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Nancy Erbstein & Julian Sefton-Green on Community-based Research

April 21, 10:00am-11:00am PST (12pm CST/1pm EST)

Webinar recording


  • Alicia Blum-Ross, London School of Economics and Political Science
  • Melissa Brough, CLRN @ DML Hub, UC Irvine
  • Anna Keune, Indiana University

Invited Guests

  • Julian Sefton-Green (London School of Economics)
  • Nancy Erbstein (UC Davis)

We had the pleasure to co-facilitate our webinar with two special guests: Nancy Erbstein from the University of California at Davis who spoke on her work in the area of Youth Participatory Action Research (YPAR), and Julian Sefton-Green from the London School of Economics & Political Science and an independent scholar who shared his diverse experience on who research is for and why to involve people. Here are some notes on the webinar.

Nancy Erbstein got started with YPAR during her undergraduate work that related to educational reform, working with renowned researchers in the area and alongside Language Learners (L2). This is when she recognized the “disconnect between students’ experience and the discourse of the national school reform arena.” She wanted to bring the L2 youth voices to the conversation of policy planning and evaluation. Nancy’s experiences working in South Asia around nationalization of the Nepalese school curriculum with ethnic minorities also informed her YPAR work as it stands today. She developed a curriculum that was based on youth-led research and evaluation. With the creation of the youth-led research and evaluation planning curriculum, Nancy and her colleagues asked youth to research their own conditions and bring that activity to bear upon research and evaluation. A critique of the politics of knowledge production led her into this work. She also co-founded the nonprofit organization Youth In Focus to train young underrepresented people in youth-serving organizations to engage youth in Participatory Action Research (PAR), evaluation and planning.

Typically funders and academics turn to scholars who write about this work without specific focus on the people who developed this work in and with communities. Academics have come and studied and adapted this work and written about it, but in fact there is a lot of work that is done in the field that is not documented in ways that are typically recognized by academia. [We need to] acknowledge that young people were engaged in building YPAR, which is now ubiquitous in comparison to the field 20 years ago. – Nancy Erbstein

Julian Sefton-Green started with the intention of being a “proper academic,” but instead became a high-school teacher with a particular interest in media studies and media education. Training at an institution with a history of activist education he had the opportunity to work in and with schools. Julian mentioned that “at the time classroom teachers, along with heads and teacher advisors, had more influence about what happened in schools, especially in regards to assessment and curriculum.” Working with a community of practitioners developed his wish to find ways to theorize the challenges he experienced when working with a community of teachers.

The starting point for [my] academic scholarship was working with teachers and the problem of trying to understand the meanings that young people brought to the classrooms through their consumption of popular media culture and trying to find ways to credentialize and validate that and to explore that. … The point of working had direct and immediate purpose with and for that community of teachers. – Julian Sefton Green

Nancy Erbstein’s projects: increasing access to data on racial and geographic disparities in youth well-being to inform young advocates’ work

While working with young equity advocates and people in decision-making and planning environments in areas including education, public health, youth development, community development, and philanthropy, Nancy engaged three communities in California: an underinvested urban community, a large town with formerly incarcerated youth of diverse sociocultural backgrounds, and a rural area with predominantly Latino youth. Nancy partnered with organizations to design and pilot an educational curriculum for critical use of public data, digital youth well-being analyses and online GIS systems. Most of the funding for this work came from the university campus, and private foundations.

Nancy recalled that one of the main challenges of working worked with young people on YPAR that involves youth with public decision making is that “decision makers would question [the youth] on their small sample sizes. It was difficult for [the youth] to gain access to large quantitative data analysis that policy makers were using to inform their thinking.”

When advocates contacted Nancy, asking for data and requesting her to analyze and map data to use alongside the youth generated research, Nancy recognized that “public data was not accessible and even if available, looking at data in the way [the youth] wanted (e.g. spatially references, disaggregated) was not possible for them.” The questions emerged:

  • How to construct geo-spatial measures of youth well-being that would rely on publicly available data, and would provide analysis of sub-county level (US) that can be made available online through a GIS platform?
  • How to build youth capacity to work in an informed and critical way with such analyses?

What are the limits of policy makers in reading YPAR research?

It is difficult to know what drives policy change. Often it has little to do with research. Sometimes the one compelling story that gets everyone excited about moving a policy agenda makes the difference, other times it is the link between a piece of research and somebody’s active policy agenda or the moving train in a policy environment. If there is a good fit, there may not be so much concern about sample size. (…) Other times, when trying to raise new issues or contentious issues, people will raise questions about (…) smaller sample size or a primary emphasis on qualitative data. – Nancy Erbstein

With this in mind, Nancy encourages the use of mixed methods, and “providing large scale data sets and encouraging young people to point out the downsides of those data sets and the ways in which their research can fill an important gap and/or raise important questions.”

How do you get young people engage?

The work Nancy was involved with “tied to issues that youth were already contending with”, and did not find it challenging to get youth involved. However, sustaining involvement can be challenge, as young people often have a lot going on in their lives. Another issue could be the need for youth to find work to support their family.

As a way to counter this challenge, Nancy suggests offering stipends to young people, especially if their work was supporting the work of the institution. However, she warns that “in classrooms it can be more difficult to integrate this type of work where [youth] engagement is part of a course, but I’ve seen some remarkable successes.” One example of these success stories comes out of the Community To The Classroom project (video of an example produced by youth). Nancy experienced that “young people often want to discuss the dynamics of (…) power they are experiencing.” Here it is particularly important to support adults with the resources needed to open up lasting ways for youth to engage.

Julian Sefton-Green projects: creating videos with youth and screening them to a public facing audience & English National Project Creative Partnerships to foster collaboration among teachers and artists

While working at a youth community center, Julian was commissioned to create a video, along with youths who were living in care, which was intended to be viewed by a public facing audience. It was a positive learning experience for the youth to tell their stories, and they enjoyed creating the film. Against expectations, the screening of the film to the social services and people in local authority did not go over well. Julian recognized that it was a “complete contradiction to the way the youth wanted their story to be told and the awkward response of the people who commissioned the video.” Julian suggested that it is important not to promise the youth a quick change. In his case, young people already knew how difficult these kinds of experiences are. Julian added: “You engage them into political discourse and give them the opportunity to learn how to engage in this kind of discourse. [It is important] not to promise any outcomes, and that the work would achieve anything.”

Julian also worked with English National Project Creative Partnerships to foster collaboration among teachers and artists toward the development of learning activities for young people. The project had a large budget and varied in its outcomes and results. Julian helped “create literature reviews, because what research can contribute is histories and thinking about bodies of knowledge and ideas that have a tradition. (…) The project also created constituency of interest and the research-validated practices gave authority and weight besides the theorization.”

Research at its best creates constituencies of interest. You might not succeed in persuading people in power to invest into young people, but research creates a language and a way to organize and collect around a set of understandings that you can theorize and frame and put into shape and narrative and that can be powerful. – Julian Sefton-Green

What is the importance of theory?

Julian reframed the question, asking instead “what does contribution to academic theory mean?” For him, it means (a) publishing in journals and collecting citations, and (b) framing and explaining a particular practice to move an argument forward. Theorizing is often of greater interest. And Julian elaborated that “theory is a kind of way to explain things to people on the ground.” For him, “it comes down to how clearly one can write. (…) A lot of it comes down to how easily you can express yourself in simple, easy-to-understand language. And that is not the same thing [as the] premium of what it means [to be] an academic.”

Work-Life balance

Nancy made an explicit decision not to be in a mainstream faculty position. At institutions all of the work it takes to pursue rigorous and mutually respectful, equity-oriented, community-engaged research is considered service. So much of her work-time does not directly focus on writing peer reviewed journal articles. In a non-tenured faculty position without a regular teaching load, she has been able to allocate time for community engagement but still work with students through projects and committees. One can be successful working in this line of work while being in a tenure-track positions, but it presents unique challenges, for example, it is often not an easy fit if you want an academic appointment that carries PI status; but this is changing to some extent. Groups such as CCPH and Imagining America are working to support such scholars and scholarship in the US.

Is there a contribution that participatory and community based research can make to educational research?

Collaborative and political work has a way of engaging participants in ways that other forms of research does not. So the direct and immediate impact is there and part of your life as opposed to indirect effect. Direct collaborative community-based research can be better than other forms of research. (…) it is important to stay on the edge to avoid becoming another orthodoxy within academia. – Julian Sefton-Green
What PAR has to offer to knowledge production (is the) potential generation of new kinds of questions that might not emerge on campuses. Complex challenges that people are looking to define and solve, require multiple ways of knowing to tackle those challenges. PAR offers the opportunity to create the kinds of trans-epistemic communities that can work on these issues. – Nancy Erbstein

Questions to Think With: Research Practice Partnership

Megan Bang and Phillip Bell kindly participated in last week’s DML Commons Design-Based Research webinar on co-design and collaboration. They presented their rich experiences of closely working with research participants. how they established sustainable research/practice partnerships based on exciting networks, and how their work ties into the theoretical and practical considerations of DBR and DBIR. 

Magan and Phil kindly provided their presentation slides for further reference:

Through the presentation, Megan and Phil answered many of the questions we prepared to discuss. We wanted to share our questions to Magen and Phil here as a resource and starting points to consider when thinking about a design-based research project that commits to ethical and holistic participation.

Establishing relationships

  • What are strategies for learning about context before engaging in design (e.g., initial observations of the context, development of partnerships, understanding and specifying partners’ goals)?
  • What are strategies/tools for beginning and building relationships with participants?

Co-constructing the design process

  • How do you co-construct the design process with participants?
  • How did you begin working with your participants?
  • What barriers/challenges did you face? How did you overcome them?
  • How do you negotiate and document decision making in design-based research?
  • How do you share your data collection, data analysis and design practice with participants?

Sustaining a project and participation

  • What happens when participants are resistant to change, or go in a direction that you might not think is in the best interest of kids/young people?
  • How do you sustain the project and participation (handover to participants)?
  • How long should/could DBR go on for? How do you know when to continue and when to stop?
  • How do you plan for how intensive and long the process will be?
  • Do you know in advance how long a project may be? (6 month, 10 years?)

Practicing Public Speaking

Photos by: Naomi Thompson

My aim for the Spring 2015 was to practice public speaking. It seems like quite many opportunities were made available through conference presentations, webinars, workshops etc. The journey has been a huge learning curve and a lot of fun at the same time. I’d like to share a short reflection on my experience, by focusing on my discovery of the Keynote application as a helpful tool.

At the recent AERA conference in Chicago, I had the chance to present research I have had the pleasure to work on with Dr. Karen Wohlwend and Dr. Kylie Peppler. The work relates to the design of a new curricular model for making that helps facilitate and reverse approaches to making in holistic ways: the Design Playshop Model.  

This was my first AERA presentation and my first US conference presentation ever! I was super excited and also pretty anxious to get it all right. Our work was a qualitative study and included many cases to illustrate orientations to making and how the merging of orientations deepened and broadened children’s engagement with making. At the same time, my presentation was only supposed to be 12 minutes long. In this short time, only some salient examples could be shared.

Given my level of experience, rather than cutting rich content, I decided to partly script the presentation and to use paper notes to help me while presenting. The night before leaving to Chicago, I discovered the Keynote iPhone application that can be connected to Mac Books and makes the iPhone act like a clicker. This tool helped me tremendously during my presentation especially because it let me reference my notes on my phone rather than bring paper. Here is how the application works:

Practicing Public Speaking

Open Keynote on the computer and on the iPhone while being connected to the same wifi on both devices. Let the app find the computer. 

Practicing Public Speaking

Once it computer and phone are connected, you can click play.

Practicing Public Speaking

The presentation starts on the computer, and as you swipe the phone the slides change on the computer. I set the phone view to display the current slide plus notes, but other views are possible too (e.g., next slide + notes, just current slide etc.). The current slide plus notes made me feel comfortable presenting and allowed me to better engage with the audience. I was flexible to move and had the option to glance at my notes without appearing as if I was reading. One big plus was that the AERA wifi was so reliable!

DBR U1 Webinar 1: Introduction with Bill Penuel

Introduction with Bill Penuel [Webinar]
Tuesday, April 7, 2015 9:00 AM PDT
Facilitators: Dixie Ching, Rafi Santo
Participants: Bill Penuel, Professor of Educational Psychology and Learning Sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder.

The first webinar of the Design-Based Research strand focused on the goals, purposes and argumentative grammar of design-based research, and presented design-based implementation research as a nuanced approach. Here my take aways.

DBR U1 Webinar 1: Introduction with Bill Penuel

A Few Points

  • Design is always a political act, even if it is not explicitly stated.
  • We have to ask: Who is at the table? Whose future is valued?
  • DBR is still evolving and in flux
  • Be intentional about purposes and questions
  • Listen to the classroom setting and the questions that are emerging.
  • Iteration and changes of direction are common.
  • You need a big team to address all purposes at once.
  • Take things off the table.
  • Apprenticing with experts who are skilled and have experience in the kinds of research can be invaluable experience.
  • DBIR is always a collaborative effort.
DBR U1 Webinar 1: Introduction with Bill Penuel

Goals and Purposes of Design-Based Research

  1. Design-based research studies interventions, how the intervention is designed (and evolves), and how that intervention supports the intended outcomes of the design. Doing design is a way to learn about learning, and combining design and research given the opportunity to study learning and to create the structures for supporting learning. One example would be the creation of an innovative way of learning a particularly difficult concept at an earlier age than it was possible before the innovation.
  2. Design-based research develops local and humble theories that are closely tied to the specific context of the design-based research intervention. Humble theories can relate to learning and design. For example, Through the active and interventionist engagement, design and implementation of innovations in real world settings, such as classrooms, researchers can get better understanding of how learning is done in this context. This gives that an opportunity to develop, for example, local theories of learning. At the same time, a close look at how design was organized in this context can reveal a better understanding of theoretical perspectives about design.
  3. Design-based research give knowledge about implementation. Particularly design-based implementation research focuses on how to anchor, scale and sustain design-based research innovations across a wide range of contexts. Studying adaptations can provide knowledge on how to implement design-based research before, during and after the fact.

Panuel and his students are working on a theoretical perspective of how to organize collaborative design within design research, including to what extend collaboration supports teacher’s agency. One question includes: How should design be organized to expand teacher’s agency on what they may be able to teach? This might change how we see the the metaphorical notion of design, introducing organization as a new way of looking at design-based research.

The Argumentative Grammar of Design-Based Research

Argumentative Grammar refers to the notion of the logic that guides the use of a method and support of the data it provides. This does not relate to the strength of an argument, but rather something related to your methodological approach that can be isolated from context and can be appreciated by anyone outside of your field of research. The argumentative grammar of design-based research has not been fully developed yet. It is a family of approaches that moves towards a set of standards and tools to help evaluate claims. This is meant when people say that design-based research is an evolving field.

DBR U1 Webinar 1: Introduction with Bill Penuel

To help move this forward, Sandoval introduced the idea of Conjecture Maps. The idea is that researchers make their suppositions about learning as explicit as possible in the beginning in order to be able to backtrack how they are embodied in the form of the design created through design-based research. This is a way to critique theories and designs, as it leaves room for questions. The opportunities for critical conversation about the results of design-based research studies can help strengthen the argumentative grammar of the area of research. 

DBR U1 Webinar 1: Introduction with Bill Penuel

Penuel added the idea to brainstorm ideas of how designs may fail, that is how a design may be used in unanticipated ways that would not lead to the kinds of learning we were hoping to see as a result of the design. While we cannot anticipate all unintentional uses in advance, imagining some possible failures can help address possible biases towards ones own work. 

Yet another way would be to build on prior design work in a similar area. This can help knit the field closer together and form tighter justifications for why particular decisions were made.

Design-Based Implementation Research

Design-based implementation research relates to the critiques on what it takes to scale an innovation. There are many different things that can come out of a design-based research project. Even if the project does not go well, one can share valuable insights. Further, there is no need to completely abandon the innovation. The idea here is to think about how to adapt the innovation and at the same time to consider how the context could be rebuild. DBIR shifts focus on design across levels (e.g., professional development, environmental factors, infrastructure etc.) and looks at what it would take for the innovation to be widely and effectively implemented. This systems look is considered to help see how innovation may fit, and what would need to change (in the system and/or the innovation) to make it work without compromising the essence of the original motivations.