December 2017 saw us feed back the quantitative findings from our evaluation of Learning Together in 2016/17 for the first time. It felt good that the audience was a full staff meeting in HMP Grendon, our first partner prison where the Learning Together initiative began four years ago. These findings form the basis of an academic paper co-authored by Ruth Armstrong, Amy Ludlow and Ingrid Obsuth (now at the University of Edinburgh) entitled ‘”It all happens in the interaction …”: the power of the interpersonal in Learning Together.’
From the first ever pilot Learning Together course in 2014, evaluation has been at the heart of our practice. Listening to our students over the years has shaped our evaluation methods and focus, but what has not changed is a commitment to understanding what we are doing and thinking theoretically about our practice. We began this work rather naively with the knowledge that participating in higher education reduces re-offending, a narrow crime-centred theoretical understanding about why this might be, a desire to have more of the brilliant voices we heard in our prisons involved in shaping dialogue in our university classrooms, and a curiosity about when and how learning is individually, institutionally and socially transformative.
We set out to measure transformation with some pre and post scales that were designed on the basis of research about how people move away (desist) from crime, how inter-group contact can reduce stigma and prejudice, and the kinds of classrooms in which people develop mindsets that support growth. We also tried to design the scales having in mind what our students told us about their experiences of the pilot course in focus groups and interviews at the end of the pilot course. Unsurprisingly perhaps, in the second year of Learning Together we found that our initial pre and post scales measured nothing. Our students told us they felt somewhat objectified by our scale, and that the measures ‘missed the magic’. So, we scrapped them, and started again.
We started over by listening to our students more closely and more broadly than we had before. We asked students to describe their learning journeys, how they felt, what was happening, and what they felt were the important components of their experiences. As we listened, we began to read, especially beyond criminology. We began to understand desistance not as a movement away from crime, but as a process of positive transformation, sharing many features with other processes of positive transformation. Our students were telling us that as they learned together they forged connections with each other; they began to feel differently about themselves and about others in these new, broader, social contexts and realities; they realised they could perhaps achieve things they had thought impossible; they found each other invaluable sources of support in working towards these achievements; in dialogue they learned to listen to themselves and to others.
In transformative learning and psychological literature about personal transformations, we found scales that reflected things that our students were highlighting as important and as changing across courses: self-efficacy, social self-efficacy, self-esteem and perspective taking. We adapted these scales using concepts and language that arose from our interviews and focus groups with students and by the third year of Learning Together, these four concepts formed the basis of our pre and post questionnaires. This time, our results appear to be capturing something of the change and ‘magic’ that our students describe in interviews and focus groups…
This graph shows increases across all four of our measures – students reported higher self-efficacy, social self-efficacy, perspective taking and self-esteem at the end of the course than at the start. These findings are based on the answers of 45 students over three courses held in two prisons in 2016-17, 24 of whom were resident in prison, 21 of whom were resident in Cambridge. While these are low numbers upon which to assess statistically significant change, the extent of the change in a positive direction across all of the measures, suggests that we are on to something meaningful, and that they are not happening by chance. And if these changes are meaningful, rather than down to luck, then one of the things we are keen to find out, is what is doing the work.
We know from existing research that there is a link between self-esteem and self-efficacy. As a result, many initiatives focus on building up self-esteem to empower people towards positive change. We ran some statistical tests and, consistent with previous research, we found that positive changes in self-esteem in our data were positively associated with positive changes in self-efficacy.
But when we went back to our qualitative data, we felt this wasn’t the whole story. It seemed a little bit like statistics that show that having small feet is related to being more religious – if you drill down further we find that it is not that people with small feet are more religious, but that small feet are most commonly found in women, who are more religious. So, the link between small feet and religiosity is mediated by (accounted for) being a woman. If we didn’t know these people were women, we’d think it was because of the small feet.
When we talked with our students about their experiences they emphasised how the connections they formed with each other underpinned their new ideas about themselves (self-esteem) and hopes for what they want to do in life. One student, Jamie, explained it like this:
‘There are so many people on this wing that are studying or taking part in Learning Together. It’s a reminder to me every time I see them. Mustafa for one. Me and him always discuss stuff. So when I saw him this morning, it’s a reminder for me that he’s studying, I’m studying, we want to do that. It’s easy to forget that. Say when I was in Gartree, no one on my wing was doing a degree. If I was doing my degree in there, who would I speak to? Where is the motivation? So I think it’s the same thing with Learning Together. It’s just being around […] any kind of person that has that motivation and is successful, so just to be in that little circle of people that want to do well for themselves, want to progress.’
Similarly, Laura described the motivation to do well that she felt from being involved in Learning Together as akin to playing a rugby match:
Interviewer:What do you think are the things that have been doing the work to bring about those transformations in attitudes and ideas about yourself?
Laura:I think the regular […] so the week-on-week interaction […] I’m trying to find the best way to frame this, but that there’s something that shapes your week that isn’t just about you […] I think […] I mean that, what I was saying before, that you’re part of it but it’s not all about you is one aspect of it. It’s selfless also in that those […] in that environment it’s not about you, it’s about everybody else as well having the best experience, or when you play you commit to the environment because you want it to be the best for everybody else, and it doesn’t feel like you’re doing that and you’re giving and not getting anything back. You’re giving everything because the best thing is for everybody to have a good experience and for you to win the match … I don’t want to win rugby matches because I want to win them, I want to win them because I want to play the best I can for my friends.”
Given that our students were emphasising the importance of the relationships and connections that they built through Learning Together, we wondered whether self-esteem in fact grew from those connections, as did self-efficacy. We ran some tests and this is indeed what we found. When we added social self-efficacy into our model, we found that changes in social self-efficacy are related to increases in general self-efficacy – the sense that I can achieve what I set out to achieve.
But it isn’t just that social self-efficacy and general self-efficacy are linked. When we added social self-efficacy into the model, the link we previously found between self-esteem and general self-efficacy became non-significant, as the model below shows.
This model suggests that self-esteem is not doing the work in terms of raising self-efficacy. Rather, it is through developing social self-efficacy (how well we connect with others to work towards things we want to achieve) that self-esteem is related to self-efficacy.
We know this isn’t the whole story, but through listening to our students, we are starting to tell part of what they find transformative about Learning Together. This year we have included further measures of general connectedness, belonging, and emotions. We hope these scales will help to reflect more of what our students tell us are the transformative elements of Learning Together: that when you learn in an atmosphere of mutuality, support and positive expectation, where the peaks are celebrated and the pains are permitted and shared, it can be transformative, for the individuals involved and for the society they form together.