Knowing and actively debating why, the heart of every policy

by Rien Rouw
Analyst, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills

What makes some of the largest companies in the world successful? According to consultant Simon Sinek in a very popular TedTalk it is because they start with the ‘why’. While many companies are good in telling what they do and how they do it, outstanding firms succeed in organising and communicating from their raison d’être. Because that is what the why is about: the reason for existence of organisations, their purposes, beliefs and aspirations. Communicating from the why goes something like this: “we want to support you to take control of your life (why), therefore all our devices are user friendly (how), such as this beautiful computer (what)”. The why is crucial Sinek argues, because it inspires and engages both employees and customers.

Does this simple concept only apply to the world of business, or would it also hold true for public services, more specifically for education? There is certainly evidence from several educational reforms we studied in the context of the Governing Complex Education Systems project, that engaging with the rationale and the underlying concepts, i.e. the why, made a difference in the uptake of the reforms by schools.

Our case studies showed the importance that school leadership and school culture promote sufficient focus on the why. In Flanders for example, while implementing revised system level attainment goals, some schools renewed their education accordingly, going through an intensive multiannual and collaborative professional development trajectory of training the trainers and peer coaching in new methods. More individually, school leaders encouraging teachers to take part in the developing of education goals at a system level proved to be beneficial for owning the rationale of the goals and putting them into practice in line with it.

In Norway, where school leaders promoted the why, this led to more successful implementation of the formative assessment programme in school that aimed at changing professional attitudes towards research and knowledge. The researchers noted the importance that school leaders “based their implementation strategies on a clear understanding of the programme goals and (…) could integrate these goals within the broader aims of educational policy and school practice”.

In contrast, our case studies showed that not engaging with the rationale could lead to the partial uptake of a reform by school leaders and teachers, to a superficial realisation of new concepts or even to the opposite implementation of a new scheme. For example, researchers in Norway also noted that various schools tended to implement the formative assessment programme as if they were following a recipe – with many teachers unquestioningly applying the tools provided by the Ministry in their classrooms – instead of taking professional ownership of the concept. In Poland, while the introduction of a new supervision and school inspection regime in 2009 was meant to promote a collaborative culture, in some localities it led to distrust and local power games.

If embedding the why in local practices is so important, what can governments do to strengthen this? The first avenue is professional development both of school leaders and teachers. Professional development activities should be designed as truly two-way processes, with participants actively engaging with the why and confronting it with their own motivations and aspirations and relating the why to the specific knowledge and concrete tools that are being provided.

It is even more important for a government to recognise that the why is a crucial motivating force that needs to be kept vital throughout the policy process through an open and ongoing dialogue. This is not as obvious as it seems. Quite often the purposes behind a policy initiative drop off the radar as soon as it reaches the phase of policy design and implementation. At that stage, negotiations on responsibilities, tasks, funding and accountability are dominant. Up the policy road evaluations tend to be rather instrumental in many cases, focusing on goals, processes and mechanisms and leaving the underlying purposes out. However, to be vital the why needs to be dynamic, i.e. open for negotiation and adaptation along the way. To be motivating for all stakeholders the why needs to be multidimensional. It must be written in a language that speaks to teachers and school leaders and relates to their aspirations.

‘Start with why’, the phrase coined by Sinek, is easily misinterpreted. As if starting means only beginning and then leaving it behind. On the contrary, ‘starting’ means putting the why in the heart of every policy and keeping it alive across all stages of the policy life cycle.

Strategic Education Governance project
The Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI)

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