Efficient Learning for the Poor
Insights from the Frontier of Cognitive Neuroscience
Donor initiatives in support of primary education have resulted in large enrollment increases in low-income countries. But the conditions of some classrooms can stretch the limits of human information processing. Many students are malnourished and lack textbooks or the help of literate parents. Overwhelmed teachers may work with just the few most capable students and discourage or fail many others for whom the Education for All initiative was developed. Not surprisingly, learning outcomes in low-income countries are often disappointing, dropout rates are significant, and students may leave school functionally illiterate. The Independent Evaluation Group of the World Bank has documented such evidence in several countries.
These outcomes put at risk the large investments made in the social sectors in hopes of alleviating poverty through human capital improvements. Governments need advice on how to teach students in circumstances that rarely existed until the 1990s. Cognitive psychology and neuroscience offer a framework for policy advice on improving poor students’ learning. The research is evolving and has limitations. In some areas it has concrete and counter-intuitive implications, whereas in others it has little to offer or corroborates common sense. This body of research is most valuable for the early years of schooling when dropout and repetition rates are often high.