Disaster education: It should be all about the learners


I remember whilst doing teacher training, a lecturer said to the class, ‘you won’t be a good teacher until you can gauge the value of the learning activity from being in the shoes of the student’.

This adage rings true for any type of learning, for any age. Education should be learner-centred.

In some cases emergency agencies and other organisations have forgotten this basic principle of education, communications and engagement (ECE) and have sent messages and information hoping that they may hit the mark with all people. This ‘hit and miss’ approach has generally failed according to research from around the world.

To improve Disaster ECE and better understand learners in at-risk communities, four processes are recommended:

  1. Relate Disaster ECE to learning theory. As shown in the graphic above there are many different theories that can guide the design of Disaster ECE not only for children but also for adults. There are four main learning domains: behavioural, cognitive, affective and social. Unfortunately, there has been little disaster ECE research linking disaster learning to these learning theories which have been developed and tested over many years. I have explored this link in the my new book ‘Disaster Education, Communication and Engagement; to be published by Wiley in 2020.
  2. Relate Disaster ECE to specific groups or sectors of learners in the community. For example, school students in the formal education system learn in different ways to businesses in at-risk areas. The learning needs of the potentially vulnerable in the community (e.g. disabled, elderly, youth) should particularly be addressed.
  3. Use archetypes if available. The use of archetypes can help identify learners in an at-risk community and appropriate Disaster ECE content and methods. Carl Jung instigated the popular use of archetypes in psychology. He viewed an archetype as a typical character to whom an observer might emotionally resonate. Archetypes have been developed for several hazards including bushfire in Australia.
  4. Encourage participation of the learners in the design, implementation and evaluation of the Disaster ECE activities. This will help ensure that their learning needs will be met.

Tailoring disaster education programs to local communities


The Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030 adopted at the Third UN World Conference for Disaster Risk Reduction in Sendai, Japan provides strong guidance to support local efforts to build resilience to disasters within the context of sustainable development. As part of disaster risk reduction, Disaster Education, Communication and Engagement (ECE) also needs to be tailored where possible to local communities and individual learners. Research has shown the limitations of broad nation-wide Disaster ECE campaigns and the value of tailoring programs to local needs.

The above framework for tailoring Disaster ECE to local at-risk communities and individual learners has been explored, designed and tested.  The framework consists of three steps that lead to the ‘outputs’ – the design of tailored local community Disaster ECE plans, programs and learning activities. The three steps are:

1. Broad principles of effective Disaster ECE. It has been found that many disaster education programs rely primarily on the provision of generic information and preparedness plan templates and this ‘traditional’ approach can be lacking in impact e.g. to motivate preparedness behaviours. Principles based on evidence from disaster psychology, sociology and learning theory have been shown to be preferable in developing effective Disaster ECE plans and programs.

2. ‘Palettes’ of potential content and methods to choose from in the design of the Disaster ECE plan, program or activity. The content range should be across the disaster management cycle (mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery). However, if Disaster ECE provided by emergency agencies is to help build disaster resilience through learning then it needs to not only be geared to public safety and reducing risks to property, but also to attaining an efficient recovery to ‘bounce back’ (or preferably ‘bounce forward’) through the post-disaster processes. Furthermore, to help with building disaster resilience, learning should also be obtained by post-disaster evaluation conducted not only by agencies (e.g. after action reviews) but also with impacted communities (e.g. community de-brief meetings, resilience forums, webinars). For weather-related hazards (e.g. flood, heatwave, drought, wildfire/bushfire), learning related to climate change adaptation should be added, as it will impact on the other content.

A new classification of Disaster ECE methods has been developed. From an examination of Disaster ECE activity on Twitter and an assessment of methods covered in disaster management literature, a new typology  was created. The four categories of ECE methods identified are:
a. Information – one-way information provided across the disaster management cycle
b. Interactions – methods that use interrelationships for learning
c. Skills and capabilities – methods that build or acknowledge people’s skills and capabilities
d. Creative expression – methods that use creativity for disaster learning.

3. ‘Filters’ to identify appropriate local content and methods from the palettes guided by the principles of effective Disaster ECE.

As shown in the framework, there are five ‘filters’ that help tailor Disaster ECE content and methods to local communities and learners. The filters are:
1. Community profile
2. Hazard risks
3. Risk reduction
4. Emergency Management
5. Learners


For more details and guidance read Disaster Education, Communication and Engagement by Neil Dufty to be published by Wiley in early 2020.

Disaster Education, Communication and Engagement (ECE) – an introduction



Like the Three Musketeers (“All for one and one for All”), disaster ‘Education’, ‘Communication’ and ‘Engagement’ (ECE) work best as one. Although this may appear obvious to many in disaster management, in some emergency agencies around the world the three can be in different divisions of the organisation, and not necessarily working as one in a seamless fashion for public safety.

Let us explore the personalities of the ECE trio, and then look at why they work best as one.

Disaster education

Education is the process of facilitating learning. There are only a handful of research books on disaster education, although it is mainstream in many emergency agencies and humanitarian organisations. In one of these books, Professor John Preston states “there is surprisingly little writing in the field of disaster education/pedagogy”. He feels this is largely due to disaster education being a “new area of enquiry in the field of education”. Preston believes that disaster education, rather than only giving instruction, “engages individuals in learning about emergency situations whether in preparation, response or recovery from a disaster”.

In another book, the editors – Shaw, Shiwaku and Takeuchi – also acknowledge that “disaster education is an evolving subject. New ideas, methods, and tools will be generated over time”. The book divides disaster education into three modes:

  1. Formal education – education provided in the system of schools, colleges, universities and other formal educational institutions. For example, sections of a curriculum that includes content on hazards, preparedness and safety.
  2. Non-formal education – organised and sustained educational activities that are not part of the formal curricula of the education institutions, and can cater to persons of all ages. For example, presentations by emergency agencies to the public or schools (extra-curricular).
  3. Informal education – from daily activities related to work, family life or leisure, where the learning is not structured, e.g. learning about emergencies from the media including social media.

The above classification helps dispel the view held by some that disaster education is solely learning in formal settings e.g. school education.

Disaster communication

Communication is the act of transferring information from one place to another. It can denote two different processes:

  1. the transmission of information (a one-way process)
  2. sharing information (a common or mutual process).

Both processes are included in current emergency communication strategies.

Capture 1

In disaster management, the transmission model (one-way process) is primarily used where there is information disseminated by emergency agencies for alerts and warnings. In contrast, the idea of sharing information implies a common or mutual process. The use of social media as an emergency communication tool inherently involves two-way information sharing.

Disaster communication has developed in two parts in relation to the ‘disaster cycle’:

  1. Risk communication. Seeks to inform people about a potential future harm and the associated dangers so that they might take action to mitigate the risk. It relates to the ‘mitigation’ and ‘preparedness’ part of the disaster cycle.
  2. Crisis communication. Focusses on communication during an event (‘response’ phase) and as part of ‘recovery’.

Another categorisation of disaster communication relates to the length of the communication period. ‘Acute’ communication occurs during emergencies where there is a need for rapid dissemination of lifeline information. On the other hand, ‘long term’ communication occurs over an extended period prior to and after emergency events or disasters e.g. disaster risk reduction, post-disaster reconstruction.

Disaster engagement

There is no commonly agreed definition of community engagement and the term is often used interchangeably with a number of other concepts such as consultation, participation, collaboration and empowerment, all of which are related to community engagement but do not capture all aspects of the concept.

A critical part of engagement is two-way dialogue that proactively seeks out community values, concerns and aspirations.

There are several approaches to community engagement. One approach that is universally supported is that based on the International Association for Public Participation (IAP2) Spectrum. The IAP2 Spectrum depicts community engagement as a continuum, ranging from low-level engagement strategies such as consultation to high-level strategies such as empowerment.

One key point to note about this continuum is where the power lies at each of the five levels in the Spectrum. In the first three levels – ‘inform’, ‘consult’, ‘involve’ – the final decisions rest with the professionals e.g. emergency agencies, while in the fifth level power (‘empower’) it has been transferred completely to the consumers or citizens. Only at the fourth level (‘collaboration’) is there a genuine sharing of power.

The IAP2 Spectrum provides guidance on the types of activities that are appropriate for each level of engagement. The Spectrum has been incorporated into some disaster engagement guides such as Australia’s National Disaster Resilience Community Engagement Framework.

The triumvirate

From the above, the following five observations in favour of disaster ECE are made:

  1. Each of the three have strong attributes which all need to be recognised and garnered by those involved in disaster management. For instance, education is geared to achieving learning outcomes, communication is about sharing accurate and tailored information, and engagement enables community dialogue and decision-making.
  2. There are strong theoretical linkages between education, communications and engagement. For example, ‘social learning’, a domain of education, is similar in intent and implementation to ‘engagement’. The first two steps of engagement in the IAP2 Spectrum – ‘inform’ and ‘consult’ – are the same as one-way and two-way communication. Part of the cognitive learning domain in education involves the ability to critical analyse information from communication.
  3. In reality, the lines of demarcation between the three are blurred in disaster management initiatives. For example, a community event (e.g. field day, agricultural show, meet the street, community drill) designed by an emergency agency for community preparedness may have elements of all three e.g. provision of preparedness information including pre-advertising (communication), dialogue relating to possible issues and barriers to preparedness (engagement) and learning designed to make safe decisions in an emergency (education). Most public safety plans prepared by emergency agencies have elements of all three, although they are usually tagged with the name of one of them.
  4. For most of the disaster cycle, the ECE triumvirate should be in place and working seamlessly to their individual and cumulative strengths. However, if there is little warning time prior to an emergency event (e.g. earthquake, flash flood) then one-way communication in the form of an alert may be the only one of the three that is possible.
  5. Ultimately, disaster ECE leads to disaster learning which helps enable individuals and communities manage risk, make safe decisions when an emergency occurs, and recover after the event.

Upcoming posts in this blog will explore and unpack aspects of the disaster ECE triumvirate.