Dimitrios Tourountsis writes about his experiences and some of the challenges he faced as London Youth's Head of Learning.
his blog is written for those with a keen interest in understanding the principles and methods of implementing evidence-informed practice in the youth sector. Through my story I want to challenge you to consider equality of intelligence and complexity as the starting points in any efforts to evidence and understand the value of youth programmes. First though, I need to make an important disclaimer. My thinking is influenced by Rancière’s theory on equality as presented in his book The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation (1981), and Roberto Mangabeira Unger’s essay in a recent publication by Nesta and Palgrave (2015), New Frontiers in Social Innovation Research.
In a scene from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, robots capture Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect. Meanwhile, marketing people and shoe shops have conquered the world. “What’s the matter with him?” Dent asks about one person who is moaning. “Oh, his feet are the wrong size for his shoes,” snarls the marketing droid. In this throwaway remark, Douglas Adams captures a specific attitude and way of thinking. Fit the feet to the shoes, not the other way around. Take a manufactured or prescribed item and fit the human into it.
The above scene encapsulates the challenge I faced when I joined London Youth as its first Head of Learning. Back in 2013 the youth sector was already experiencing crippling funding cuts. Existing business models were obsolete, youth organisations were feeling disoriented, and practitioners were cynical. A number of sector-level initiatives were responding to the pessimism by setting out a collective and progressive approach to evidence, including publication of the Catalyst Youth Outcomes Framework and introduction of Project Oracle’s Standards of Evidence.
Nevertheless, fundamental questions remained unanswered and untested.
Where do humans fit into conversations around impact, evidence and outcomes? How can you reconcile two seemingly different worlds: an alienated sense of academic reality and the lived experience of practitioners? Is it worth applying complicated designs to complex issues? Are we developing evaluation frameworks and using measuring tools that don’t fit our feet? And if we all agree that it is really important to wear shoes that fit our feet, who has the ultimate responsibility of ensuring that the shoes are of the right size?
Equality of intelligence and understanding complexity were my guiding principles when changing London Youth and supporting practitioners, managers and funders to understand the value of youth programmes.
Equality of intelligenceLondon Youth began its adventures in the land of knowledge by engaging and asking practitioners about the value of their work in the manner of ordinary people rather than academics or scholars. By acknowledging his own ignorance, the Head of Learning refuses to assume the position of ‘knowledgeable expert’. He orchestrates an environment where knowledge about what works is the result of a collective learning exercise. The ignorant Head of Learning verifies the work of practitioners’ intelligence with attention and interrogation. He abandons the rhetoric of deficiency and expertise, listens to a youth practitioner or manager whose thinking might never have been valued before, and facilitates professional autonomy and intellectual growth in virtually unlimited directions. According to Rancière, “there is stultification whenever one intelligence is subordinated to another... whoever teaches without emancipating stultifies”.
Understanding complexityHowever, the ignorant Head of Learning needs a broad awareness when making choices. The youth sector is a complex rather than complicated system, and the the Head of Learning needs to know the difference between the two. He or she should know how parts of the system give rise to collective behaviours, understand indirect effects and how the system interacts with its environment. Pushing on the youth sector "here" often has effects "over there" because the parts are interdependent.
The scientific method and systematic experimentation are often viewed as designs borrowed from complicated systems (medicine, physics or engineering) and imposed from the top (government and funders) to complex systems (youth or social work and education).
The Head of Learning should find ways of utilising methodologies from complicated systems, and supporting practitioners to take ownership of them.
If we argue that societies and practitioners have the potential to be far more active agents of their own future than one assumes, then we should accept that systematic experimentation is a faster and far more robust way to solve complex problems than clever authorship of case studies, funding bids, press releases and campaign material.
Practitioners’ professional autonomy is strengthened when they are able to express scientific awareness of social and economic changes going on in the lives of young people, rather than falling back to anecdotes, hunches and political patronage. The ignorant Head of Learning ensures that robust experiments in the real world of youth work drive the development of new ideas.
The ignorant Head of Learning has followed the collective intelligence of London Youth’s practitioners and members by firmly believing that practice precedes theory.
He helps them to respond to complex issues by adapting to changes, improving practice, being accountable, and learning.
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