Why do all governments find curriculum reform so difficult? Perhaps they are powerless in the face of endless lobbying. During the attempts to ‘slim down’ the national curriculum in 2000, one government official showed me letters from the Campaign for Real Ale and the Anarchist Federation, demanding that, yes, real ale and anarchy should have a place in the national curriculum. Maybe they fall prey to a ‘tyranny of experts’, who find it impossible to make real choices that could meaningfully reduce content. Overall, the demands of civil society and its myriad of interest groups who believe that what happens to children between 9 and 3.30 weekdays might solve each of society’s problems may be as much to blame as any power-fuelled or change-obsessed politician.
After making useful initial noises about curriculum change and school freedom, guided by Tim Oates’ robust and readable paper about international approaches to curriculum reform, the coalition’s approach to rewriting the national curriculum may eventually be seen as a case study in bad policymaking: Poor use of evidence and expertise, meaningless consultation processes, slippery timetables and unnecessary creation of uncertainties that destabilise schools’ strategic planning. Above all, reform has been shaped by what the ASCL’s Brian Lightman has called ‘cart before horse’ thinking in two ways. First, announcements are being made about changes to accountability and assessment regimes in advance of curriculum decisions. The assessment tail is wagging the curriculum dog. And second, as the Institute of Education’s John White has explained, curriculum reform needs to start by agreeing about overall aims, then consider content, before finally making decisions about how to structure this content, through subjects or other models. Subjects, and subject knowledge, will undoubtedly figure in any final curriculum framework (and contrary to the views of some – see my recent twitter spat – the RSA does not wish to ‘abolish subjects’), but this should not be our starting point.
At a key moment in the current debate, with more announcements due in January, RSA is stepping into the fray in the best way it knows how: blending practice, theory, policy ideas and a hint of idealism.
The suite of reports we released last week, written by Louise Thomas, summarises findings from the RSA’s three year Area Based Curriculum project in Peterborough. It includes guides for practitioners, case studies and evaluation reports. It aims to provide an honest, practical and reflective analysis of the project’s findings, and its potential implications for policy and practice.
The curriculum has always been a political animal. As a nation, and as institutions and individuals, it defines our values and reflects our hopes for future generations. Any attempt to try and ‘depoliticise’ the curriculum is neither desirable nor realistic. Indeed, most debates about the curriculum start from the wrong place. Instead of asking ‘what should the curriculum include’, our starting question should always be ‘who should determine what the curriculum includes’? As Andreas Schleicher from the OECD has argued, curriculum design should be seen as a ‘grand social project’. This links to RSA’s own values and expertise around social productivity as the best means to improve public services, and expanding human capability as the ultimate goal of society.
If the promise of a genuinely slimmed down national curriculum is ultimately upheld, this could be a key moment for schools to reclaim a significant part of the ‘whole curriculum’ – that element (maybe 50%?) of children’s schooling which is not nationally prescribed. Curriculum innovation, as I argued at a recent Guardian conference, should not just mean creative tinkering with the national curriculum. It requires a school community to determine a set of additional aims, knowledge and skills, and innovating to make sure young people learn these in addition to the national curriculum.
Designing your own curriculum is never an easy option, especially when so many off the shelf packages exist, and ‘national curriculum overload’ can always provide a ready excuse for inaction. Our learning from Peterborough and elsewhere is that the effort is worth it. The process through which a school decides and designs its own curriculum, whilst time-consuming, forces and enables schools to think about their aims, ethos, and partnerships with the wider community – all key factors in building great schools.
However, schools that take this path need to ensure that any innovation is rigorous; the more you are breaking with conventions, the more you need to understand the conventions. They also need to ensure that the quality of the pedagogical thinking matches the quality of the curriculum thinking. Finally, design should be done through a genuine partnership with individuals and institutions in a school’s community – to create a curriculum designed by, with and for a locality. (For an example of bad practice-making in curriculum reform, read about my attempts as a naïve primary school teacher).
Will schools take the curriculum ‘road less taken’? The key factor probably won’t be the actual content of the national curriculum. It won’t be structural changes; whether you are an academy, free school or otherwise is largely irrelevant to this issue. The key factors in unleashing curriculum innovation will be other levers, especially assessment and accountability mechanisms, that all schools are subjected to. Will Ofsted ensure that both national and locally generated curricula carry equal weight? Will narrow assessment systems nudge schools to narrow their offer? Will the revised teacher and headteacher standards encourage curriculum innovation? What will government do when the media find schools that are teaching things that they don’t like?
Throughout its history the RSA has built and sustained interest in school curriculum issues. Building on this reputation, as well as our learning from the Area Based Curriculum and our Opening Minds framework, we will continue to contribute in four ways:
First, we will continue to work in Peterborough through the Peterborough Learning Partnership, and find ways to transfer our learning to other areas interested in developing local curricula.
Second, in partnership with the Institute of Education and the Curriculum Foundation, and supported by the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, NAHT and OCR we have launched a pioneering professional development programme for teachers and other educators. Grand Curriculum Designs will foster a new generation of skilled and sensitive curriculum designers.
Third, we will continue to foster curriculum innovation in our growing family of academies.
Finally, we will continue to offer the RSA’s House and online platforms as spaces for purposeful, evidence-based debates about the curriculum to take place. This includes an event in January on the English curriculum.
Local knowledge needs local power. If this government is serious about freeing all schools from some central control, they will need to make sure that every school has the freedom, training and incentives to design their own curricula. This will need changes to accountability so that Ofsted inspect a school’s whole curriculum rather than the just the national curriculum; and so that schools have outward accountability to their communities rather than just upward accountability to Ofsted and government.
This guest blog is from Chris Wellings, UK Head of Policy at Save the Children. We are exploring a partnership with Save the Children to import and adapt the Harlem Children’s Zone model in one or more UK settings, as a long term pilot in improving outcomes for children in areas of concentrated disadvantage. The Harlem Children’s Zone “seeks to create a ‘pipeline’ of support for children by linking high-quality schools and early years provision with personal, social and health support for them and their families, and with community development initiatives. It is doubly holistic in working with children over time and across all the contexts in which they learn and develop” (Dyson, 2012).
In our new guise as part of RSA’s Action and Research Centre, RSA Education is perfectly placed to foster these kinds of partnerships, working with our Family of Academies and harnessing the expertise and energy of our Fellows.
Save the Children believes children’s background should not limit the opportunities they have in life. However, as things stand children from poorer homes do worse educationally than their classmates. Last year 34% of pupils on free schools achieved 5 good GCSEs, compared to 62% of better-off pupils.
We therefore supported the Institute for Public Policy Research to carry out new data analysis into the achievement gap at GCSE level. The resulting paper from the IPPR was published last week or you can also read Save the Children’s summary briefing.
Firstly the research found that school improvement strategies have a key role to play in closing the achievement gap, but on their own they will be insufficient. Children from deprived areas would benefit most from more higher-quality schools (pupils from the 25% most deprived postcodes score on average 4Bs and 4Cs at GCSE in outstanding schools compared to an average of 4Cs and 4Ds in an inadequate school) but those from wealthier postcodes would also do better. As a result absolute scores would increase across the board but much of the achievement gap would remain. Even if every child attended an outstanding school the educational achievement gap between the wealthiest and poorest pupils would only be cut by a fifth.
In fact the IPPR analysis shows that children from poorer backgrounds tend to perform worse than their wealthier peers whether they are in a strong or a weak school. This shows that to close the gap we need to focus some of our efforts at the pupil (rather than the institution) level so that we close the achievement gap within each school. The Pupil Premium could provide the sort of targeted interventions we need but it must be spent on approaches that are proven to tackle low achievement.
Secondly the research found that around half of the achievement gap we see at GCSE level is already present by the time children enter secondary school. This shows that the early years and primary schools have a pivotal role to play in closing the gap. We must do more to ensure every child starts school ready to succeed and because the positive impact from early years interventions can fade over time we must sustain this progress while children are at school. Intensive catch-up programmes as children transition from primary to secondary schools should be available for pupils falling behind. This is the approach taken in world-class systems such as Finland, where nearly half of pupils receive some catch-up tuition over their school life. The alternative is that from age 11 onwards these children will have to make equal progress with their peers simply to maintain existing performance gaps.
Thirdly the research provided some important insights into the nature of the educational achievement gap. It showed there is a clear and consistent relationship between deprivation and academic achievement at GCSE level – the trend holds across the scale of deprivation. This problem cannot be neatly divided into the achievements of children from poorer homes and the rest. It showed that the education gap is not just about pupils failing to get the top grades, but is also characterised by a long tail of low achievement. Estimates suggest that closing the gap will require a bigger improvement in grades at the lower end of the distribution than at the top end of the distribution.
The conclusions are clear. School improvement strategies are vital because all children do better in higher-quality schools and alongside raising overall performance they can also close some of the gap. However to close more of the gap we also need to focus some of our efforts on pupil-level interventions targeted at children from poor homes in every school. The Pupil Premium is a good mechanism for this but the Government must ensure the resources are spent on approaches that are proven to work. Approximately half of the achievement gap that we see at GCSE level is evident before those children entered secondary school. We therefore need a whole-system approach to narrowing the gap that combines early years reforms with a focus on the primary and secondary years and we must ensure intensive catch-up programmes are available at key points. Finally the education gap debate must recognise that there is a consistent relationship between deprivation and low achievement across the scale of deprivation and that the problem is characterised by a long tail of low achievement as well as pupils from poorer homes failing to get the very top grades.
Another day, another divisive education headline. Whilst there is much to question within current education policy, there are also potentially new areas of opportunity opening up. The policy context of greater school autonomy, and emerging clarity about the future of the National Curriculum from 2014 (and the space to develop a ‘whole curriculum’ outside the National Curriculum), could be a key moment of opportunity for teachers and localities to reclaim the curriculum agenda.
As highlighted in the recent research of RSA Education colleague, Louise Thomas, the role of teachers is already changing to incorporate greater responsibility for curriculum development. However, as Louise outlines, there are significant challenges in ensuring that teachers are provided with enough support in overall curriculum development, in addition to the current focus on teachers’ subject knowledge.
The paper also proposes a particular focus on promoting the skills required to develop competency-based curricula in schools – especially where it relates to the needs of the local community – addressing the need for students to acquire, not just knowledge, but also the skills to apply it within the framework of their wider learning, future employment, and life.
In the context of these developments and challenges, the RSA Education Team is exploring ideas for creating a national professional development programme, which will aim to foster a new generation of curriculum designers, ready to make the most of the emerging opportunities. As such, it will add to the professional capacity of the teaching workforce as a whole and the capacity of schools to operate as autonomous, collaborative organisations. The programme will blend the learning and principles from two RSA programmes (RSA Opening Minds and the Area-Based Curriculum), as well as from curriculum design programmes globally, to create a high quality professional development offer that improves educational opportunities and outcomes for pupils.
That’s the idea but what do you think? Are there models out there that you think we should incorporate? What is the key to successful CPD? What are likely to be the key concerns for teachers and schools? Over to you…
Michael Gove dropped into my kids’ school this week to talk about food, and gardening, school meals and, er, other kinds of food-related stuff. The announcement about a new Review had a touch of The Thick or It’s ‘spare rooms database’ about it.
At least Gove has learnt from his Labour predecessors (remember those two playground swingers Burnham and Balls?), and didn’t appear with a spade or spatula in his hand.
However, that didn’t stop the whole visit feel a little soiling for the parents, school chefs and teachers involved. Were they using an exceptional school and talented group of parents to justify a lack of genuine national action to improve school food? If the good owners of Leon wanted to make a difference to school lunches, breakfasts and overall ‘food culture’, then their energies might be sapped rather than harnessed by the review process that they are now leading. It would surprise me if they came up with anything surprising, and amaze me if they don’t find the process, once they are past the seduction of touching power’s cloth, frustrating.
The Academies issue might be a red herring – there is no real evidence that academies have worse nutritional standards than other schools. In fact, Jamie Oliver and others may have been so successful that regulation is no longer required – there might now be enough upward demand from parents and others to keep school kitchens and vending machines healthy and honest, although the guidance out there is already useful to schools, and will always be worth occasional revisions and improvement.
On Wednesday, as ministers, aides and the fast food chain owners shuffled back to their hybrid limos to return to Westminster, a tiny part of Hackney pondered the purpose of this photoshoot, and wondered whether next time, they should charge for their time.
Of course they couldn’t, but they might help to grow a system of great schools across England. Today RSA Education published a report by RSA Fellow Robert Hill on The Missing Middle: the case for school commissioners. Here’s a guest blog from Robert which hopefully sheds more light than the slightly misleading, mischievous Independent article.
The Missing Middle: the case for school commissioners
Michael Gove is fond of highlighting how the English education system can learn from other countries. Singapore’s curriculum and exams, New Orleans’ charter schools, Finland’s high quality teacher qualifications and Shanghai’s excellence in PISA rankings are among the overseas exemplars the Education Secretary has highlighted. But as he seeks to develop a system of great schools across England there is one international lesson that Michael Gove seems to be less keen on following.
Evidence from New York, Boston, Ontario, Singapore – as well as nearer to home in London – is that schools make faster progress as a whole when school improvements efforts are co-ordinated and steered at a city or sub-regional level.
This does not mean turning the clock back on freedom for schools – academies and school autonomy are here to stay. School-to-school support should continue to drive school improvement. Free schools have the potential to bring innovation and greater diversity to the school system.
The argument is not so much with the government’s individual policies but with the fact that they do not add up to a coherent whole. For example, free schools are currently operating as an expensive ‘unguided missile’ in the school system with little rhyme or reason as to where they are being permitted. It would make much more sense to promote and open new schools in areas where there is most demand for school places or existing schools are failing.
The strategy for school improvement is also incoherent. The government does not trust local authorities to identify and arrange support for struggling schools. In part the suspicion is justified and in part it is not: local authority performance is inconsistent and councils are paring back their education services as budget cuts bite.
Instead the government is increasingly relying on school chains, teaching schools and other groupings. While this is a welcome strategy the reality is that many schools are not covered by such arrangements – and not all school chains and partnerships are effective.
And for the schools with the worst track record the government is, in effect, itself becoming the local authority. The Department for Education is seeking to mastermind from Whitehall the process of matching sponsors with hundreds of seriously underperforming schools at a point when it is also struggling to monitor the performance of the burgeoning number of academies. Ironically for an allegedly ‘small state’ Conservative-led government Michael Gove is building a command and control machine that is much more extensive than anything New Labour ever attempted. This approach is neither sensible nor sustainable.
As cities and economic sub regions come to play more of a role in growing our economy, renewing our infrastructure and developing skills, schools and local authorities should become part of a more devolved way of working.
A directly elected mayor or the political leadership for a sub-region could appoint a commissioner (or, in the first instance, jointly appoint with the Education Secretary) an education commissioner. Commissioners would be high-calibre individuals who would command the confidence and respect of school leaders and have strong influencing and inter-personal skills. Their role of would be as much about the exercise of influence and soft power as executive responsibilities and would encompass:
- developing a shared strategy for improving all schools and raising the quality of teaching and learning;
- co-ordinating schools place planning and competitions for new schools across local authorities and commissioning specialist services for vulnerable children;
- challenging local authorities that were either too lax in understanding the performance of local schools, or too overbearing in their dealings with school leaders;
- working with teaching schools and chains to co-ordinate city/county-wide improvement efforts and ensure no school is left behind;
- determining when alternative providers should be brought in to take over failing schools; and
- linking the curriculum to the culture and needs of the area and mobilising third sector and employer support to broaden experiences and resources for young people.
A commissioner’s ability to steer the system would come from holding funding agreements for all academies – itself a major act of decentralisation. The commissioner would allocate capital funding for major school building projects and distribute a school improvement fund (devolved from the DfE) to help weave school improvement initiatives across the sub-region into a coherent whole.
Arrangements might take a different form in different places but without the knitting together that a commissioner could provide the risk is that we end up with a patchwork quilt education system: a growing number of outstanding schools sitting alongside schools that struggle or are left behind. The learning from other countries is clear: if you want all schools and all pupils to progress then develop strong political and professional leadership that aligns your strategy, resources and key people in each city and sub-region.
‘Happiness’ is a concept that I seem to be increasingly encountering. It is the subject of a piece of work that my colleagues in Arts and Society are involved with in collaboration with the Happy Museum Project, an initiative that is encouraging UK museums to support transition to well-being and sustainability in our society.
The Happy Museum Project was born from psychological research suggesting that happiness and well-being are not related to material wealth. On the contrary, an emphasis on material wealth has led to a focus on the short term, causing the majority to feel pressure to “keep up” and leading to more unhappiness. Key to a sustainable notion of well-being, according to the Happy Museum Project, is what they call ‘support learning for resilience’, which encourages learning that is curiosity driven, engaging, informal and fun and can build resilience, creativity and resourcefulness.
Of course this is not a wholly new concept. We’re becoming increasingly familiar with research that shows that over a certain comfort threshold, increased wealth doesn’t correlate with general satisfaction, take Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness index, for example, which was developed in the 1970s. Now the UK government has started to focus on the notion of happiness, with the announcement of the National Wellbeing Project in 2010, which will see them attempt to measure how happy Britons are and use the results to shape government policy.
One area where happiness does not seem to have been a central consideration however is in education. Take the new Ofsted framework, which requires inspectors to place emphasis on behaviour, safety and teaching but makes no mention of emotional wellbeing, sociability and support. The aim here may have been to concentrate on the essentials and perhaps the more quantifiable elements, but this only reinforces the lack of regard with which these qualities are held.
Plans for performance related pay for teachers could be taken as another example of overlooking the importance of happiness. Not only is this measure likely to increase pressure on teachers, making them less happy, but their performance is likely to be measured solely on academic results, as it must be, and not well-being. This is not to say that the two will always be unrelated. For example it seems obvious that if a child is taught in a way that is exciting, fun, collaborative and supportive then they will not only be happier but will be more engaged and therefore attain better results. But this policy risks increasing pressure on students to achieve academically, leading to more teaching to the test and so risking children’s well-being.
Additionally some proponents of performance related pay for teachers base their arguments on economics; a good teacher = a good education (good grades) = a good job = more money. Not only in the current climate is this not necessarily the case, as there are not enough good jobs for high achieving students, but if money doesn’t make us happy then we shouldn’t be thinking only about education in these terms.
So I come back to the Happy Museum Project’s central tenet – our culture must focus on the long-term and sustainable benefits of its actions. Whilst achieving good academic results may lead to happiness in the short term, it can no longer guarantee a child’s future well-being in the face of unemployment, recessions and climate change, although perhaps it can help. My point is not to belittle academic achievement, but to emphasise that like so many things, we just cannot be sure. What we can be sure of is that having confidence, emotional stability and resilience, will help this generation of students to survive this uncertainty and to cope better, if not always be happy.
I am not sure if it would count as flipped learning but, unable to be at Monday’s RSA/ Teach First event, I did the gig in reverse.
First, I looked at the outcomes from our post-event coffee-house discussion organised by RSA Fellows. Drawing on the RSA’s caffeinated origins in 18th century London (but facilitated using a very 21st Century technology of participation method), it was a chance for Fellows and Teach First Ambassadors to discuss one of the key questions raised by the event: how can we best judge what makes a successful school?
I then read the twitter feed, which, like many event hashtags contained too much regurgitation and too little critical analysis. Finally I listened to the recording from the event. I was encouraged by Sir Michael Wilshaw’s ‘plea for pragmatism’, that a great school needs a diversity of approaches from good teachers, where all are free to use ‘initiative, imagination and common sense.’ Teach First Ambassador Ndidi Okezi was especially inspiring and thought provoking, challenging all of us to commit to changing young lives.
Moving swiftly from regurgitation to analysis, here are a few reflections:
- It’s not just about those with Qualified Teacher Status. What is the best configuration of adults that can make the biggest difference to young people’s learning and development? Does the orthodox ‘80% of budget on teacher salaries’ school finance model constrain broader thinking about schools as 21st Century enlightenment organisations and the mix of skills, knowledge and attributes that a school community needs to educate young people? Tuesday’s education select committee report proposed that ‘greater effort is needed to identify which additional personal qualities make candidates well-suited to teaching’, praising Teach First’s core competencies (which are usefully congruent with RSA Opening Minds’ competence framework for pupils).
- Good teachers should be able to adopt, adapt and innovate practices. The Cambridge Primary Review talked powerfully about what makes teaching a ‘profession’ – that teachers should be able to justify their pedagogical approaches with clear reference to evidence. Although the government was right to make the Teachers’ Standards shorter and clearer, what’s missing is any concept of ‘evidence-based practice-making’ encouraging teachers to understand and use evidence, and to innovate robustly to add to the evidence base. My colleague Louise Thomas’ pamphlet on teachers and curriculum development pointed to some cultural barriers to innovation that those agencies which influence teacher development (in particular OFSTED) should take seriously.
- All four speakers seemed very certain of their opinions. Without using the dreaded ‘further research is needed’ phrase, it’s worth bringing in some doubt – that there might well be issues around teacher quality and pedagogy that we just don’t know enough about yet. For instance, the teaching of ICT and computer science, or more generally how we teach the most disengaged, vulnerable young people effectively. How should emerging research about the adolescent brain inform our thinking about what makes a good teacher of teenagers? To use Geoff Mulgan’s typology, as the amount of ‘stable’ knowledge declines in proportion to ‘in flux’ and ‘inherently novel’ knowledge, what does this mean for learning and teaching?
- If fewer people want to be teachers, does this matter? The number of applications to teacher training has fallen by nearly 15% this year, despite the economic downturn. A smaller pool of applicants tends to reduce quality, but it may be that a tougher performance management regime is weeding out the ambivalent and uncommitted before they even apply. Then again, when I signed up for my PGCE during the 1990s recession, I was both ambivalent and uncommitted (and heartbroken, but that’s not a story for this or any other blog). And I think I did just about more good than harm during my five years in the classroom. Do any ex-pupils out there want to confirm or deny?
On Tuesday the Lords discussed on the recently published Restarting Britain: Design Education and Growth from the Design Commission. The transcript of the debate provides interesting reading – partly for the way in which the Lords interpret the word ‘design’, drawing on their personal stories: working as trend spotters in the fashion industry, establishing technical colleges to teach hand skills, or simply owning a Lachasse suit. Below are a few snippets.
The Lords raised the design community’s old grievance that their skills are often misunderstood:
“…many people regard design as largely concerned with aesthetics or with products such as furniture or ceramics. As a result, they regard it as a marginal issue-something that is good and desirable but not essential.”
They affirmed that certain important capabilities are effectively learned through design training:
“Design teaches “a problem-solving approach; the capacity to work collaboratively; interdisciplinary capability; taking into account the participation of the end-user … and the habit, and satisfaction, of creating projects which work … [these qualities] are … hard to acquire from other subjects.”
Most frequently they noted – unsurprisingly given the report’s title – that design is critical to the UK’s economy:
“…our education system needs to be design-linked with technology for the future, for our economy and, most importantly, for jobs”
“One distinguished magazine editor told me that British designers are the creative engine of the French fashion industry. We seem to be able to produce design talent but it appears that we just do not know how to use, develop and nurture it.”
“…we have grown used to hearing it bruited about that the UK’s record of scientific invention and the great strength of its creative industries-product design, architecture, fashion, media, games software, entertainment and advertising-would equip us well enough for the future. However… the uncomfortable truth is that, with a few very honourable exceptions, we have not been good enough at carrying these capabilities through into consistently world-beating products and services.”
The eulogies for design continued, with the accusation implied that the Government was not taking Design-with-a-capital-D sufficiently seriously. Baroness Wilcox hit back on behalf of DBIS:
“While we welcome the commission’s contribution to this important subject, we must dispute the suggestion that the Government do not fully appreciate design as a lever for growth … We do not see it as “whimsical”, which I heard Sir Paul Smith say was the view of design that many people have when they should be looking at the beautiful design of an engine or water bottle. He actually said that design “isn’t all red hair and bare chests” when he was interviewed this morning about the relocation of the Design Museum.”
Leaving the red hair and bar chests aside, her response gave the impression that the Design Commission were pounding on an open door, but the contribution that struck me as most thoughtful was from Baroness Morris:
“I have never known anyone who was against design. There is no army of people out there making a case against it. Sometimes when that happens, because there is no core to the debate, you find that everyone thinks that it is a good thing but no one really fights for it to be as good as it could be.”
She advocated that rather than top-down directives on design education, more demand creation (as exemplified by the Design Council’s Designing Demand programme, I suppose) could be a better route:
“…it is all too easy to say that if we made [design] compulsory for every child in every year of schooling the problems would be solved, but I am not sure that that is the case. The more difficult task is to win the case and make it so good that schools want to teach it and children want to learn it. Sometimes, giving something the hook of compulsion actually makes you take your foot off the accelerator in making it a very good subject.”
Which to me at least, seems like a more designerly approach.
The idea of ‘being a realist’ is rather slippery. Realism in everyday parlance is taken for granted as a sort of common sense perspicacity. We can all relate to being told to ‘get real,’ or ‘be realistic,’ but what that actually means, when you stop and think about it, could be all sorts of different things to different people.
In academic circles, realism is even more slippery, with a cascade of categories you need a lot of patience to pick a path through. At the top: philosophical realism, scientific realism, political realism, artistic realism. Beneath each of those, more specifics: critical realism, transcendental realism, naïve realism, so on and so on. There’s a veritable spaghetti junction of realism out there.
In my research training, I studied ontology and epistemology – basically what there is to know, and how we know it. Lots of people think this stuff is boring, but for me, it is in these questions that the real power to effect change lies. In the world of academic research, the paradigm within which you conduct your work is probably the number one defining influence on what you do, even if you don’t say so yourself.
For a long time there was a tug of war between quantitative and qualitative paradigms; positivism versus interpretivism. It doesn’t get much popular press, but in the relatively recent past, profoundly significant advances in the philosophy of science have brought us to a point where we have a real opportunity to transform our world by adopting a different stance to what we know about it. And, it’s realism.
only realism can save us from the state of crisis we are in
Personally, I’m hugely influenced by Roy Bhaskar’s Critical Realism, but I have one major criticism, which is that it can be bloody difficult to understand. And, what’s the use in world-changing philosophy, if it isn’t going to make sense to enough people for it to take hold? I find Ray Pawson’s version of realism a little easier to digest, probably because his work is so firmly rooted in in the type of real world research I’ve done myself, like evaluating educational and public health interventions.
So, it’s rather bold, perhaps, but I’ll risk sounding ridiculous and assert that only realism can save us from the state of crisis we are in. Adam Lent wrote yesterday about ethical revolutions. Whether we are indeed on the cusp of a time of ethical revolution and not further descent into crisis depends on changes happening on many levels. So many of our power structures are built on evidence bases which have non-realist foundations which by their nature try to eliminate complexity and identify clean causal relationships. With this explicit rejection of the reality of the complex world we occupy, we’re shooting ourselves repeatedly in the feet.
With this explicit rejection of the reality of the complex world we occupy, we’re shooting ourselves repeatedly in the feet.
I’ll try to illustrate. In public services, we are constantly trying to do things within complex social systems, and in order to know whether the things we’re doing are effective, we need to measure and evaluate. With something like an educational intervention with the aim of, say, reducing teenage pregnancy, its effectiveness might be measured by counting the number of teenagers who become pregnant after receiving the intervention and comparing that with the number of pregnancies amongst those who didn’t get the lesson.
The research will try to ‘control’ out all of the social factors which influence whether or not teenagers become pregnant, and make a claim as to the causal relationship between the intervention and the outcome. We want to be able to conclude,’ if the kids have the sex education class, they won’t get pregnant’. But of course, the world is messier than that. The best sex education in the world doesn’t stop condoms breaking every now and then, or emergency contraception failing.
The positivist view of the world relies on the exclusion of critical but unpredictable factors. This type of research might lead to nice, neatly analysable statistics, but whether it’s useful or not, or answers the most important questions is another matter. Realist evaluation, by contrast, assumes that in order to infer a causal relationship between two events (i.e. sex education and teenage pregnancy), it is necessary to understand the underlying mechanism that connects them AND the context in which the relationship occurs. Rather than asking simply ‘what works?’, a realist evaluator asks ‘what is it about this intervention that works, for whom, in what circumstances?’ More complex, yes, but more useful also.
Even if you’re with me this far, you might well be thinking, ‘fair enough, but how is this going to save the world, exactly?’ I have a feeling it’s going to take more than blog post for me to fully unpack this and show why it matters so much. I promise I shall try to avoid becoming terribly dull…
RSA Connected Communities has started a new project with Nathan of the MIT Center for Civic Media to create a new, cost-effective way to measure the social impact of public services and civic interventions and to allow people to see their own personal networks. We’re designing a mobile and tablet app for recording real-life social networks: your friends, families and contacts. The open source software we build will also be useful to journalists, ethnographers and anyone trying to make sense of rapidly changing social phenomena. Here I illustrate how we are currently recording this data, and why I think it is important that we change the way that we do it.
What is data?
Data is a rushed researcher putting together a survey to capture the full extent of a human life on paper. The scales are based on someone else’s testing. The newly combined scales are then re-tested on new people. Any newly invented questions can change as a result of piloting; the old questions – based on someone else’s testing – must remain constant. These newly tested combined scales – with the odd bit of cut and paste – are then recalibrated and re-launched.
A community researcher goes door to door. “Hello! My name is… “ Door shuts. “Hi! I’m… Some version of a person’s social network and social world is transferred from local person, to community researcher’s ear, to RSA paper survey. Interesting anecdotes and unusual answers are scribbled in the margins, for few paper-based-surveys have the space to fully annotate human complexity.
Back at the RSA HQ a data entry scribe enters these reams upon reams of human data. Comment boxes are full of the annotated scribbles, although some anecdotes are lost to time, bad weather and even worse handwriting. Data entry becomes data book; data book becomes social network; social network might become a Guardian Society supplement.
We have found that allowing people to see their own networks and understand them allows them to feel they can change them.
And so what? Your social network, your human network, is a map of you. And maps need to be used in the now, not in a year’s time when the roads have changed and bridges have been broken. The social app I am working on with Nathan from the MIT Center for Civic Media might allow us to do just that. It will be a means of researching somebody’s human networks and then playing it back to them, in real time.
Here in the RSA Connected Communities team – when not dealing with 4000 peoples’ worth of social networks and wellbeing, community health networks and the innovation networks of various councils – we are trying to help social network analysis become a real life tool. For this to happen it needs to make sense to people.
We already know that people with more diverse networks are healthier and happier. Our human networks help us to find work, with those with more diverse networks tending to have higher status and better paid jobs. We have found that allowing people to see their own networks and understand them allows them to feel they can change them. Poor networks are a real form of poverty: lack of mainstream social capital slows you down and closes off options.
You can paint me your social picture and I can ask “Does this look right, does this look like you?” before I join up the numbers
Through visualisation work to make network outputs more intelligible and the creation of network toolkits that hopefully make the subject more intuitive to people, we are trying to open up social network knowledge so it can be part of every individual’s personal toolkit. I really hope that the tool we are working on with Nathan will be a big part of this.
It will allow researcher and researched to really co-produce.You can paint me your social picture and I can ask “Does this look right, does this look like you?” before I join up the numbers. It will make the data better and it will do what the data protection act tried but failed to do: it will make you own your own data, because you can see, feel and change it.
This might become a way for people to check in on their own social networks every once in a while, or a tool that might measure your isolation and suggest a local reading group or walking club. I can imagine GPs using this kind of tool to help them socially prescribe local activities. Any organisation which acts with social networks – such as the NGO Tostan- could use this as a low-cost way of measuring the impact of their interventions.
Organisations which rely on interviewing broad sections of people to understand new social phenomena – such as Human Rights Watch or any news organisation worth its salt – could use the tool as a prompt in interviews, a means of recording data and a way on ensuring that they have actually managed to ask a diverse group of people and not just people who float in similar circles.
So over to you. These social networks are your human networks. And these human networks delimit that which is possible in your life. What does this tool need to do, if it is to be of real use?