Don’t bother! You’re incapable of learning

“Don’t bother with trying to read, I was told”

In November 1988, Robin Woods received a sentence of 16 years in prison for robbery, and although he had earlier spent a couple of years behind bars before, the length and severity of his sentence was acknowledged to be disproportionately harsh. But this reference to his story is not about legal injustice in the US, but about his early years in school. Woods grew up in housing project which was home to the poor. He remembers visiting the library often, where he and his friends used to go to play. At first, he loved school, but he wasn’t good at it and would frequently run into trouble with the teachers. Once he was transferred to the Special Education section, he was basically told that reading and math were not for him, and that he shouldn’t bother with these subjects. He was given odd jobs around the school to pass his time. This is how he says he got through high school, never having learnt how to read and write.

During his incarceration, he happened to come across some people sharing library cards from the prison library. On an impulse, he decided to request for two volumes: The Sicilian and The Autobiography of Malcom X. Slowly approaching the text, he realised that he could only understand some of the words on the pages, but he was intrigued and started to make a note of the words he couldn’t understand. Soon, his thirst for the story pushed him to ask for a Dictionary, and there was no going back. He was hooked. He recalls being moved to tears by the end of The Sicilian, not because of the story, but because he realised that at school, he had been lied to. He could read, and not only that, Woods goes on to make remarkable contributions in the following years, finding factual errors in early volumes of the Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Encyclopedia as he devoured each page of the series. He develops a close relationship with Mark Stevens, the editor of the series, and this kick-starts a long-term relationship between the two men, and his early release from prison. You can find the link to his story at the end of this essay.

So, what does a former criminal have in common with a Nobel Prize winner?

Against imposed foreclosure

The reason why Woods and Esther were selected for this essay was because they both argue against imposed foreclosure of the learning process, where adults responsible for supporting children’s learning place judgments on individuals and groups of children, pushing them out of successful participation in education, often for life.

Notwithstanding important criticisms of Random Control Trials (RCTs) for arriving at solutions in educational or health practice, when answers converge, it strengthens the movement and provides “empirical” (read measurable) evidence for people in power. However, replicability, normativity, fragmentation and the objectification of subjects as uniform entities outside of the ‘experimental and control’ design are important problems of the method. The studies by J-PAL are not without controversy. So there is a caveat here, this is not an endorsement of RCTs as the only way to investigate social processes, but an acceptance that there are different strategies to arrive at solutions. In our unremarkable project on Masala Chai, for instance, we have always placed a greater value on humble investigations, and there is a place for such explorations as well. We strongly believe that quantitative studies need the support of qualitative approaches to ensure ecological validity. Despite these complaints, the findings from the research we reference here are compelling precisely because they make intuitive sense. Read more at (Reference provided below)

“Every kid can learn”

During their press conference at MIT, following the announcement of the Nobel Prize for Economics, Esther Dulfo, Abhijit Banerjee and Micheal Kremer address the international press. The video of this conference is available at the end of this post in case you wish to listen to the whole piece. During the question-answer session, the scholars were asked what they believe about education. Duflo responds by saying: “Our real belief for education is as follows: Every kid can learn, but they cannot learn if what they are taught something that there is no way that they can catch up. Unfortunately there are millions of children who are in school, whose parents are very excited that they are in school, who themselves are very excited about school, and get completely discouraged within days, or within weeks, because they don’t understand what is going on. Because they are taught something that is way too advanced for them. And they are made to understand that they are stupid and that they will never succeed. We spend a lot of time in our work to try and change that.” Duflo was highlighting precisely the sort of attitude that Woods and millions others like him, have faced in school, a sentence far more damaging than incarceration, because it is a life-long sentence that instantly places you outside of a system that you’re are longing to be a part of! As Woods remembers, initially, he loved school, but then, he kept hearing that he was just not good enough to learn. The war against such barriers is an urgent need, and our responsibility is to ensure that no child remains outside participation in school.

Our attitudes need to change

We believe that this year’s Nobel Prize in Economics is a resounding message to the global community, that in order to make a change regarding poverty, the first thing that has to change is the attitude towards people. We have earlier featured the work of Sendhil Mullainathan and Muzafar Sharif (who also belong to the same group, the J-PAL, The Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab). You can find an article about their work on scarcity and its consequences at the end of this essay. Their primary finding related to poverty was that people are not poor because they make poor decisions, but that they make poor decisions because they are poor. Something that ordinary people also expressed under temporary conditions of scarcity. In fact, as Abhijit Banerjee points out, the poor are “…no less rational than anyone else – quite the contrary. Precisely because they have so little, we often find them putting much careful thought into their choices: They have to be sophisticated economists just to survive.” We have to stop blaming people for the conditions in which they live because this places a double burden, one of living in difficult circumstances, and the second, far more debilitating, the attitude that they are where they are because of their personal predispositions. Respect and dignity of people must be preserved in our work. A time has come to join a movement towards evidence-based policy. As Banerjee says, “the prize is a recognition of a movement that supports policy based on hard evidence and not opinion.” Times of India, Tuesday October 15th, 2019. p. 11.

Related conversation

An email conversation with Robert Serpell (University of Zambia) following the announcement of the Prize, especially about how the research relates to his work raised additional, complementary issues about school experiences in the African subcontinent, adds to this essay. With his permission, I quote Serpell who … writes that a key contribution of the research by Kremer and others rewarded with the prize is its demonstration of the importance and ‘feasibility of focused field experiments’. The announcement added that the studies “also offered substantive lessons …” . … ‘In theory, the incentive program could lead teachers either to increase effort to stimulate long-term learning or, alternatively, to teach to the test. The latter effect dominated. Teachers increased their efforts in test preparation, which raised test scores on exams linked to the incentives, but left test scores in unrelated exams unaffected.‘ Serpell continues: “Way back in the 60’s, I met Tony Somerset who was working in Kenya to leverage the instrumentalising effect of selectively rewarding teacher behaviour. Fifty years later he and a Kenyan policymaker reviewed their findings as follows: “It is widely recognized in educational policy circles that the focus of ‘high stakes’, public examinations tends to exert a powerful ‘backwash‘ (I had to look up the exact meaning: the unpleasant after-effects of an event) effect on teaching practices, as teachers seek to prepare their students for success on the drastic selection processes that determine who gets an opportunity for further education. In Kenya, the Government Ministry of Education took some courageous steps in response to this problem in their 1973–1980 examinations reform program. As Wasanga and Somerset ([58], pp. 387–388) observed in a long-term appraisal of the goals and achievements of the program, the reforms were broadly directed towards “four goals:
(1) Relevance: The examination should test skills relevant to the future lives of all candidates; those who would leave school after the primary cycle as well as those who would continue to the secondary level.
(2) Equity: To the maximum extent possible, the examination should be fair to all candidates; in particular, the content of the questions should not give further advantage to pupils from already-advantaged home and/or school backgrounds.
(3) Predictive validity: The examination should aim to identify, as efficiently as possible, the pupils who would make best use of scarce secondary school places.
(4) Quality: The examination should aim to enhance the quality of education offered in the primary schools; and to reduce the range of quality differences among schools and localities.’

“Towards these goals, two major instruments of reform were employed: changes in examination content to widen the range of competencies tested, and widespread dissemination of two types of feedback on examination performance:
(a) ‘performance-order listings at two levels of aggregation: first, the district-level list, ranking all districts within the country according to their mean scores; and then within each district, school-level lists, similarly ranking all schools within the district”, and (b) Guidance feedback was provided through an annual examination newsletter, discussing concepts and skills pupils had found particularly difficult in the previous year, and suggesting pedagogical approaches teachers might take to strengthen learning.’

Wasanga and Somerset [58] draw a number of thought provoking lessons from Kenya’s experiment in using ‘examinations as an instrument for strengthening pedagogy’, many of which center on possible misconstruals and manipulative distortions of the kind of response the reformed
examinations set out to elicit, as the published feedback on performance was interpreted and used by teachers, administrators and educational publishers. The pedagogical goals at which the Kenyan reform program was aimed included promotion of higher-order thinking skills, creative rather than descriptive writing, and writing fluency and imagination, as well as accuracy. In some instances, there is evidence that attention to promotion of these educational outcomes increased to some degree at certain schools. On the other hand attempts were also observed to train students to use ‘packaged’ routines to score well on the new type of examination questions.” (Emphases and inserts added)

Excerpt from: Serpell, R. & Simatende, B. (2016). Contextual responsiveness: an enduring challenge for educational assessment in Africa. Journal of Intelligence(1) 3. doi:10.3390/jintelligence4010003 (openly accessible at )

Other findings in children’s health and school participation from J-PAL

Here is a small sample of the studies related to health and education that we could find on the J-PAL website.

Immunization: The reason why immunization wasn’t done was unpredictability of services, but also because people were busy with other things. And the cost (not money but time and effort) to get it done is too high, and immunization is NOT an emergency. Small incentives can go a long way in ensuring that families bring their children to health centres.

School: The chief issue is many low-income countries is not the lack of resources, but that teaching is not sufficiently adapted to students’ needs. Neither more text books nor free meals made a difference on learning outcomes as much as teaching assistance to poor performers. Local people are highly imaginative when it comes to finding solutions. If teacher absenteeism is a problem, one solution that came up was taking time and date marked pictures of teachers in class, five hours apart, and building incentives around their presence.

Linking incentives for teachers with test-scores of children resulted in narrow benefits as it was found to be linked to teaching to the test which improved scores, but only to the domains being tested.

In Madagascar, interventions at district level made no difference, but at school level did

Balsakhi programme: Remedial education in schools may improve learning, in collaboration with Pratham Balsakhi programme, cost-effective improvement of schools through support teachers to assist with learning of the children who perform poorly.

Health: One research in Kenya found dramatic improvement in school participation as a consequence of de-worming for improving health status.

An extract from Banerjee and Duflo’s forthcoming book:

In conclusion, we provide you with some extracts from their (Banerjee and Duflo) forthcoming book: Good Economics for Hard Times

Bad economics under-pinned the grand giveaways to the rich and the squeezing of welfare programs, sold the idea that the state is impotent and corrupt and the poor are lazy, and paved the way to the current stalemate of exploding inequality and angry inertia. Blinkered economics told us trade is good for everyone, and faster growth is everywhere. It is just a matter of trying harder and, moreover, worth all the pain it might take.

Blind economics missed the explosion in inequality all over the world, the increasing social fragmentation that came with it, and the impending environmental disaster, delaying action, perhaps irrevocably. As John Maynard Keynes, who transformed macroeconomic policy with his ideas, wrote: “Practical men who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.”

Ideas are powerful. Ideas drive change. Good economics alone cannot save us. But without it, we are doomed to repeat the mistakes of yesterday. Ignorance, intuitions, ideology, and inertia combine to give us answers that look plausible, promise much, and predictably betray us. As history, alas, demonstrates over and over, the ideas that carry the day in the end can be good or bad. We know the idea that remaining open to migration will inevitably destroy our societies looks like it is winning these days, despite all evidence to the contrary.

The only recourse we have against bad ideas is to be vigilant, resist the seduction of the “obvious,” be skeptical of promised miracles, question the evidence, be patient with complexity and honest about what we know and what we can know. Without that vigilance, conversations about multifaceted problems turn into slogans and caricatures and policy analysis gets replaced by quack remedies. The call to action is not just for academic economists—it is for all of us who want a better, saner, more humane world.” (Highlights ours)

Final words

In conclusion, we we celebrate the evidence that the award-winning team of economists at MIT has unearthed, along with the numerous other scholars in the field who work tirelessly towards ensuring that all children have access, opportunity and agency in learning at school. Also, it is important to retain skepticism along with optimism in the project of applying research findings to policy and practice. Unless we can express our doubts, it isn’t science!!


Robin Woods:

Criticisms of RCTs:

MIT press conference:

Article about Mullainathan and Shafir:

Extract from the forthcoming book: Good Economics for Hard Times. Extract from the outlook magazine article available at:

The Madagascar study:


Link to extract from forthcoming book:

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