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Reframing girls’ education as valuable family legacy

Graduate Student Research Funding recipient Ayodele Dada is exploring how linking education to the idea of legacy affects girls’ access to education in northern Nigeria.

Ayodele Dada grew up in a low-income community of Lagos, Nigeria, where neighbors looked after one another’s children and shared what they had, even when that meant they were left with less.

Later, as a Stanford PhD Psychology student studying how to reduce gender inequities in education, Dada learned about problems associated with a generally successful UNICEF cash transfer program meant to encourage families to send their daughters to school, and how some families in the control group were so upset about not receiving money that they withdrew their children from school in protest. These problems did not surprise him.

“It reminded me of my experiences growing up,” he says. “My mom would prepare dinner for six people, but, if we had five uninvited guests, we had to share everything with everyone. That was the norm. If some people don’t receive something that others got, they feel they have been cheated. It can cause conflict.”

A village in Kaduna, with lots of greenery
Dada conducted research in Kaduna, Nigeria.

Dada felt interventions like the cash transfer program he read about were undermined by a “lack of value alignment,” and when he set out to pursue his own research, which has been supported by the Stanford King Center on Global Development, he wanted to try something different. In an ongoing field experiment that includes more than 1,000 families in six communities in northern Nigeria, he and collaborators are studying whether framing education as a legacy, that families can hand down to their children and grandchildren, will result in increased school attendance for their daughters. 

“I strongly believe interventions have to take into account the values of people,” he says. “You have to show how what you’re trying to give people”—in this case, education—“also elevates the things they value in their culture.”

Dada earned his undergraduate degree in psychology from the University of Lagos in 2015. He chose Stanford for his PhD in part because Stanford Department of Psychology Professor Carol Dweck responded to an email he sent her while conducting research for his senior thesis. 

“I just felt so validated,” he says. “Maybe you’re in this relatively obscure part of the world, but someone listened to your ideas and thought they were worthwhile.”

Today, in what Dada calls a “full circle moment,” Dweck is one of his advisors.  

People sitting in a room conducting interviews
Field officers conducting surveys with parent participants in Kaduna

For his research, Dada and collaborators perused a book of proverbs in the Hausa language spoken in northern Nigeria and identified legacy as a value that might resonate with families in the context of education. Then, he and his field officers piloted a series of hour-long qualitative interviews with about 30 families, trying to assess their views on education for their daughters.

“We were curious about what barriers people had around educating girls,” he says. “We learned that some parents perceive education as competitive with other goals they had for their daughters”—such as marriage. “We saw we needed to convey the value of legacy in a way that shows these things as not mutually exclusive.”

In an initial field study with about 600 families, fathers were particularly receptive to the value of legacy: After listening to people tell stories about how education had helped their descendants, they were more likely to allocate hypothetical educational funds to their daughters. Mothers did not necessarily allocate more of the money to their daughters but, in their qualitative responses, it was clear they “cared deeply about their daughters’ education,” Dada says.

Dweck says Dada is “making a real contribution to psychology.”

“Most people would like to contribute something of lasting value and most parents want the best for their children,” Dweck says. “Ayo merged these two values—showing parents how they could leave a lasting legacy by supporting their children’s education—with an emphasis on girls’ education. He made vivid to parents how their support for their children’s education could echo down through the generations, contributing, in a lasting way, to their community.”

In an expansion of his field study, Dada and his team have divided more than 400 parents into a treatment group—that hears stories linking legacy to education—and a control group that hears a more generic message about the importance of nutrition. In addition to the resource allocation task, they plan to use natural language processing to cross-validate the quantitative findings with the words people use to talk about education for girls. After a year, the team will measure the daughters’ school attendance and grades to see if the treatment made a difference.

Dada says the King Center community, including events the center organizes and hosts, has been invaluable to his work. Last year, he participated in a Research Roadmap panel discussion about conducting research in Africa, where panelists discussed topics including building relationships with governments, NGOs, and private companies, as well as principles of ethical research and community impact.

“One of the more powerful things the King Center has done is just bringing people together who have similar interests in research,” he says. “I’ve benefited greatly from that. It was helpful to see I wasn’t alone in thinking about these problems. Other people are thinking about them as well.”

A group photo of nine people smiling
Team photo of Dada and field researchers

Dada says he hopes his research will help other scholars see the benefits of incorporating local values into their studies. 

“It is important to do research not just for people—and never on people—but rather with people,” he says. “Once people sense that you know their values, then mutual respect is created and trust increases. They will open up more to you.”