Enthusiasm for evidence: Can the conditions be created?
by Will Millard
5th October 2017
What is the challenge?
Why does talk of evidence and impact excite some people while alienating others? We (Pippa and Will) met to talk about the similarities and differences between the demand for and use of evidence in formal (school- and classroom-based), informal and non-formal educational and youth settings. Specifically, we discussed the conditions under which ResearchEd, a teacher-led ‘evidence movement’, was established and has since grown, and parallels with the evolution of the Centre for Youth Impact, which supports networks of practitioners across England to develop their use of evidence to improve out-of-school provision for young people.
We identified three influences on the culture, growth and ‘successes’ of both ResearchEd and the work of the Centre for Youth Impact, and engagement with evidence more generally:
- The role of accountability;
- Concepts of professional learning and development, and;
- Network dynamics (in particular, the role of social media).
What is ResearchEd?
ResearchEd seeks to help teachers share educational research and raise evidence ‘literacy’ through events run across the UK and internationally. It was originally intended to be a one-off event in 2013 but has since become an international movement. Describing ResearchEd as a grass-roots organisation, founder and director Tom Bennett says, “it wanted to be built. It built itself”. Some question whether the term ‘grass-roots’ accurately describes ResearchEd, yet as Debra Kidd argues: “What matters is that it’s here. It’s an opportunity. And it’s there for teachers to make of it what they will.”
What is the Centre for Youth Impact?
The Centre for Youth Impact exists to support organisations working with young people in informal/non-formal settings to improve how they generate and use evidence. It was set up with funding from central government, but has always aspired to be owned and led by the sector. The Centre is perceived by some sector stakeholders as an arms-length and external influence on practice, and so cannot be said to be a grassroots movement. However, a focus on building networks across the country and relationships with practitioners is now beginning to generate a community and momentum that goes beyond the core team.
In many ways, ResearchEd has historically been the opposite of the Centre: the former having a tiny core with a large following, and the latter starting life as a slightly larger ‘institution’ but attempting to build a following once it came into existence.
Why do we ‘do’ impact measurement, and why do those working in formal and informal and non-formal settings sometimes view this differently? We think that part of the answer lies in the relationship between evidence and accountability.
Teachers associate accountability with Ofsted, the Department for Education, line managers, and tests and exams. LKMco’s recent report on assessment found that teachers often feel accountability is something done to them, rather than with them (similar language to that used to describe the experience of evaluation in the youth sector). Consequently, ResearchEd and other events and networks including Northern Rocks, TeachMeet, and #BAMEed – precisely because they are seen as grass-roots movements organised by and for teachers – represent a means by which to reassert professional identity and authority.
Furthermore, there is a widespread sense that evidence on which decisions about teachers’ and schools’ performance has been based has at times been dubious, as was explored here, here and here. ResearchEd tapped into teachers’ desire to raise the quality of discussion at all levels, not just about what learning is for and how it can be best supported, but also how it can be evaluated. ResearchEd is by no means the only expression of this desire: nearly one third of schools in England have taken part in one or more Education Endowment Foundation-funded trials, and the Chartered College of Teaching has made sharing evidence one of its core aims.
By way of contrast, the growth of the evidence and impact agenda as it is currently constituted has been associated in parts of the youth sector with a certain form of ‘high stakes’ accountability, and ‘proving’ worth or value to others. Our experience is that the current impact agenda is too often divorced from the processes of reflection, learning and practice improvement that to many are – or should be – inherent in youth work practice, and other forms of informal and non-formal education with young people.
An Education Select Committee report published in 2011 was a notable point at which evidence of effectiveness was posited as the key to sustainability of provision. In subsequent years, funding has remained the primary pressure facing youth workers and managers, and continues to be associated with a pressure to ‘prove’ impact to funders, commissioners and policy makers. So it’s hardly surprising that for many managers and practitioners in youth organisations, the concept of evidence generation and data gathering remains firmly coupled with the pressures of securing and managing funding, and externally-imposed accountability processes. A widespread scepticism that funding and commissioning decisions are not as ‘evidence informed’ as one might wish has done little to increase the value of impact measurement in the minds of many practitioners.
There is a critical eye on the nature and use of evidence in the youth sector, and many would say that it bears little relevance to either practice or the lives of young people. Some have referred to the increasing desire to focus on ‘what works’ in developing young people’s social and emotional capabilities as ‘pseudo-science’. But the corresponding drive of the youth sector – though it might also be seen to be about raising the quality of discussion – has been more ambivalent about the status of research and evidence in its work. The youth sector has certainly not seen such polarization amongst practitioners as in the formal education world, where debates between the ‘trads’ and the ‘progressives’ can get fairly spicy. It is unclear how many youth providers would sign up to be part of research trials, but one suspects it would not be many – certainly not with parameters similar to those conducted by EEF.
There’s no denying ResearchEd’s growing influence. Senior members of the inspectorate, Civil Service, and government have been queuing up to present at the events. This might be a mixed blessing, though. The presence of senior politicians reflects how important it now is to associate with the evidence agenda in education. It also runs the risk of ResearchEd being seen as a conduit through which ministers can exercise their personal ideologies or, worse, an event that actively ostracises those whose views or approaches differ. Bennett, as the founder of ResearchEd, is aware of this challenge, and has publicly talked about steps ResearchEd has taken to remain inclusive (of both people and their ideas). However, ResearchEd’s ongoing success, and more importantly its impact on classroom practice, will depend on it striking the right balance between working with those at the top of the education system while championing the experiences of everyday teachers.
The Centre’s influence is also growing, though it is probably some way off the momentum and international profile of ResearchEd! Meanwhile, the Centre’s team is continuing to challenge and interrogate what is the best trajectory for the Centre. Currently, it feels more meaningful to create space for inclusive debate, with practitioners supported to lead debate, than to provide a platform for politicians.
So what, then, can we do to make evidence and research synonymous with empowerment for all professionals working with young people? We are finding that:
- Irrespective of where ideas come from, practitioners themselves must develop a sense of ownership over events and networks designed to support the sharing of evidence and research.
- The focus of the events and networks should as a consequence be empowerment, and not compliance: ‘we are doing this because we believe it’s valuable in our practice, not because we’ve been told to do it or feel we ought to’.
- A wide range of stakeholders (including practitioners, their organisations, and research institutions) should be involved, providing both operational support and capacity for well-run meetings, but also a breadth of contributions.
- …while if the intention is to build a movement, content needs to respond to needs, interests and points of curiosity within the practitioner audience – not determined by those external or peripheral to it. Something of a challenge – but a critical one – for many of us working in the ‘impact industry’.
Professional learning and development
ResearchEd, like the Chartered College of Teaching, Teacher Development Trust, Institute for Teaching, and EEF, in part reflects a fundamental belief that teaching is something that can be deconstructed, honed and improved over time. Teachers are made, not born. In their respective ways, these organisations reflect teachers’ desire to share their practice, and learn from others. Testament to this have been the high turnouts at ResearchEd events, and teachers moving heaven and earth to attend.
Alongside a deep-rooted belief that coming together to deconstruct and evaluate practice is an inherently good thing to do, teachers have also felt the need to increase their evidence ‘literacy’ to guard against the false promises of ‘snake oil salesmen’ (as Bennett explores, here and here). Sharing research and evidence can therefore generate and bolster good ideas, and reduce the prevalence of bad ones.
At the heart of traditional youth work is the relationship between the youth worker and the young person – a relationship that is voluntary, led by the young person, starts where the young person is, centres on their individuality, networks and community and cultural identities, and focuses on how they feel as well as what they know and can do. The ‘what works’ debate tends to lead to a focus on interventions – programmes or ‘methods’ of working with young people. Arguably the importance of the relationship is missed in some of this thinking. Could we use the evidence agenda help us better understand and communicate what is at the heart of effective work with young people – the relationship between youth worker and young person as a ‘mechanism of change’ in that young person’s life, and their broader community? How can we reboot and inform learning and development – something increasingly neglected in an underfunded and fragmented youth sector? Perhaps in contrast to the parts of the teaching professional body, the youth sector as a whole is not harnessing evidence to challenge ‘fads’ and attempt to strengthen itself and rise up. It has effectively rejected or resisted it instead.
We are learning that:
- Content matters. ResearchEd and other events for teachers, including Northern Rocks and Beyond Levels, present a range of content that addresses practitioners’ professional interests and needs, in the here and now – not just what might be coming down the line.
- Bums on seats matter. Both ResearchEd and the Centre for Youth Impact’s events are very well attended, and drive up engagement in evidence in and out the conference room. This becomes a virtuous circle, wherein future events are popular because people want to know what the fuss is about.
- We can do more to bring together the reflective, learning processes inherent in youth work with much of what the evidence and impact ‘movements’ have to offer methodologically – but perhaps only if we can do more to separate the latter from high stakes accountability processes.
Networks (and particularly social media)
In addition to the role that evidence does and has historically played in professional experience, it’s possible that the structures and processes of networks themselves have had an influence in the evolution of our evidence movement.
Networks – and particularly those on Twitter – have been fundamental in ResearchEd’s success. As Bennett has explained, ResearchEd grew out of a single tweet, posted late one evening in 2013. The first conference in September that same year attracted over 500 people. Ever since, ResearchEd has used the combination of events and social media to expand its reach. Likewise, grassroots events such as Beyond Levels and TeachMeet also quickly gained traction through a budding online community.
Of course, it would be naïve to pretend social media is hassle free. Alongside its many benefits, social media can sometimes be any or all of reactive, aggressive, cliquey, and, consequently, intimidating for new (and sometimes even veteran) users. This is an inherent challenge associated with using social media platforms, but has practical ramifications for ResearchEd, which must probe at deeply held ideas while remaining constructive.
The Centre for Youth Impact’s networks have evolved primarily offline – through a small core team, and regional networks, whose leaders received a small fee to contribute towards administration, and help them widen their reach. We have reached out through and invested in existing networks where possible, seeking to reflect the views of practitioners on the ground while drawing together a diverse range of experiences and perspectives from across a fragmented sector. Building trust and perceptions of time well spent, face to face and in small groups, has been critical to the sustainability of the Centre.
There’s clearly no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to establish and grow networks. Funding to support the development of regional networks supports the sharing of ideas locally, but perhaps lacks an overarching, galvanising force. On the other hand, engagement through social media is energetic and organic, but could isolate teachers who do not have, or feel under-confident using online accounts or ‘speaking out’ in this forum.
The emergence of ResearchEd (and other events and networks) indicates:
- How powerful social media – and Twitter in particular – can be in engaging a range of practitioners.
- Social media can help reach practitioners who have not previously engaged in the regular sharing of ideas with people outside their school or organisation.
- There remains a role for offline, or more formal networks in providing space for face to face interaction – but these will only gain the sense of a movement if coupled with proactive, spontaneous and passionate continuation of discussion outside of those spaces.
Where do we go from here?
Our conversation highlighted to us that when promoting evidence and impact to our respective audiences we need to more explicitly acknowledge how systems of accountability affect practitioners; how and where practitioners look for inspiration; and how networks support empowerment.
The evidence movements surrounding both the Centre for Youth Impact and ResearchEd differ significantly. This may not be due to a fundamental lack of interest or engagement in the youth sector, but because ‘evidence’ is perhaps seen as another stick with which to beat an already weakened profession. In addition, there are arguably philosophical and pedagogical differences between teachers and youth practitioners, influencing how each group engages with research and evidence. In theory, we recognise huge potential in the youth sector for a grassroots-led movement that allows practitioners to ‘reclaim’ the evidence agenda, but in reality, we must recognise the impact of political pressures and resource limitations on people’s willingness to engage.
Both the Centre for Youth Impact and LKMco intend to support practitioners to embrace evidence as a means by which to celebrate their achievements, while honing and refining their craft. We will continue to acknowledge that research and use of evidence will always be a political activity, but strive for openness and clarity about why generating evidence is important, and who stands to benefit and learn from it.
Furthermore, there is potential for more widespread voluntary online communities to develop in the informal and non-formal educational sectors, giving a wider range of practitioners a say, and engaging a wider range of people. However, we see roles for both online and offline discussion spaces in helping build these movements.