Research & adaptive programming needed to support learning in conflict, say experts at CIES

By Jillian Slutzker

March 11, 2016

Vancouver—When a U.S. student returns from a typical summer break, she has lost nearly one month of learning due to the gap in instruction. When a student in Yemen or Nigeria is out of school for months or even years as a result of conflict, the learning loss is compounded exponentially by severe trauma and transition.

“The research on learning loss is really based heavily in domestic [U.S.] education and is also fairly constrained to a [summer] gap. But as we move to conflict, we know there are a lot of other aspects that inhibit or constrain learning,” said Eileen St. George, Director of Education in Conflict Creative Associates International.

Speaking on a panel on learning loss at the Comparative and International Education Society conference on March 9 in Vancouver, she explained in times of crisis, factors like food insecurity, violence, health risks and trauma experienced by both students and educators affects learning and can exacerbate regular learning loss.

This affects both out-of-school children and children who still manage to attend school amidst the conflict.

“We can’t assume when we get them back in that learning environment that they’re going to be at the same level,” said St. George, noting that providing education under this type of duress calls for specialized interventions.

Educators and program implementers need to find ways to “turn the tide and get [students] to stop the drop in their learning, regain what’s been lost, and hopefully also build the momentum so they can excel,” said St. George.

Keeping learning alive in Yemen

YEM05061428-200x300 When conflict erupted in Yemen in March 2015, the Ministry of Education was in the midst of a nationwide scale-up of the Yemen Early Grade Reading Approach, a proven method to teach Arabic reading and writing in a country with abysmal literacy rates. In assessments in 2010 prior to the program’s launch, nearly 42 percent of second graders had not been able to read a single word in a passage.

The project was funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development and implemented by Creative Associates International.

Today, due to conflict, displacement and the destruction of many schools, more than 2 million Yemeni children are unable to continue their education and roughly 10 percent of schools have closed their doors.

“Yemen is a story of learning and pain,” said Fathi El-Ashry, Senior Education Associate at Creative, during a presentation on that CIES panel.

Learning loss in this environment, he stressed, is a primary concern. But Yemeni educators are taking some creative steps to buffer against learning loss to the extent possible in the midst of conflict, found a survey of eight teachers, headmasters and school staff conducted by Creative.

Survey respondents reported that by keeping classes going they are trying to maintain a routine and a sense of normalcy for students. When confronted with resource shortages, educators reported relying on interactive teaching methods, like plays and oral stories.

“They continue to administer exams and run community awareness campaign. They are trying to find flexible ways,” said El-Ashry.

The teachers also said they are working to maintain student and staff motivation as a means of keeping learning on track.

However, the educators reported students’ fears and anxiety about security was a primary cause of absenteeism and learning disruption, said Maryam Jillani, Education Technical Manager at Creative, on that CIES panel.

Educators reported that they are trying to mitigate this by providing support and a safe space for students to deal with the psychological stress of war.

Though these teachers face an uphill struggle, keeping students in school is a major step to mitigating learning loss, said Jillani.

“Once students are out of school it is much more difficult to bring them back…The fact that there is some sort of routine going is helping to close that widening gap that we may see during times of conflict,” she said.

Meeting psychosocial needs in Nigeria

NIG09221521-300x200 In Northern Nigeria, some 2.2 million people—including more than 1 million school-aged children—have been displaced from their homes due to the Boko Haram insurgency.

Many of these children are fleeing violence, having witnessed the destruction of their homes and even the killing of family members. Learning loss is likely to stem from not only being out-of-school but also having experienced such trauma.

The Nigeria Education Crisis Response Program, which is funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development and implemented by Creative in cooperation with local partners, is addressing these learners’ educational and psychosocial needs through special non-formal learning centers in host communities.

A Community Education and Conflict Assessment revealed that half of all internally displaced children in the region were out of school.

In addition to psychosocial support, these non-forma learning centers provide literacy and math education and, for older youth, livelihoods training as many families have been uprooted from their homes and sources of income. Displaced students will attend classes for up to nine months.

With the aim of ultimately mainstreaming these learners back into regular classrooms, the non-formal learning centers “provide a sense of stability to those living in a very unstable environment,” which helps reduce learning loss, said Jake Thomsen, Education Technical Manager at Creative.

“We know that students don’t just pick up where they left off,” he added.  But the program is helping to mitigate the loss and help these vulnerable learners access education in the midst of conflict.

The case for ongoing evaluation, flexible programming

Efforts like those in Yemen and Nigeria to stem learning loss in conflict and ideally achieve learning gains require ongoing evaluation and adaptive programming, said experts in a separate session on measuring learning in crises.

“Conflict and crisis creates a situation that is complex and rapidly changing and it demands adaptation,” said Sarah Jones, Technical Director at Social Impact. “You have to have a willingness to make change or it is not going to work.”

By embedding evaluation in a program from the beginning and using that data as a constant feedback loop to regularly assess a program’s activities and outcomes, education implementers can adapt programs as needed to address new developments and meet community needs.

“You’re trying to understand trends continuously. In the event that you find something or hear something new it may change your project,” said Wendy Wheaton, Education and Protection Lead at Plan International.

She noted that Creative’s Community Education and Conflict Assessment being used in Northern Nigeria is a model for this kind of feedback loop and adaptive programming.

Susan Rogers, Senior Associate for Design, Monitoring and Evaluation at Creative, agreed that there is a great application for this type of evaluation in the education field, especially in conflict.

Rogers recommends a type of adaptive measurement called Complexity Aware Monitoring for crises and conflict situations like Northern Nigeria “where cause and effect are poorly understood, new opportunities and trends are arising, and a project may need something totally new” to reach learners in need.

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