Working Paper


Pivoting to Learning: A Puzzle with Many Pieces


Image of Susan Watkins

Susan Watkins

Intellectual Leadership Team

University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA)

Amy Kaler

University of Alberta

This RISE Working Paper, authored by Susan Watkins (University of California at Los Angeles, and RISE ILT member) with Amy Kaler (University of Alberta), addresses two issues that are critical to achieving systemic change in the education sector of countries where access to education has increased dramatically but without a concomitant improvement in learning:

  • Firstly, the need for clear cultural understandings of the meaning of education – this is vital for changing an education system, otherwise there will be a misfit between the architecture of plans for systemic change, on the one hand, and the understandings of the value of education as perceived by from individual actors (civil servants in the Ministry of Education, teachers, parents, and students) on the other.
  • Secondly, the need for policy makers and the implementers of reform to take into account certain aspects of the political economy to ensure there is a pivot in focus from access to learning.

The authors use Malawi as their main case-point, a country where almost all children now attend school for at least a few years, but, of every 1000 who start, half drop out by the end of primary school, and only 40 will finish secondary school. Like many other countries in sub-Saharan Africa, Malawi also has a strong collective understanding of education, in which schooling is seen as primarily a moral, rather than academic, endeavour. This poses many challenges to achieving systemic change, particularly the current lack of motivation for a change from focusing on credentials (certificates, diplomas, exam results) to education quality.

The authors conclude by recommending to donors that they should respect the collective meanings of education and should accommodate to the existing political economy. They argue that rigorously evaluated research should be the guide for widespread reform, and that one simple measure to improve research evaluation, as well as the process of implementing reform, is the strategic use of field visits. They also note the value of using incentives to encourage change, and of talking closely with teachers.


Watkins, S. and Kaler, A. 2016. Pivoting to Learning: A Puzzle with Many Pieces. RISE Working Paper Series. 2016/006.