The problem we all live with

Norman Rockwell, The problem we all live with, 1964

A truly memorable episode of This American Life from last year – The Problem We All Live With – that explores the beneficial power of desegregation in U.S schools. In particular the recordings from the town meeting that show white middle class families fears of black children coming into “their” schools is a harrowing listen.

I went to a private school as part of Thatcher’s Assisted Place scheme, which gave means tested vouchers for private schools to parents of children who scored high on entry tests. I’ve met a few people who benefited from the Assisted Place scheme and we are all middle class and white. Fewer than 10 per cent of the selected children had fathers who were manual workers, compared with 50 per cent in service-class occupations such as teaching, and that although children from single-parent families made up the largest category, other disadvantaged groups, notably the unemployed, and black and Asian families, had poor representation (Prof. Sally Power. Tracking the progress of Assisted Place holders thirty years on).

I’m grateful for the education that I received from a prestigious private school that my father, as a single parent, would not have been able to afford had it not been for the Assisted Place scheme. Yet I can’t help but feel that I was segregated away from the diversity of this country in a private school. I do not think I was able to benefit from and contribute to a school that represents the community that I grew up in.

Not that this will likely be a choice my income will give me, but I will never send any children I may have to an elite private school. I would send my child to private school if it was affordable for a family with a median family income. But I say this now, and I fear I could become one of those parents at the school meeting in the episode who have no regard for any child other than their own. Nikole Hanna-Jones discusses the moral quagmire of how to decide the right school for your child in this enlightening NYT article.

“Saying my child deserved access to “good” public schools felt like implying that children in “bad” schools deserved the schools they got, too. I understood that so much of school segregation is structural — a result of decades of housing discrimination, of political calculations and the machinations of policy makers, of simple inertia. But I also believed that it is the choices of individual parents that uphold the system, and I was determined not to do what I’d seen so many others do when their values about integration collided with the reality of where to send their own children to school.”

I will try my hardest not to uphold a system of segregation with the choices I make for any children I may have.

Albert Einstein


“If you have followed my meditations up to this point, you will probably wonder about one thing. I have spoken fully about what spirit, according to my opinion, youth should have instructed. But I have said nothing yet about the choice of subjects for instruction, nor about the method of teaching. Should language predominate or the technical education in science?

To this I answer: in my opinion all this is of secondary importance. If a young man has trained his muscles and physical endurance by gymnastics and walking, he will later be fitted for every physical work. This is also analogous to the training of the mind and of the mental and manual skill. Thus, the wit was not wrong who defined education in this way: “Education is that which remains, if one has forgotten everything he learned in school.”

For this reason I am not at all anxious to take sides in the struggle between the followers of the classical philologic-historical education and the education more devoted to natural science.”

– Albert Einstein, On Education, 1931

Two sides to education in Liberia

“For there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

– Shakespeare, Hamlet

The Necker cube is an optical illusion first published as a rhomboid in 1832 by Swiss crystallographer Louis Albert Necker.

Stare at the red dot and unless you are obstinately single minded your perspective will change. Stare long enough and you will be able to move between perspectives – you will be able to hold two views of how to see the cube and consciously switch between them. The yellow face is on the top of the cube. The yellow face is on the back of the cube. After deliberating I hope you have the faculties to see that both these statements are true.

I have recently been reading many opinions on the recent education reforms that are taking place in Liberia. This year, the government has started a project that aims to improve the failing education system with the introduction of a pilot scheme under which private companies and NGOs will take over the day-to-day running of 120 primary schools (3% of the total).  Similar to any scheme which mixes the private with the public, controversy has loomed large.

I was reminded of the Necker cube while reading two opinion pieces on the project. The first by Ben Phillips at ActionAid, describes a visit to one of the schools that is now run by one of the private companies taking part in the project.


Bridge International Academies (BIA) has quickly become a darling of the Right and a Lucifer of the Left. Phillips goes on to describe a visit to the school and describes that class sizes have been kept smaller than they were before; that teachers are unprepared for lessons;  and that materials that have been promised have not been delivered to the school. All compelling evidence that private contractors in education cannot be trusted. All evidence that the yellow face is on the back of the cube.

If you contrast Phillips’ account with this article by Kevin Starr, the director of the Mulago foundation who has provided venture capital to BIA, you start to see another face to the cube.


Starr sees evidence of cheap schools, with strict management, closely guided lessons, improved use of technology, and 8 hour teaching days. All evidence that the yellow face is at the top of the cube.

Empirically you can say the cube is across from you, just as you can empirically say it is below you. There is evidence for both views. Neither is wrong. But it is false to state it is only below you or only across from you. This stops being empiricism and becomes dogmatism. Similarly it is dogmatic to see private schools as either an innocent panacea or a malevolent virus for education systems.

Not enough people in this debate are striving to maintain the ability to see that attempts at privatization can be both good and bad simultaneously just as the necker cube is both across from you and below you. Not enough people are trying to weigh the costs and benefits of the approach simultaneously. It’s like both sides are loading their dice and imploring to you to play with their dice as they have weighted it the “right” way.

The poor quality of education in both the public and private sectors in Liberia is the real challenge, not the false dichotomy between the two.


Build a School in the Cloud

Mitra in this video argues that the information revolution has enabled a style of learning that wasn’t possible before.

We are only just starting to see the possibilities that a connected world will bring to international education.  Access to a world of infinite information has changed how we communicate, process information, and think. Decentralized systems have proven to be more productive and agile than rigid, top-down ones. Innovation, creativity, and independent thinking are increasingly crucial to the global economy. Where does this leave teachers?

A study at UC Berkeley demonstrated that kids given no instruction were much more likely to come up with novel solutions to a problem. “The science is brand-new, but it’s not as if people didn’t have this intuition before,” says coauthor Alison Gopnik, a professor of psychology at UC Berkeley. But who is going to give kids problems to solve? The teachers role is becoming less and less about crowd control and more about setting broad tasks. More about researching how their students learn and solve problems they don’t know the answers to. More problem poser than problem solver. This will make many teachers nervous and feel like their authority will be irrevocably eroded, but the potential for engaged learning and increased problem solving is huge.

“Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do, and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.”

– George Patton