Learning again and again about the importance of effective communication for educational policy making

When two former European ministers of education discussed their recent government experiences, they emphasized that the need for more effective communication is a major lesson they learned. This is a leading takeaway from a “strategic debate” that recently took place at UNESCO’s International Institute for Educational Planning (IIEP). Stefania Giannini, Italian Minister for Education, Universities and Research (from 2014 to 2016) and currently Assistant Director-General for Education at UNESCO and Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, former Minister for National Education for France from 2014 to 2017, both pointed out that knowing how to communicate about the reform policies they introduced would have increased their chances of success.

I could only applaud in agreement with their observations, and the lessons they drew from their ministerial experiences.  But, why, I wondered, their belated understanding of the crucial role of communication for a minister of education?  Or, rather, why this belated, post-ministerial understanding that education is so highly, so quickly and so easily politicized? To the point where political opponents come up with fake news to discredit the proposed policies, according to Vallaud-Belkacem. I was bewildered because the Association for the Development of Education in Africa (ADEA) started tackling those issues as early as 1998.

Communication is the key to ensure that effective learning takes place 

This is where the management of change in education systems hits up against a fundamental paradox: almost everybody is in favor of education, its expansion, its improvement, and its greater availability to increasing numbers of learners. However, disagreement abounds on how to ensure these noble goals, especially if we want to go beyond quantitative expansion and ensure that effective, relevant learning takes place. A major challenge facing educational decision-makers is that we really do not know how to ensure that effective learning takes place—there is no generally accepted or unified theory of learning. In other words, the theoretical, scientific foundations for education are weak. In medicine, for example, when a competent doctor makes a diagnosis, there is a high probability that he or she will predict the outcome. We have no equivalent in education. Furthermore, parents are concerned about the ascendancy of the values and teachings of the school over those of the family—the socialization power of the school over that of the family. Indeed, we probably trust more readily our bodies to doctors than our children to the schools. In addition, to complicate educators' lives even more, everybody is an expert on education. It suffices to have been to school oneself, or to have children in school, to be convinced of one's expertise. This is why educational issues become so political. This is why it becomes so important for education ministers to know how to communicate effectively with(not “to”, but “with”) their various constituencies, including the public, teachers, school authorities, parents organizations, legislators, the media, and students.

The importance of stronger partnerships and trust between all actors

But, “partners”, rather than “constituents” is where it is at!  Indeed, I suspect that incoming education ministers think about their constituents—how they will react to our policies, how to convince them, how to negotiate with them, and so forth.  I also suspect that outgoing education ministers realize that they needed stronger partnershipsin order to ensure the success and sustainability of their policies. Thinking about partnershipsis necessary and strategic for education since so many participants, and the interactions between them, are involved in making education policies work. These participants include students, teachers, parents, community members, taxpayers, educational professionals, decision-makers, administrators who implement programs, legislators who vote budgets, media people who provide (and transform) information... They are all essential links of the chain that holds the education system together and enables it to move forward. Effective communication is needed to keep them all involved, informed and concerned.

ADEA has long been concerned with the theory and practice of partnerships. This was the theme of ADEA’s 1997 Biennial which explored partnerships between the numerous actors involved in making education systems work – between financing partners (including ministries of finance and education), between schools and communities, between ministries and teachers, between practitioners, technicians, and researchers. That Biennial meeting was opened by President Abdou Diouf of Senegal who pointed out that trust is “one of the determining factors in all partnerships.” This trust, he said, cannot be reduced to a formal contract. Rather, he stated, it “involves mutual recognition of each partner's institutional and self-interests, expectations, problems, sovereignty, and culture. It is maintained through the common experiences, permanent communicationand proximity which facilitate mutual understanding.”  

Trust, we are coming to understand, is an essential building block for development. This is being increasingly explored by scholars of development, some of whom refer to it as the basis of the “social capital” required for development. Perhaps this reflects a move away from “pure economics”, which has not worked so well, to understand the processes of development.  In any case, for us in education, we know that without strong trust between all the actors involved in moving education forward, we will remain behind. 

The essential role of communication

And, this is where communication takes on its full importance:

  • Effective partnerships and trust require maximum sharing of reliable information.
  • Education policy formulation is most effective when all concerned are active participants in the process. This enables them to feel that they have a stake in both the process and its outcomes.
  • Clear identification of one’s partners is key. This can give rise to targeted communications strategies.
  • How we communicate needs to be thought through, especially the extent of reliance on professional intermediaries, often known as journalists.
  • How we communicate pedagogically may well be the major question here, the bottom line.

Going a bit beyond the bottom line, I confess that much of what I highlighted in this blog is taken from an article I wrote for the ADEA Newsletterof April-June 1999. In other words, as I learned from the two ministers at that IIEP strategic debate, understanding the importance of effective communication for education is one of those truths we keep on rediscovering, again and again. It is one of those lessons that merits continual repetition, and let us not forget that good pedagogy, which is at the heart of effective communication, is largely about repetition, repetition and repetition.