What Trashy Reality TV Has Taught Me About Education System Reform

Support for education system reform requires a careful balance between modelling and supporting new ways of doing things—and stepping back to allow local decision makers to fully own the process of change.


Image of Kirsty Newman

Kirsty Newman


Trashy telly and creating change

I have a dirty little secret: I love a bit of trashy reality TV. One of my favourite sub-genres is the makeover show, and in particular I like a British show called ‘Mary Queen of Shops’ where retail magnate Mary Portas visits failing outlets and helps turn them around. 

I like the show for all the usual reasons—there are heated arguments, questionable fashion choices and backroom power struggles. But I also think this show can teach you everything you need to know about the strange sector of international development.

You see, in each episode Mary faces an apparent contradiction. She understands that the business will only be successful in the long run if the current management are fully in the driving seat. But she also sees that, thus far, they have been doing a pretty bad job of it.

So, episode by episode, she has to achieve a delicate balance. She needs to do some directing and bossing to show the managers a different vision for success. She valiantly creates glamorous window designs in dingy charity shops; identifies novel revenue streams for high-street businesses; and designs new ranges of eco-friendly produce for traditional grocery stores. 

But then, quite quickly, she steps back and lets the management take the reins. This is always the most frustrating part of the show as you see the staff floundering around and failing to reach the heights that Mary has modelled for them. I imagine audiences shouting at the screen—‘just let Mary do it!’ But of course, Mary knows what she is doing. She sees their feeble attempts and she provides advice and coaches them towards a better approach. She nudges them towards coming up with and testing out their own solutions. And gives them praise for steps in the right direction even when they seem a bit half-baked. She does all this because she fundamentally understands that the key to success is not parachuting in a perfect solution but rather supporting people to understand the process of learning, adapting, and improving. Of course, this being trashy TV, her approach always succeeds in the end—the management surpass their own expectations, and Mary walks away proudly as they host their triumphant re-launch event. 

What can we learn about development?

The parallels with development work are obvious. As an external advisor in any context, you may be able to see very clearly how things could be done better (the fabled ‘what works’). But a far trickier question is: how can you as an outsider enable/catalyse/support those who are in charge (and will continue to be in charge long after you have left) to be able to self-diagnose their weaknesses and iterate to find solutions?

The work of development practitioners involves a good dose of modelling good practice and support to build consensus on what ‘good’ looks like. For those who work in the education sector, this is particularly challenging because people have such deep-seated conceptions about the practice of teaching and learning. Bear in mind that pretty much everyone who works within the education system will have themselves attended school and therefore, unlike their colleagues who work in say the health system or the justice system, will have spent years of their lives observing front-line delivery and learning the norms of practice in their context.

This power of entrenched conceptions of teaching and learning is clear to see in this (fantastic) new RISE book describing efforts to reform the Delhi school system: the teachers and many bureaucrats wanted to support learning but weren't able to imagine an approach to teaching other than the one they had experienced their whole lives. When asked to identify approaches to improve learning, they all selected things which were very unlikely to succeed. 

Breaking a cycle of ineffective practices

Given the strength of beliefs about learning, some really powerful modelling is needed to shift perspectives. I believe that this is the reason that structured pedagogy programmes have worked so well. These programmes arguably reduce autonomy for teachers, at least in the short term, and provide strong support to take them through the motions of ‘good teaching’—with scripted lessons that literally tell them the words to say. It’s sort of a ‘fake it till you make it’ approach. Once they have experienced this way of teaching—and crucially have witnessed that it actually helps kids to learn—teachers (and bureaucrats) are galvanised with a new sense of purpose. 

It is only once they have this new vision that they are able to start the tricky process of diagnosing, iterating, and gradually improving the system such that learning improves. As set out in a forthcoming paper of Dan Honig’s (discussed in this RISE Webinar), this process cannot be imposed in a top-down way but rather requires a shared purpose throughout the system and openness to innovation and feedback loops. International development partners can play a role here—but (as Mary has taught us!) this needs to involve a lot of standing back and offering guidance rather than more invasive direction. 

In other words: success, for international development partners—and reality TV makeover gurus—is in making yourself dispensable.

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