Reflections on Twaweza’s Ideas & Evidence Conference

Insight #1: Crisis of trust and learning: Is there a relationship?

In setting the climate for the conference, the Executive Director of Twaweza East Africa, Aidan Eyakuze cited an Open Government Partnership report to draw attention to the “crisis of trust” in the governance and political spaces across countries. In the education space, multiple speakers highlighted the “crisis in learning”, referring to the findings of the Uwezo learning assessments. Year after year, the assessments demonstrated that across the East African region and beyond, the learning outcomes for children were poor; that many children were enrolled in “dreadful schools”, and that they were “learning little”. Speakers also perceived instrumental views of education, perceiving it as a channel for promoting good governance among other things. (For example, John Marshall from Columbia University (USA), talked of the importance of providing information and education to voters, and the role of an educated citizenry.) However, little attention was paid to the possible linkages between the “crisis of trust” and the “crisis of learning” and the role that the school can play in resolving the crisis.

The non-acquisition of literacy and numeracy skills by significant numbers of children has been at the heart of the Uwezo assessment findings, and has been used to define the perceived learning crisis. However, in my view this is a partial definition. It is important to dig deeper into the content, pedagogy and school environment and to interrogate both the formal and the hidden curriculum, to truly grasp the depth of the crisis. It is only then that we begin to see the link between the “crisis of trust” and the “crisis of learning”.   

Early socialisation into cultures of trust (incorporating values of transparency and accountability which are the cornerstone of good governance) and learning, beginning with the home is ideal. In reality, this may not be happening in many homes. Even in situations where this positive socialisation is taking place there are multiple conflicting influencers outside the home, which act as powerful barriers and prevent the internalisation and practice of trust-promoting values and behaviours in children.

The school is one of the contexts where socialisation of children takes place through both the formal and hidden curriculum.  Teachers are one powerful agent of socialisation, critical not only in the teaching of numeracy and literacy, but also in the “teaching” (or not teaching) of trust-promoting values and formation of the child. Insights from what I have heard here these past two days, and my research over the years (including the PD study and previous research on value-based education) suggest a relationship between poor academic outcomes, negative socialisation of children, and teachers, immersed in cultures of non-accountability and impunity, who do not demonstrating pro-trust values and behaviours.

For example, the indiscriminate use of corporal and other forms of punishments in primary schools was documented in the PD Study in Kenya and other research studies across the East African region. Corporal punishment is used for a whole range of reasons --- from coming to school late to poor academic performance to perceived indiscipline. Dialogue as a form of conflict resolution is rarely encouraged. Children, as they grow up, learn that violence is the way to resolve differences, and to impose their views on others. Teachers who are frequently absent and are not held accountable by the authorities demonstrate to learners that commitment to work is not essential. This of course has an impact on the academic learning by the children. On the flip side are teachers who, despite many resource and other constraints, are able to inspire children to learn through positive role modelling.

This brings us to the issue of intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation of teachers. The results of the Kiufunza experiment presented at the workshop indicate that cash-on-delivery is an effective strategy for improving learning outcomes. But we also heard questioning voices: Is it sustainable? Are policy makers likely to adopt this model when external funding dries up?

It is important to make the leap from “Are children learning” to “What and how are they learning”, connecting the answers to the promotion of pro-trust values and behaviours in both learners and teachers. This way the chasm between cultures of trust and learning on the one hand and the crises of trust and learning on the other may be bridged.

Insight #2: The evidence – base: Are policy makers listening?

Over the two days, discussions revolved around the issue of evidence. Questions raised by participants included:

  • What does evidence mean, especially in the context of marginalised communities?

  • How is it generated?

  • How are they communicated?

  • How are they reinforced?

Closely related to the above was the issue of what kind of evidence is likely to attract the attention of policy makers, and get them to take action.

I could hear two trains of thought. Walter Flores from the Center for the Study of Equity in Governance in Health Systems (Guatemala) shared experience with different methodologies used by his organisation to generate data, ranging from RCTs to simpler “human-centred” designs (my words, not his). He argued that the latter was more effective in reaching out to the target groups, including policy makers. Togolani Mavura, Private Secretary to President Kikwete (Tanzania) gave tips on the different ways of influencing policy, pointing out that the “devil is not in the numbers but in the narration”, going beyond ideas to addressing the core, self-interest of the policy makers. The second perspective pushed for RCTs as the legitimate channel for “scientific” and “rigorous” evidence generation, reminding me of the debate on “objectivistic” definition of science (including promotion of “tyranny of numbers” perspectives) versus “subjectivity” of qualitative designs and data as being less “scientific”.

I believe that there is merit in both approaches and both need to be utilised to generate complementary forms of evidence. Here I would like to reiterate the definition of evidence as a combination of information and facts that is used for something, for advocacy or political purposes as proposed by Julia Mckee from the Amercian University (USA). Findings of RCTs in particular need to be packaged in ways that are comprehensible and usable by target groups including policy makers. More needs to be done to communicate that qualitative evidence is not anecdotal (though it may use anecdotes) but “rigorous” and “scientific”, albeit not in a positivistic sense. Both types of research are, and should continue to be, valid sources of data and evidence.

Insight #3: Discovering peoples’ wisdom – One shoe fits all?

This relates to both the PD study and follow-up conversations with participants. What came through is the importance of paying attention to “people’s wisdom” both in the programming and policy advocacy processes. However, as Ellen Lust from the University of Gothenburg (Sweden) pointed out, context matters.  I agree with this perspective; the PD approach is grounded in the context and there is a challenge in divorcing “people’s wisdom” from the environment in which it is anchored. The way forward would be to find common threads in the diversity of “wisdom”, and build on this thread while avoiding being too prescriptive, of finding one shoe that fits all.