As a philosophy and social movement, effective altruism has gained traction among philanthropists over the past decade. The aims of this strand of thought are self-explanatory: to engage in altruistic actions (to ‘do good’) in the most effective manner possible. To determine how one goes about doing this, three questions arise:
1. What does it mean to ‘do good’?
Philosophers have long pondered the meaning of altruism, with disagreements over its nature and authenticity. My aim here is not to delve into the complexities of this epistemological debate, but rather to tap into commonly-accepted notions of doing ‘good’. One such definition could be simply framed as improving the welfare of others. To this, we might add the dimension of impartiality: tending to people equally, without preferential treatment.
Human beings like to think of themselves as moral and fundamentally ‘good’, and most of us would therefore support philanthropic endeavours such as charity donations, volunteering opportunities, or the pursuit of an altruistic career. No matter how great the inherent altruism of an action however, given the choice between various interventions, many of us would choose one yielding the greatest outcomes (i.e. doing the ‘most’ good). ‘Doing good’ is one thing, but doing so effectively opens up the potential for a wider scope in altruistic outcomes.
2. Which problems are the most pressing to address?
To be effective in this quest for good then, one is faced with the question of which area(s) to focus on. One of the main players in the effective altruism field, the nonprofit 80 000 hours breaks down this decision into the following components: scale (solving this problem should result in a significant qualitative and/or quantitative increase in welfare), neglectfulness (focusing on issues that have been more neglected than others and where there is thus more room for improvement), and solvability (an increase in the amount of resources allocated to that problem should contribute to a greater chance of solving it).
3. Which interventions are the most effective?
This leads us to the final step: how does one know which interventions are really the most effective in solving a given problem? The answer to this lies in evaluating the available evidence, in order to determine which results are conclusive and can form the basis of an informed decision. Although this idea might seem like common sense, the reality is that many misconceptions exist regarding the relative effectiveness of various actions, and too often form the basis of people’s decisions in choosing a cause to devote effort or funding to. Some might argue that engaging in any type of altruistic action is better than none at all, regardless of the effectiveness of the chosen intervention. This is probably true. Yet if we envision a world in which only the most effective actions were prioritised, many more problems would likely be solved due to greater time- and cost-effectiveness.
Effective altruism and education
One-off volunteering opportunities can serve as a good illustration for actions that are (supposedly) altruistic, but often not very effective if we take into account the scale and solvability factors mentioned above. A naive eighteen year-old, I set off on a two-week volunteering journey in a rural community school in Kenya with a friend, only to be confronted with the disillusions of such an endeavour, as I came to realise how limited and short-lived the impact of our efforts would be. Moreover, the fact remained that this school was not an exception, but one of many schools lacking the financial and teaching resources to provide quality education to children in low-income families. Faced with this reality, our volunteering efforts, like many others, seemed rather futile in scope and outcome.
Education has typically not been considered a priority area by Effective Altruism actors, who often argue that there is limited or mixed evidence for the cost-effectiveness of educational interventions. If we turn to the scale of the issue however, the World Bank has identified a Global Learning Crisis, whereby 617 million children and adolescents lack basic proficiency in reading and mathematics. This includes children who do not have access to education, as well as pupils who dropped out of school, or are in school but not learning.
While the effects of this crisis are felt on every continent, they are especially pronounced in low-income countries, where it is predicted that 69% of school age children will not learn basic primary level skills by 2030 — a deadline set by the international community to achieve one of the four UN Sustainable Development Goals: lowering to less than 10% the proportion of children in low-income countries lacking access to quality education. Given continual changes in the economic and social fabric of modern society, a skills shortage is likely to be one of the most important challenges to employment in an increasingly-automated labour market. Beyond employment, access to education is also correlated with greater equality and health outcomes, and with lower marriage and fertility rates in adolescent girls. Given the urgency and scale of the global learning crisis then, education in developing countries is a key area to address, with a wide-reaching scope for progress.
The average person in full-time employment in the developed world spends between 80 000 and 90 000 hours working over the course of their lifetime. Given that most of our waking hours are spent in our jobs then, it makes sense that careers would be the most effective route through which to ‘do good’. Following the disillusionment of my volunteering expedition, I came upon the social enterprise Bridge International Academies, where I now work in the Learning Innovation team. From an effective altruistic viewpoint, I believe that Bridge is proving that tackling the global learning crisis effectively is not only necessary, but achievable.
Going beyond the idealistic tropes at the heart of much altruistic action, Bridge’s data-driven approach to research makes it effective in its mission to provide quality affordable education at a large scale across low-income countries. Providing pupils with a physical classroom and teacher is one thing, but ensuring that they are learning is another, more difficult and important task. Measurement is thus key in ensuring that the programmes selected are the most effective in improving learning outcomes. Through large-scale randomised control trials across Bridge schools, we have been able to test the value of various educational interventions by measuring the difference between baseline and end-line test scores, controlling for potential confounding factors. This has allowed for continual improvements to our teaching methods, whereby successful interventions are incorporated into instructional design in the most cost-effective manner possible.
One such example is interleaving, an emerging learning technique which assigns pupils sets of mixed or ‘interleaved’ skills to practice, rather than ‘blocked’ sets focusing on one skill at a time. A growing body of research has demonstrated the long-term benefits of interleaving on learning and skill retention, and we decided to test this framework in our own classrooms. 1050 pupils were randomly assigned to a control group where they practised blocked Mathematics problem sets, or to a treatment group where problem sets interleaved daily and past lesson content. Outcomes were measured by looking at post test scores (compared to pretest scores measured before the intervention), which were significantly higher in the treatment than in the control group. The evidence base for interleaving, successfully tested in a Bridge context, has informed our decision to widely implement this teaching strategy in our schools, where it is now applied across a range of grades and subjects.
Bridge’s approach to teaching moreover stands out from traditional models of education in developing countries through the digital dimension of its lesson delivery and data collection. Equipped with tablets, teachers receive daily digital lesson guides, and in turn provide test scores and attendance data which are then accessible through a reports server. This technology-driven approach thus allows for cost-effective, scalable measures to be put into place, yielding a wealth of data which can be harnessed to inform the implementation of effective interventions.
Finally, Bridge’s partnerships with a number of academics in fields ranging from education to economics, cognitive science, or international development has provided valuable external expertise, thereby increasing the reliability and validity of our internal research. Findings from the data provided by Bridge in turn can serve to inform the conclusions drawn in these respective academic fields, in a fruitful alliance of theory and practice.
Given the global learning crisis, education is an important and pressing sector to tackle in order to improve the welfare of populations in developing countries. At Bridge, we believe in the value of data-driven research to guide the implementation of cost-effective and successful interventions to improve learning outcomes. From an Effective Altruism point of view, Bridge’s approach to education therefore holds promise in inching increasingly closer to the achievement of the fourth UN Sustainable Development Goal.
By Clothilde de Maricourt, is a Learning Innovation Associate at Bridge International Academies.