Education Diplomacy: From Local Practice to Global Agendas

When Su Corcoran and Sarah Darley-Nolan found out about the 2015 Institute for Global Education Diplomacy in Washington, DC, they wanted to know more about the concept and understand how it fit into their work in education. The conditions of their funding to attend the Institute from the North West Doctoral Training Centre (NWDTC) required that they cascade what they had learned into their work in the UK. In the following article, they reflect on that process and why they chose a very different structure for a workshop in Manchester, UK, from the one they had originally planned.

Education Diplomacy: Interpreting the Concept

The 2015 Institute for Global Education Diplomacy was an extremely thought-provoking experience.

The 2015 Institute for Global Education Diplomacy was an extremely thought-provoking experience. Education is a vast field, in which each individual concept‑be it policy, classroom practice, lifelong learning, pedagogy, engagement, assessment, performance, to name a few—is a multi-dimensional idea in its own right. Therefore, as the Institute provided not only an overview of the education diplomacy concept, but also information about the ways in which it may be defined and utilised in practice, the extent to which different presentations* explored quite different interpretations of the concept raised the question of whether it is possible to develop a working definition of education diplomacy - and whether we should. On the final morning of the Institute, we worked through an interactive session that helped us think through such a definition.

The session began with the question “What are the issues facing children and/or youth today?” In groups, we discussed this question and considered the programs, approaches, initiatives, campaigns, etc. that show the most promise for positively addressing these issues. We also considered how education diplomacy could be used to resolve these issues. It was interesting to listen to the groups’ feedback about which issues they had considered. For example, our table focused on issues of poverty and how that translated into very different realities within the different country contexts where we work (Kenya, Nigeria, UK, and USA were represented).

Therefore, when we were asked to develop our individual working definitions of education diplomacy, at the end of the session, we felt that it was important to recognise how education diplomacy is an evolving concept, or process, that must take into account the context as well as the ways in which our emotions affect both our interpretation of the definition, and how we engage with it in practice. With these observations in mind, the two of us felt that the workshop we were to organise in the UK should be less about cascading specific lessons learned, and more about whether education diplomacy could be defined and what problems were inherent to the development of a definition.

When developing the workshop, which we called ‘Education Diplomacy: From Local Practice to Global Agendas,’ we took advantage of our contacts within the fields of inclusive education and intercultural communication. We invited three speakers who had not attended the Institute, as well as Dr. Katharina Höne from Diplo Foundation (http://www.diplomacy.edu/) who had spoken in one of the panels in DC, to lead sessions. That way, we brought new voices to the table while maintaining some level of continuity beyond our own points of view. We provided the speakers with links to Center for Education Diplomacy website (www.educationdiplomacy.org) and answered questions if they raised them, but decided not to explain our own understanding of education diplomacy; we wanted them to present their sessions based on how they saw the concept. In so doing, we wanted to observe how the concept of education diplomacy was understood, while also providing a basis through which we could discuss the challenges faced by ACEI in developing the concept.

Our first speaker was Dr. Susie Miles, who co-founded the Enabling Education Network (EENET: www.eenet.org.uk), an inclusive education information-sharing network. Her presentation was a reflection on the process of developing the network with a particular focus on how it could be described, retrospectively, as education diplomacy in practice. Her main observation in this instance was that EENET had been implementing education diplomacy, but in a different language, and how changes in the language often result in a change in focus to prioritise a certain aspect of either the education or the diplomatic process. Katharina then led a session that introduced her own background in diplomacy, rather than education, and facilitated a discussion into what the delegates did and, given their current ideas about education diplomacy, how they could see it applying to their own situations. The majority of the delegates were PhD students working within the fields of education and international development. Their experiences covered aspects of policy, classroom practice, language use, street-connectedness, leadership, and learning in the voluntary sector, in a variety of countries and contexts.

To provide a less academic session, Sam Harris from the International Society (http://www.internationalsociety.org.uk/) facilitated a session on intercultural communication. Using different comic strip images, he addressed many of the challenges of communicating across cultures and contexts. For example, are we truly listening if we haven’t understood the context within which a statement is being made? Following this, we conducted a session that examined the issues facing children and youth today. This session was inspired by the final session of the Institute; rather than focus on positive interventions, however, we discussed how these issues could be both exacerbated and resolved. Again, the delegates were asked to develop a working definition of education diplomacy for their own individual context. As expected, the definitions were many and varied. Therefore, we compared the development of global education diplomacy as a concept to that of inclusive education (IE).

When the UNESCO Salamanca Statement, which calls on the international community to endorse the approach of inclusive schools by implementing practical and strategic changes, was ratified and countries signed onto it, they did so without a specific definition of IE. Like education diplomacy, IE should be context appropriate and aim to include all marginalised learners within that context. In practice however, IE is now defined in both narrow and wide terms. In some countries, it narrowly focuses on the special provision of schools for learners with medically assessed disabilities; in other countries, it extends to provide all learners with access to quality education: girls, boys, street-connected, indigenous, children with disabilities, indigenous peoples, etc. However, even though the research suggests that context-appropriate methods that prioritise local languages, cultures, and contexts are often the most effective, practice does not always live up to this standard. Therefore, education diplomacy would legitimise and provide a framework for championing education across contexts as long as care is taken to ensure that it doesn’t legitimise western actors inflicting their philosophies on other countries in the name of diplomacy.

With the development of this conclusion in mind, we invited Dr. Dimi Kaneva to speak about her experiences developing early education programmes in a Botswana university and how, coming from a UK-based university, she is seen as the expert and her colleagues in Botswana did not appreciate that dropping a programme of education developed in the UK into the Botswana context would not be the best approach to developing the course. For example, definitions of ‘child’ and ‘play’ are not the same. Therefore, what do you do when you recognise the need to develop a local understanding, but that is not what the local actors had envisaged?   

The workshop was a success and prompted everyone to think. We asked all the delegates to consider ways in which education diplomacy could apply to their own work; in general, the ideas were positive. In fact, one of the evaluation responses to ‘How can we improve on this event if we did it again?’ was to run it annually.

* Throughout the Institute, both of us wrote blog posts detailing the nature of the sessions we attended and our immediate reflections at the end of each day. These blog posts can be found by searching for #IGED2015 on our blogs (the URL addresses are in our bios below).

Su Corcoran has a decade of experience working in secondary science education teaching theory of knowledge in the UK state and international sectors. Along the way, she’s gained an education, both formally and informally, in aspects of international development related to education and social policy. Over the last six years, Su’s experience has focused on street-connectedness (concerning children and youth living and working in street-based situations). Currently, Su is completing a PhD exploring the experiences of street-connected children and youth as they transition away from street situations in Kenya. She is also the network coordinator of the Enabling Education Network (www.eenet.org.uk), an inclusive education information-sharing network providing access to information and encouraging critical thinking, innovation, and conversations about issues of inclusion equity and rights in education. Blog: www.sucorcoran.wordpress.com

Sarah Darley-Nolan is a PhD student at the University of Manchester. Sarah’s research focuses on adult learning and development outside of formal education. Through a multiple case study, she is exploring how volunteers are trained within UK-based health and social care charities and how they learn to perform what can be challenging and complex service-providing roles. By drawing upon sociocultural theories of learning, the research intends to move beyond the idea of volunteer training as skills acquisition and knowledge transfer, to reconceptualise learning within this context as a social, transformative, and collective process. Blog: www.sdarley.wordpress.com