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23 February 2015

Dimitrios Tourountsis, Head of Learning at London Youth, ponders blending science with practice in youth work, and asks “are you a spider or an ant?”

Blog was originally published here: 

http://www.youth-impact.uk/what-we-do/discussion-and-collaboration/

The era of austerity has galvanised some youth practitioners and organisations to think about their work without instinctively deferring to received wisdom, whether hallowed political teachings and philosophical principles, or anecdotes, proverbs and customs. They are now expressing scientific awareness of social and economic changes going on in the lives of young people. Understanding the new scientific approach is “not easy, in fact it’s a huge cultural change for the sector, yet it is the way that we need to be going” urged John Jones, Sports Development Officer at for London Youth when asked to comment on his experience of developing evidence-based programmes.

I am lucky enough to work for one of the oldest youth organisations in the country – established in 1887! I help them draw theories of change – roadmaps to get them from here to there – their long-term goal. If it is good and complete, their roadmap can be read by others and show that they know how to chart their course. What I learned is that youth practitioners have curious minds and ask questions constantly. At the end of a thought-provoking training session on programme design and evaluation, delivered by the Centre for Youth Impact, Dominic Hinshelwood, Senior practitioner at Laburnum Boat Club shared his tempered excitement: “I still can't quite picture what it will look like, but I am formulating ideas and am looking forward to testing our theory”.

Until now, a youth practitioner was regarded as someone who worked from gut instinct – much action and little cerebration. Perhaps some do not like the idea of thoughtful practitioners-cum-scientists —holding the opinion that thinkers are sneaky blighters and practitioners should be ready to go into action.

But should youth practitioners be thinkers or doers? The hope that springs readily to mind is that they should be a bit of both, as judiciously as possible. The key in this cliché is the role played by sound judgment and evidence. Thinking should sometimes prevent doing; thinking should help to distinguish which of competing options for doing is best; thinking sometimes just is doing; the necessity for doing has to cut thinking short sometimes; and so forth. It is judiciousness based on evidence that tells us which to follow, in each case.

Instead of requiring that each youth practitioner be the perfect blend of intellectual and action hero, I argue that youth work should be an enterprise of social learning. Practitioners work alongside theoreticians to co-develop specific and measurable descriptions of social change initiatives, and practitioners use their roadmaps as the basis for ongoing decision-making. Human variety encompasses those who are good at dreaming up schemes and those who like to roll up their sleeves. Teaming them up would seem to be the right way to go.

“Sometimes it feels like we generate more questions than answers, but, having shared our data publically with sports partners it felt good to hear their positive feedback and acknowledgements for the steps we have taken. Even better, it is the evidence base reaffirming that the work we are doing is making a positive difference to young people and that we are generally getting things right” concluded John Jones.

Francis Bacon (1561-1626), who combined a chequered political career with philosophical writing, is widely regarded as the father of the modern scientific method. He rejected metaphysical speculation in favour of observation: “men of experiment are like the ant; they only collect and use; men of dogmas resemble spiders, who make cobwebs out of their own substance”.