up verifying their knowledge with his research at first dismissed their perceptions. “I thought, ‘Oh, that’s interesting, but these uninformed people aren’t aware of some bigger dynamic.’”
In the world of education, it’s very easy to get caught up in big idea debates at the level of policy, politics, and research. An important lesson from this article is the reminder that we always need to find a way to ground and center our discussions around those whose lives are impacted the most. In the case of education: students and their parents. How can we do that? By asking them!
As Melinda D. Anderson so very neatly put it on Twitter:
. @mandercorn Indeed! The lesson: talk to the people most affected! They have wisdom that vastly surpasses any of your preconceived notions.
— The Notorious MDA (@mdawriter) July 25, 2014
Scarcity of fish can be traced to other causes of social ills across the globe: “indentured servitude and child slavery” and “fishing militias” in Thailand, HIV positive women in Kenya exchanging sex for fish, and in West Africa, “child labor and child slavery are increasing.”
Yet “these linkages are rarely discussed in academic circles, or even in the popular press. ” Why is that?
“The science side is very focused on natural-resource trends and not really thinking about social consequences, while the policy side is looking at Somali pirates or elephant ivory, and totally disconnected from the root causes.“
Again, there are obvious parallels to the world of education policy and research here. As biologist Justin Brashares puts it in the article, “Our whole research and policy response system is really poorly equipped for the future.”
Why are our institutions of education failing? Ask the students. Ask their parents. Take a walk in their communities. It might be something as starkly simple as a scarcity of a natural resource.