Save The Children’s ‘life-wide learning’ capitalizes on learning beyond school walls
As 2015 rapidly approaches igniting pivotal dialogue on education reform, we hear a multitude of calls to action for education: Education for All, Education First, and Education Cannot Wait. Many advocacy efforts focus on the United Nations, countries (no matter how fragile), national leaders and ministers, school staff and teachers, stressing that these actors must rise to the challenge and must not fail children. Though these strategic calls for investment and evaluation contribute to effective education reform, we know that schools and policies alone cannot solve the learning crisis. There is a third essential contributor to educational quality: The home, the community, the learning environment outside the school walls.
Grace needs more hours to learn
Children acquire fundamental skills such as oral language early in life and daily through interactions with parents, caregivers and community members. However, when children’s education is limited to only formal schooling, the many hours of potential learning, practice and reinforcement beyond the school day are lost. To see how this narrow focus eliminates a great deal of the opportunity to learn, imagine Grace, a 10-year-old girl in southern Malawi. She lives in a village dominated by round homes with mud walls and thatch roofs, not far from a market town. Her home has no books and her parents do not read. She attends school as often as she can in a poorly lit classroom with bad acoustics and bad ventilation. On good days, she has a textbook to share and a view of the blackboard that allows her to see most of what the teacher writes. In her grade 2 classroom, a minimally trained teacher works with Grace and 233 other children for 4 hours a day, 8 months a year.
In their research, Opportunity to Learn (2008), Gillies and Quijada state that during a quarter of that time in the classroom, the teacher is not there. Furthermore, this research says that about one-third of the time in which both Grace and her teacher are in the classroom together, either she, or her teacher, or both are not attending to the task of learning. In the end, Grace’s ‘opportunity to learn’ is effectively only about two and a half hours per day for the six months out of the year that her teacher is there. This equals roughly 300 hours of learning per year. It doesn’t take an expert to know this is not enough. Add the fact that she’s learning in a language she doesn’t speak at home, and the learning crisis is not that surprising.
But consider another calculation in which the opportunity to learn is not restricted to the time Grace spends in school, but includes her daily life experiences. Grace spends 20 hours per day not in that classroom. If she sleeps for 8 hours, that still leaves 12 hours available each day for learning. If she spends just four of these remaining 12 hours doing something as simple as singing or telling stories or reading with friends to practice and reinforce skills, she will improve her overall skills. For example, Figure 1 shows the enormous potential of expanding learning time outside of school.
Shifting investment and evaluation to learn more
The shift to a ‘life-wide frame for learning’ is supported both by research and the expanded opportunity to learn. Institutional responses to the learning crisis have focused on ministries of education, their curriculum, teachers and teacher training, but in Grace’s situation this focus alone may not be the most efficient or strategic. However, accompanying this focus with efforts to get books into children’s hands, and encourage habits of reading for fun reinforces skills taught in school and ignites the life-wide, lifelong passion for reading and learning.
Since 2009, Save the Children has implemented Literacy Boost, an innovative, evidence-based program that combines school and literacy interventions to provide more opportunities to learn.
Now working in 24 sites, the program’s results are encouraging and suggest new directions for improvement. Through Literacy Boost, Save the Children has confirmed the important connection between early childhood development and strong home literacy environments. The presence of reading materials, adults and older siblings who can read, and habits that support reading show impressive results across countries. In fact, in a recent cross-country report on Literacy Boost, Save the Children documented that home literacy environment was more often predictive of reading skills than poverty or gender. Enhancing these supports through Literacy Boost has shown impressive results (learn more in our Addressing Inequalities consultation paper).
Life-wide learning cannot wait
If we keep thinking solely about how to be more strategic in a child’s ‘school life’ which is less than a quarter of a child’s life and investing in only that small slice of time, then we are destined to fail the promise of Education for All, Education First and Education Cannot Wait. Framing the problem as only school-based and centering investment on school-effectiveness misses the strong influence that daily life experiences have on children’s learning every day, for most of the day. Grace’s life challenges, including the need for a sufficient home literacy environment, beg for a shift towards life-wide learning.
School-based interventions or studies of their impact alone don’t have the potential to ignite the kind of learning boost we need.
Our interventions and evaluations, big or small, random or not, need to take into account how learning is used, promoted or even inhibited in the daily lives of children. Learning is life-wide. Once we understand this more fully, we can use investments and impact evaluations of life-wide learning to multiply the effect of what children learn in school. We can give children like Grace the opportunity to read and learn beyond school walls so that they can engage with the world as life-wide learners.