By Mark Snijder
How can we learn from the knowledge and experience gained in practice, mainly in the field of youth? For me, this is one of the most difficult ánd interesting threads in my work over the past ten years. In my own search for an answer to this question, I eventually arrived at methods of narrative and participatory research. I came across Sprockler, a methodology that makes it possible to collectively unravel patterns in large numbers of stories of different groups of people. That makes sense, I thought, if we really want to learn from what happens in practice. By now, I have worked with it a number of times, with excellent results. And since I am in favour of learning from the experiences of others: these are the five insights that set me on this track.
1. Impact is in stories (storytelling)
In the years when I worked for a European youth programme (one of the precursors of today’s Erasmus+), I was often asked: what does six months of volunteering abroad bring in terms of benefits for young people? To me, this was clear. I saw those young people and talked to them and their mentors. I heard how self-confident they had become, what they had learned abroad and how an international experience had sometimes changed their lives. But just try to translate that into hard figures on impact and outcome… The impact was in the experiences of the young people, in their stories. So if you want to know more about impact, you first of all have to listen to those stories.
2. Numbers are nice, but they don’t tell the whole story
The power of a number is sometimes extraordinary. For example, in the Netherlands the figure of 119,000 has quite often been quoted for child abuse: every year, 119,000 children fall victim to child abuse. That is one child in every school class. Such a figure forces us to face the facts and arouses a sense of urgency. We really need to do something about it now! But the downside is that such a figure only provides limited information. Who are these 119,000 children? And what exactly are they experiencing? Follow the Money (in Dutch) showed earlier that this number mainly concerns emotional neglect, and only to a small extent physical abuse. That doesn’t make the problem any less urgent, but it does make a difference to the solutions we should be looking for. Figures and numbers oversimplify a reality that is much more complex, and thus offer insufficient perspective for action and starting points to actually do something.
3. Best practices are much more than just a source of inspiration
In recent years, I have described countless ‘best practices’ in the field of youth. Professionals, policy makers and administrators told me why their approach works in their region, what is complicated and what lessons they have learned. Valuable knowledge and experience straight from practice. But these best practices often ended up in (online) publications, which were distributed mainly ‘for inspiration’. I think that is a shame. After all, experience gained in practice is an exceptional source of knowledge, and therefore much more than just a source of inspiration.
4. Actively involving people leads to better insights
When describing best practices, I therefore started to add an extra layer: what in this story are the effective elements from which others can learn something? In publications, I added a text box with the most important ‘insights and recommendations’. More and more often, I ask the people I interview to formulate the most important lessons from their story themselves. What would you like to pass on to others? This leads to recommendations that are even more in line with the reality of young people, families and professionals. That is the lesson I have learned: do not only ask people about their experiences, but also involve them in formulating the insights and recommendations from those experiences.
5. More stories provide more guidance
A few years ago, I was working on a series of in-depth interviews with a family that had been through a lot of misery, and with a number of care workers involved. The aim was to learn from their experiences in order to improve the support provided to families with complex problems. Together with the family and the professionals, we analysed the results of the interviews. This yielded rich and valuable insights (in Dutch). However, this was about one family, one case only. Later, we combined these insights with the results of other interviews, and then we began to see patterns. That gave us something to hold on to and a basis for drawing lessons that transcend the experiences in that one case. So quantity has value too: a larger number of stories gives more direction to the lessons we can learn from them.
These five insights put me on the track of narrative and participatory research. At the same time, I wonder: what other insights should I be aware of?