Spend money on training and XO laptops instead of bricks and mortar schools


Timothy Falconer of the Waveplace Foundation is leading an amazing OLPC deployment in Haiti on a shoestring. He really has my respect with his Haiti rebuilding done right methodology.

Now, via the Grassroots mailing list, he's asked a favor that I hope we can accommodate for him. Below is his post "A School is Not a Building" - let's do our best to help him make this case (or refute it) as he prepares once more for Haiti:

Spend money on training & laptops instead of bricks and mortar

olpc Caribbean
Does she need school to learn?
A school is not a building; it's a place where learning occurs. Reading "Three Cups of Tea" with tales of new bridges to carry wood and concrete, I'm left thinking, "Why so much cost, so much labor, merely to erect walls and roofs where children can meet?"

Once built, the work has just begun. Hundreds must travel daily to meet in too-large groups, to hear teachers speak *at* them, to take turns scrawling on chalkboards and precious paper. Of what benefit is this central meeting place to merit such a cost?

Imagine a world where cooking never happened at home. Imagine state-mandated cafeterias where hundreds traveled daily to sit quietly in rows while prepared meals where dished out without regard to individual taste. Imagine hours of journey each day to an unnecessarily remote place, to be served by adults who knew you only as one of many. Yes, this happens of course, in the military, in camps, in shelters. But never is this considered ideal. One always longs for the comfort of your own home to prepare and eat your family's meal.

So long have we been stuck in the institutional rut we call "education" that we forget its original purpose: to provide skills for an industrialized workforce. Just as military canteens serve food for military purposes, schools serve knowledge for industrial needs. Learn your lessons, then take your place in the river of red lights you drive each night after a day of forms and calls and pointless meetings.

But it doesn't have to be like this at all. Many of us learn and work with laptops from pretty much any location we want. For twelve years I've run my business without really knowing where in the world my associates are located. With the Internet and the computer, we've achieved true location independence, which allows us to live where we like, work where we like. I've long since left the days of rush hour waiting, so why are we asking children to walk miles to learn?

In Haiti, where only half the children go to a single day of school, why are we still talking about building schools? Why aren't we talking about training adults to use laptops instead of chalkboards? Why aren't the teachers going to the children, to teach in small local groups?

Why isn't learning, as with cooking, an activity favored for the home?

So what you do think? Is Timothy telling us why Haiti should spend money on training and XO laptops instead of bricks and mortar schools? How can we help his argument or is it fundamentally wrong or flawed?


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Hi all,

Thanks for the re-post. Here's a follow up that gives more details:


To Falconer:
The first thing is that, as a teacher and student in educational anthropology I do not agree with you all the way.

But your article raises an important discussion on how we can or should define an ‘educated person’ and ‘a school’ as well. The second thing is that the other part of the problem has to do with external forces such as infrastructure and possible lack of building materials and labor for the actual school.

‘Schooled’ in the tradition of anthropology, I can strongly suggest to books, if you are not familiar with them already:

“The cultural production of the educated person” (anthology): by Bradley A. Levinson, Douglas E. Foley, Dorothy C. Holland (also a google-book)– The authors of this anthology discuss’ the definition of education as more broadly than the definition of school with various ethnographic cases many of them in rural settings and minor communities. One of their points is not that schools are bad and this is how education should be done. Instead they are discussing the many ways of how education could be done and are being done.

The other book is
”Situated learning: legitimate peripheral participation”: by Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger (also a google-book). Their point is that learning is always situated. It sounds a bit too simple, but sometimes I think we tent forget that we always learn by the things, the environments and the people that surround us (as Papert would say). An interesting thought is that universal conceptions are also learned in situated settings - a community of practice.
Christian learning is situated within the Christian community whereas a ‘community’ in an anthropological view can be seen as a limited gathering of people within an area, a city, a nation, the West, web-forums etc. We ‘learn’ that technology can help the rest of the world. That is also a universal conception learned in a situated setting perhaps at MIT influenced by the western culture. That is not to say, that universal conceptions necessarily are false. That is just to sat, that we always learn in a specific situated setting, a community of practice, from a specific culture-view. That we can never escape

Regards Soren

Here's post #3, with some school cost numbers:


I disagree with the premise, the hypothetical question "Why so much cost, so much labor, merely to erect walls and roofs where children can meet?"

You could say the same thing about practically any building. Why spend money on a building where people gather to make laws? Can't they make laws outside? Why spend money on a building for people to perform music? Can't they do that outside?

Buildings are a good thing. My primary point is that it's better to use existing structures, or even to build multi-use structures, in places like Haiti. Community centers, not primary schools. It may also help to know that Haiti doesn't hold school after noon in most places.

Working outside is a first step, and only when necessary. Micro schools could happen in teacher's homes, in churches, etc.

Probably the most insane, thoughtless article ever on this site.


Mr. Mephisto,

Had you witnessed the 50 children learning with laptops amidst the rubble in Léogâne after the Haiti earthquake, within a circle of chairs under the blazing sun, you might feel differently.

Better yet, watch for yourself:


Education is a real and complex task that can't be performed by "trainee mentors" without the proper tools and evaluation system in place.

Yes, your video looks nice and your intentions are probably noble, too. But your ideas are completely demented, ignorant of the realities/needs of education and very harmful to those children you're pretending to help: they need a proper school environment with professional teachers - they are poor children and the last thing they should be subjected to is this silly techno-experiment disguised as a humanitarian effort.

Young (and old) students need to be educated by professional educators, they need access to bathrooms, electricy and water; they need testing and evaluation of the progress made in their education; they need far, far more than a laptop and some misguided "trainee mentor" can provide.

Do we really need to analyze this much further????

....and I need to be young, good looking and rich. Should I just die and hope for a good reincarnation? Are there any other options?

Most teachers in Haiti have only attended school to the grade level they are teaching. Only 5% graduate from secondary school. Only half every go to a single day of class. The public schools reach only 5% of children, with the vast majority being run by private groups.

What you're missing in the equation here is Money. Haiti does not have enough to build roads or sanitation systems or hospitals.

We're not talking about replacing something that exists, but about providing a less expensive option for people who have nothing at all, thereby reaching more people.

And yes, most of our mentors are also professional teachers. We use the term mentor to include both teachers and non-teachers.