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Asking Good Questions in Focus - Part 1 of 3: Why do we do what we do? What exactly are we doing?


Learning and improvement during the COVID-19 pandemic

As part of our ongoing work developing resources to support learning and improvement in online youth work during the pandemic, we are sharing a series of blogs about the relevance of the questions set out in our Asking Good Questions Framework. This blog, written by Mary McKaskill, Practice Development Manager, focusses on Questions 1 and 2 of the framework.

​Why do we do what do? What exactly are we doing?
Since the lockdown began, I suspect that many of us have mulled over these questions at different times and on different levels. I know that I have.
When life is ‘business as usual’, answering these questions isn’t all that hard, and doing so can be quite energising. Question 1, our ‘why’, is something that we feel in our hearts and subscribe to when we take up a job role or project. For many in the social sector, our ‘why’ governs our personal and professional choices, and ‘gets us up in the morning’. Question 2, our ‘what’, is about our practice: it’s the contribution that we personally make towards that big ‘why’. It’s dissatisfaction with the status quo translated into action, a craft we’ve honed, and a source of pride.
During the pandemic, however, these questions have become more challenging to answer. We have all been consistently reminded of our collective and individual responsibility to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus. As I noted in last month’s newsletter, regardless of what your mission statement is, right now, we are all working towards the same aims, and have altered our personal and professional lives to do so. As all of our daily activities have been categorised as either ‘essential’ or ‘non-essential’, wrapped up in “why do we do what we do?” and “what exactly are we doing?” are the more difficult questions of “can we do what we do?” and “should we do it right now?” Is what we do possible while containing the virus? Are we actually able – or allowed – to reach out?
Answering these questions has resulted in many organisations significantly adapting their offers to meet the immediate needs of people and communities, and doing so in ways that comply with social distancing. Business as usual is on hold: events have been postponed or cancelled all together; programmes of work have been delayed; staff have been reluctantly furloughed. I was touched by Sally Baxter’s recent blog in Youth & Policy, Youth and no work. Her open reflections resonated with the questions ‘why do we do what we do?’ and ‘what exactly are we doing?’ Sally challenges the sector to reflect carefully on why and how services can be moved online, the implications of furloughing staff (both positive and negative), and whether our skills can deliver on our widespread good intentions to help during this time.
It is crucially important that our work right now is intentional rather than (just) an automatic response. In this blog for Better Evaluation, Patricia Rogers outlines how the working theory that underpins how and why certain practices are effective should steer the adaptation of your work during the pandemic. She points out that theories of change that lack a strong theory are difficult to use as practical tools, as they tell us little about what is actually being delivered, how, and why it can contribute to change. These ‘theories of change’ outline a formula such as input + activity = outcomes, which imply that there is something inherently beneficial in the particular activity being delivered that leads to outcomes. Models like this are rigid, lack insight and quickly become irrelevant as inputs and activities regularly change, as do the outcomes we prioritise for measurement – and indeed whether we seek to measure outcomes at all.
For me, Rogers’ statement below sums up why I am such an advocate for theory of change as a tool for planning and reflection, especially now as services are being adapted so significantly:
‘A good theory can tell us what to really pay attention to, what to retain when we are having to leave out some components of the intervention, how to adapt in ways that keep the essence, and how to apply what has been learned in different contexts.’
This is why at the Centre we place so much emphasis on mechanisms of change, the active ingredients within your work that create the conditions that enable young people to achieve change for themselves. Being granular, specific, and upfront about mechanisms of change allows delivery to be adapted around them.
At the Centre, we encourage youth organisations to prioritise mechanisms of change that attend to young people’s social and emotional learning. Applying social and emotional learning as the driving theory that underpins work with and for young people means that in planning for quality and consistency, regardless of what activity you’re offering to young people, they should, for example, feel physically and emotionally safe, feel positively challenged, experience fun and deeper satisfaction, and have opportunities for planning and reflection.  For many youth organisations during ‘business as usual’, attention is given to translating these mechanisms of change across a range of activities, such as cookery, sport and art. Now, however, this means considering whether and how they translate into online and remote youth work.
Not all activities, mechanisms of change, or outcomes on your ‘pre-coronavirus theory of change’ will be relevant now. However, when navigating the challenging questions about service design that come with the current territory, knowing what is core to your work and adapting around those components is a good place to start. And if that’s not possible - if an entirely new service needs to be developed as opposed to adapting an existing model - then consider whether and how you are prepared to do that, and make it meaningful.
The answers to ‘why do we do what we do?’ and ‘what exactly are we doing?’ are an articulation of the meaningful contribution towards a more equitable and just society that you aspire towards for the young people you work with. That should still be true, even, or perhaps especially, in times as turbulent as they are now.
As you reflect on why you do what you do, and what exactly you are doing, think carefully about how your offer to young people during this pandemic aligns with your overarching mission as well as how it meets the needs that young people, and also their families, are facing right now. Be precise in describing what you’re doing – what elements of your practice have remained the same, and what are you doing differently now?
Open and precise answers to these questions lay an essential framework from which to focus your cycle of learning and improvement. Next month, we’ll be featuring questions 3 and 4 from our Asking Good Questions Framework: ‘are we doing it consistently well?’ and ‘are we staying true to our intentions?’