‘It all happens in the interaction – so what?’ Sharing thoughts from Learning Together at the ICPA Conference in Prague

By | 2019-03-27T16:52:34+00:00 May 10th, 2018|0 Comments

Yesterday we spoke at the International Correctional Practitioners’ Association (ICPA) conference in Prague. The event was the ICPA’s second international research symposium and brought together an international community of academics, practitioners and policy makers who work in criminal justice, with the aim of exploring what makes for ‘good’ prisons research. We were glad to be invited to speak at this event, and  build on our keynote contribution at last year’s inaugural research symposium, which raised questions about how social science methods capture complexity in prisons research. In this blog, we share the text and slides from our presentation. By sharing three ‘snapshot’ findings about students’ experiences of Learning Together so far, we hoped to raise some methodological, theoretical, practical and ethical questions about the significance, potential and impacts of prison-university partnership working, and how we might come together to do this work well.

Learning Together is an educational initiative that we established just over four years ago at the University of Cambridge. Through Learning Together, we are curating communities of learning involving students from higher education institutions and students who are currently under criminal justice supervision, whether in prison or in the community. Learning Together has become a national network of over 30 criminal justice organisations and 20 higher education organisations working in partnership. Our practices build on the long British history of partnership working in the UK, dating back at least to the 1950s with some of the founding fathers of criminology, like Max Grunhut’s ‘Crime-a-challenge’ society and Nigel Walker’s prison reading and dialogue groups.

Learning Together is grounded in the commonalities of the public missions of our criminal justice and higher education organisations – both organisations are seeking to capacitate individuals for broader social good. Learning Together is also grounded in research. It is an action research initiative that is built on theory and research evidence and, through evaluation, seeks to advance that theory and evidence, using this to advance practice.

In particular, the theoretical underpinnings of Learning Together include transformative learning (especially the work of Paolo Freire), inter-group contact (about how to bring people together in ways that are meaningful and are likely to reduce perceptions and experiences of stigma and prejudice) and desistance (the processes through which people move away from crime towards positive futures). From this theory, as a Network, we have formed common vision and mission statements as well as a set of values that guide practice. Our fundamental research interest is understanding what’s transformative – individually, institutionally, socially – about education.

Last year at this conference we talked about some of the methodological challenges of capturing complexity. This year we want to share three ‘snapshot’ findings and share some thoughts about what we see as some of their potential implications and some of the methodological, practical and theoretical questions they raise for us.

Over the last 4 years, beyond focus groups and semi-structured interviews (of which we have conducted more than 100, mostly with students, but also with some prison staff), our methods have pulled us in increasingly participatory and creative directions. Two years ago, we partnered with Vox Liminis, a grass roots Scottish community music initiative. Over a three day workshop, together with our students, we wrote and performed songs about our experiences of Learning Together. ‘Comfortably dumb’ is one of those songs and you can read the song’s lyrics in the slide above.

‘Comfortably dumb’ describes experiences of learning and growth as bringing about change across at least five key domains. These are:

  • self-esteem – a realisation that we are more than we might have thought we were – ‘greater than what you see, capable of more’;
  • perspective taking – ‘I begin to notice, things I missed before’, realising ‘the pieces we all bring, no matter where we start’;
  • social self-efficacy and connectedness – developing the capabilities to feel and be part of something – ‘the part you played, the change you made in me… the thrill of taking part’;
  • self-efficacy – ‘be all that you can be’, ‘let me prove my worth and flourish’, ‘now it’s up to me’; and
  • identity development and a sense of future orientation – ‘now a blur comes into focus, my aperture sees more’.

These five themes also emerged across our interview and focus group data. So, led by this data, and working with Dr Ingrid Obsuth (now at the University of Edinburgh), last year we identified and adapted some scales of change.

These scales are an attempt to capture some of the most significant changes our students have told us happen through Learning Together. Last year we used these four main dimensions to our scale of change – self-efficacy, social self efficacy, perspective taking and self-esteem We ask students to answer questions about these things on a scale of 1-10 before the course and again at the end. (N.B. This year we have also added measures of general connectedness and belonging and future oriented identity development, but this data is not included in these findings).

What this slide shows is those scales ‘in action’. It shows that that our students from HMPs Grendon and Whitemoor and the University of Cambridge in 2016-17 are reporting statistically significant improvements across all four dimensions between time 1, at the start of the course (in orange), and time 2, at the end of the course (in green).

But so what? Why might this matter? What questions does this finding raise?

What excites us about this first finding is that these constructs intersect with Learning Together’s theoretical underpinnings. For example, more positive future trajectories in terms of learning and movements away from crime involve what desistance research might call ‘agency’ (a sense of self and an ability to live this out) and what transformative learning research might call ‘grit’ (sticking with something you want to do and achieving it). These concepts map onto the concepts in our measures of self-esteem and self-efficacy. We are currently working on a paper with Ingrid Obsuth that develops this work about the relationship between our measures and Learning Together’s theoretical underpinnings. We’ll be presenting a first draft of our paper with Ingrid in Edinburgh in June.

But in a conference about ‘good research in prisons’, it is worth pointing out that we needed help from our students to come up with these measures. Our journey towards them began with a methodological critique from some of our students.

When we began our evaluation we had set out to ‘measure’ quite narrow criminological concepts very directly. In this 5 page critique paper, our students told us that we were measuring the wrong things in the wrong ways. This brings us to a few other ‘so what?’ questions, which continue to exercise us…

How much are we led by the field in how we think about, and practice, prison-university partnership working? How open are we to hearing our students’ experiences and thinking carefully about those experiences, with our students, and in light of literature? To what extent are we led explicitly by those experiences and by the existing research evidence? Are there risks that we are in places, taking the status quo for granted and unthinkingly embedding policies and practices from higher education institutions as well as criminal justice institutions which do not necessarily follow evidence or a vision of best practice?

How sensitive are we, and can we be in our evaluation, to understanding learning experiences within their particular institutional and national socio-political contexts? How do ambitions for being data-led sit within institutional realities that can sometimes drive towards quicker, narrower, more instrumental forms of evaluation? If, for institutional reasons, it is not possible to live out our evidence based values, and make space to honour and respond to students experiences, is there space to voice this or might we need to exit partnership working? Are there red lines in this work, ways in which it should not be done, and if so,  what are they?

How do our ways of asking questions about experiences of learning together shape what we can and can’t see about people’s experiences? As Ben Crewe said in his talk earlier, ‘the view is different from the dance floor rather than the balcony’. What messages do our research questions and methods communicate about the nature of our learning communities and their ambitions? Research can be a tool of community building, but without care, it can also result in the entrenchment of existing power dynamics and penal and educational policies and practices that do not follow the evidence.

Our second snapshot finding builds on our first. We’ve shown already how students’ self-assessment indicates increases across all four measures of self-esteem, self-efficacy, social self-efficacy and perspective taking. But we wanted to go further and understand the relationship between these four measures and their increases – we wanted to get a sense of what might be doing the work. We know from existing research that there is a link between self-esteem and self-efficacy; there are plenty of programmes that focus on building up self-esteem in order to achieve behavioural change. And when we looked at this in our own data, we found that there was a statistically significant directional relationship between self-esteem and self-efficacy, which is reflected in this model on the slide.

This relationship in the quantitative data rang true to us – we could see from interview data that self-esteem was a factor in people describing increases in their self-efficacy. But it didn’t seem to be the full picture…

In interviews, our students had been saying that it’s connections that really mattered and so we wondered what role social self-efficacy might be playing. And when we modelled that statistically, we found that, in addition to changes in self-esteem being related to changes in general self-efficacy, changes in social self-efficacy were also significantly related to general self-efficacy. In other words, it wasn’t just self-esteem that was doing the work.

Even more excitingly, it wasn’t just that self-esteem and social self-efficacy were linked to general self-efficacy. When we added social self-efficacy into the model, the link between self-esteem and general self-efficacy became non-significant.

This suggests that increases in social self-efficacy may increase a sense of self-esteem, which in turn helps increase general self-efficacy. In other words, it is through developed social self-efficacy that self-esteem is related to empowerment. Social self-efficacy seems to be ‘in the driving seat’.

So why might that matter and what bigger questions might it ask?

First, this emerging data helps us to push beyond merely focusing on individuals. This data emphasises the importance of understanding learners in relation with each other, and broader within networks of other learners and kinship. This has methodological and theoretical consequences. Theoretically, it has pushed us down a more ‘social’ path, picking up on some of the more social strands within literatures that have inspired the design of Learning Together (such as Beth Weaver’s work in desistance on co-production), as well as encouraging us to learn about new literatures beyond criminology and education, like Richard Sennett’s work on the public realm and the ‘craft of cooperation’. Methodologically, we’ve become exercised about how we go beyond narrow individual focuses in our questions and methods to capture the interpersonal and contextual.

From a practical perspective, this finding asks questions of our higher education and criminal justice institutions. It asks pedagogical questions of our universities – how do we avoid merely replicating often pedagogically impoverished (highly individualised) versions of higher education, in favour of a more ambitious engagement with research evidence of how people learn well and the role of interactions within this? If social relationships and networks really are core to learning, how seriously are we taking the educational (and, we would argue, ethical) imperative to build learning communities rather than one off courses? Continued contract and collaboration between students asks questions of penal policy and practice in terms of risk management and the right approach to working through and across walls.

Finally, what we think this funding speaks to is that the texture and contours of our learning communities really matters because they shape the nature and quality of interactions within and beyond them. And so who’s included, and who’s excluded are important questions, as is thinking about the location and nature of our communal and institutional edges. How do we simultaneously practice, evaluate and theorise community building, and what role is there for thinking about harms, pains and discomforts in that community building?

On that, we want to come to a third and final snapshot finding – one which we are continuing to think and write about – which is something about the characteristics of transformative learning communities and the costs of getting it wrong. Our students are helping us to understand what they see as some of the important characteristics of interactions in transformative learning communities. In 2015, one of our students, Gareth, shared the following:

We’ve highlighted, in red, what we think are some of the most significant aspects of what Gareth says. His reflections emphasise a sense of parity and equality between the students – a sense of not being judged. Gareth also takes about care and humanity and a sense of his potential being nurtured with a future oriented sense of progression and development.

Neil, another of our students from 2015, echoed Gareth’s comments about care and welcome, and a sense of future oriented ‘building’ towards something in which he felt invested. Neil’s reflections also emphasise the important of content, and common tasks that all students could work on together and contribute to equally (in terms of questions and topics).

But our students have also talked to us about some of the costs of getting interaction wrong. Not all interactions are good – some can be experienced as objectifying, as Neil went on to say in his interview with us:

These sorts of interaction risk entrenching and compounding prejudice, stigma and binary or divisive thinking. On this, we’ve found the work of human geographer, Jill Valentine, especially helpful because of the distinction she draws between ‘mere encounter’ and ‘meaningful encounter’. We think this distinction intersects in interesting ways with inter-group contact theory, which talks about the contours of contact that are helpful to reduce stigma and prejudice – and we know that reducing stigma and prejudice is important to movements away from crime. We are continuing to think about our data in this light.

Even where we are giving careful thought to the contours within which interactions take place within our learning communities, our students have made us alive to the realities that learning together still doesn’t feel straightforwardly positive. It is hard, painful and potentially harmful.

Here, Shaun speaks to some of the intrinsic challenges of social interaction and learning with new people. Hayden speaks to some of the pains of making new connections and discovering new hopes and passions but being reminded of boundaries and the realisation that he ‘can’t go home with these people’.

Similarly, in 2017, Patrick talked to us about the pains he felt leaving Grendon and going back to university, and realising that love and friendship can grow in unexpected ways and places and that the imprisonment of people we love, and might count as friends, constrains us all.

And, in 2016, John shared some painful realisations that emerged for him through the course when he began to acknowledge his own potential, which made him recognise wasted opportunities and feel the frustrations of glimpsing a different future from within the constraints of his current circumstances in prison.

John’s thoughts speak to a ‘cliff-edge’ that can happen at the end of courses, and leaves us uncomfortably pondering the harms of taking people to a cliff edge, with a beautiful view, and leaving them there. We wanted to leave you and finish this presentation on that cliff edge with us and John, wondering about how we best, together, move forward to find the methods to evaluate this work in ways that can shed light on the ‘unknown unknowns’ (to quote Ben Crewe, quoting Donald Rumsfeld). How might we generate new knowledge and use it to develop our theoretical and practice frameworks so they can acknowledge and hold pain, understand and minimise harm and work together towards the good?

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