Theories of Change for Education in Crisis and Conflict

“We are facing an epistemological challenge. Education is about how to create learning environments,
not about how to train teachers or provide better textbooks”
Ash Hartwell


Reported by Shamo Thar


CIE welcomed Dr. Ash Hartwell and doctoral student Jennifer Flemming who described the work which their CIE-team has been doing with the Education in Crisis and Conflict Network (ECCN) during the last three years. The ECCN project is building an evidence database of what works for education in crisis and conflict environments. This initiative is charged with creating a vibrant community of practice and to promoting the development and sharing of evidence, tools and knowledge among USAID and its partners working on education in conflict and crisis affected environments. The network now has a membership of 20 INGOs, and has worked in 18 different countries.


Dr. Hartwell started by introducing activities of the project and what they have so far accomplished. He then described several of the core components.  The Safer Learning Environments (SLE) Toolkit focuses on ways to provide access to safe spaces, physical infrastructure, and basic education services, primarily for children and youth. The Rapid Education Risk Assessment (RERA) Toolkit provides step-by-step guidance for users to carry out a “good enough” situation analysis of the education sector, learners and their communities as a dynamic system of relationships involving assets and contexts.


Next, Ash reviewed the history of Theories of Change as they evolved from logical frameworks, to results frameworks, to emerging theories of change – a concept which their team has been advocating for.   Theories of change according to Ash are essentially ‘development hypotheses’ based on a belief that specific activities will lead to desired outcomes.


To explore the extent to which Theories of Change are embedded in USAID project designs, Jen Flemming (left) analyzed 18 USAID project solicitations.  She discovered that only a third of them offered any explicit theory of change, while the rest were silent.  She subsequently developed a check list of 45 items to measure the presence of emergent change theories.  The team then developed a ‘memo of failure’ which proposed an alternative approach to project design based on the belief that projects cannot be effective if the design is rooted in a fixed theory of change.


Designing projects based on emergent theories of change needs to be supported by evidenced-based research which articulates what we know about which kinds of inputs or actions are effective. The CIE team developed Evidence Gap Maps which use software to share complex, detailed evidence in a visual manner linked to specific issues.  The Map clearly displays both evidence gaps and areas where evidence exists.


Ash then discussed the resistance they were encountering from AID which prefers clear if/then theories of change reflecting a return to the traditional modes of development epistemology.  He raised the following questions: “What does unique mean in educational contexts in conflict and crisis affected environments? What do we need to understand about a given context to develop a program?” He continued: “what we really need is better feedback loops and better interactions. What does interaction mean? Does it mean to train teachers? Who is training teachers? Training for what?”  Fundamentally, he argued that the epistemologies used by most donor agencies  are unproductive and they don’t match the reality on the ground.


The presentation stimulated a lively discussion.  Comments ranged from critiques of current approaches to the suggestion that only a more trusting relationship between donors and implementing organizations would allow the use of emergent theories of change.