Why is Education Reform Like Gift-Giving?

Our care for children spurs us to spend money and effort on education reforms—but these reforms, like unsuccessful gifts, can still go wrong if we don’t keep our children’s specific needs and desires in mind.


Image of Lillie Kilburn

Lillie Kilburn

RISE Directorate

Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford

If you’ve ever given a really good gift, then you know how great it feels to see that you’ve chosen just the right thing to thrill someone you love.

On the other hand, we all know how it feels to work hard on getting the right gift but realise too late that we’ve made a mistake.

In this sense, education reform is a little like gift-giving: we can attempt it with the best of intentions, devote money and care and effort to it, and yet we can still end up with a result that doesn’t achieve what we wanted for the children we care about.

So what are some common pitfalls in gift-giving, and how can they help us to reflect on education reform?

1. Giving a great gift . . . that’s missing some prerequisites

 These gifts are things that are genuinely liked by the recipient—but what’s given in the gift doesn’t work without something else that isn’t included.

Some examples:

  • A set of paints with no paper or canvas to paint on
  • A toy missing a battery
  • A video game that requires a game console the recipient doesn’t own.

These kinds of gifts are the reason why it’s so important to consider an education system as a whole before deciding on a reform. We might decide that the children in our education system need laptops, for example—but if the technological infrastructure and support needed for the laptops is missing, then the laptops won’t be useful.

In a recent blog, RISE Research Fellow Jason Silberstein explored a similar situation in which a well-designed, well-implemented, large-scale school management reform in India failed to have impact because parts of the existing education system conflicted with the reform’s efforts. One example of this conflict was that the reform generated potentially useful information for schools and teachers, but it provided no incentives for them to act upon this information, resulting in unchanged behaviour. In other words, a necessary piece was missing.

2. Giving a great gift . . . for someone else

These gifts are good, high-quality things that another person would love, but that aren’t right for the recipient. Sometimes these gifts result from well-intentioned attempts to discover what a certain person would like by recalling what another person of the same age also likes; sometimes they reflect what the gift-giver themself enjoys and therefore assumes the recipient will also enjoy.

Some examples:

  • Clothes in the wrong size
  • A skateboard for a person who lives in a place where there are no smooth ground surfaces on which to safely skate
  • Merchandise from a TV show that’s popular, but that the recipient of the gift doesn’t particularly like.

Unfortunately, a gift’s success in one context doesn’t guarantee its success in all contexts, and the same concept applies to education reforms too.

In a RISE Podcast episode, former FCDO Chief Economist Rachel Glennerster posited that a major problem in education reform results from “copy-pasting” reforms from one context to another, despite the fact that each education system has different qualities that can enable or completely inhibit a reform from working as intended.

For example, as RISE Research Fellow Yue-Yi Hwa explained in a 2020 blog, Finland and Singapore’s strongly differing structures for teacher accountability are both highly effective in their own contexts, but would not be effective if copied into one another’s contexts because their overall education systems are so different.

3. Giving a beautiful, impressive gift . . . that’s ultimately not as good as a less glamorous alternative

It’s so easy to walk into a shop and get dazzled by a sparkly piece of expensive jewellery or a cutting-edge piece of technology. Surely such an expensive, exciting gift will be welcome, right?

But we’ve all heard the stories of small children—and cats—ignoring expensive toys in favour of playing with the cardboard boxes they came in. And, on a broader scale, sometimes a seemingly glamorous gift isn’t the one that will delight a recipient most.

You might end up with:

  • A diamond necklace or ring given to a person with an active job who can’t wear jewellery, or just doesn’t like to
  • A fancy piece of sporting equipment that’s too advanced for a beginner, and therefore can’t be used
  • A cashmere sweater given to a person who’s allergic to wool.

The secret here—as with all gift-giving—is to look at the gift from the point of view of the recipient. It doesn’t really matter whether the gift-giver, or anyone else, finds the gift to be appealing. The only thing that matters is how the gift will feel to the one who’s meant to enjoy it.

In the same way, sometimes it’s much easier to get funding for things in education that look beautiful in a photograph, like a newly painted building, or for things that sound impressive. But what really matters is what children need.

And sometimes the education reforms that are the most powerful are ones that come not from big, grand gestures or ideas, but from the cumulative effects of small, local, and highly effective actions—like individual efforts by local stakeholders to perform citizen-led assessments or to share lessons via text message.

The only way to know which education reforms are most powerful is to look at the evidence and listen to those on the ground. This might seem like an obvious message, but it’s surprising how often this isn’t done! (To learn more about why it’s so crucial to listen to practitioners’ voices and draw on real experiences and evidence, take a look at our blog co-written by members of our Community of Practice on just that topic.)

Some takeaways

To be clear: this blog is not claiming that education itself is a gift. Obviously, it isn’t; it’s a human right.

The similarity between gift-giving and education lies in the fact that both are usually motivated by the best of intentions, both often involve significant expenditures and effort, and yet both can easily go awry.

So here are some things to remember about gift-giving and about education:

  • To avoid giving a “great gift that’s missing some prerequisites,” we need to look at the whole education system to see what is happening and what is needed in each specific context. We have to ask ourselves how our reform will function given the existing relationships, constraints, and norms within the system.
  • To avoid giving a “great gift for someone else,” we need to remember that a reform’s success in a previous context doesn’t necessarily guarantee its success in a new context. We must know our education system and recognise that it is unique and therefore has unique needs.
  • And to avoid giving “a beautiful gift that’s ultimately not as good as a less glamourous one,” we need to choose what works best to improve learning, not what sounds impressive or looks beautiful. We must look at evidence about what really works, listen to practitioners and stakeholders on the ground, and—yes, again—know our education system and its specific characteristics.

The best gifts

Although the world is still in the midst of a learning crisis, it’s heartening to know that so many people across the globe are working hard to improve learning for all children. What we need to do now is ensure that those efforts won’t go to waste, but rather will be directed toward the education reforms that will make the greatest difference in the lives of children.

And that means remembering that the best gifts are the ones that say “I know you”—and so are the best education reforms.

RISE blog posts and podcasts reflect the views of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the organisation or our funders.