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Evaluation as a Pedagogy of Discomfort


Sydney ChurchIn this blog, Sydney Church (the Centre’s Research and Learning Officer), focuses on the concept of a ‘pedagogy of discomfort’ to explore how disruptive feelings and emotions can offer valuable insight into evaluation across the youth sector. 



I recently read a paper by Michalinos Zembylas on the value of a ‘pedagogy of discomfort’. By this, he means ‘troubled knowledge’, which includes using disruptive feelings and emotions as a source of fruitful and responsive learning. Since starting at the Centre in October, I have seen and experienced a wide-range troubled knowledges in perspectives about the current state of evaluation across the youth sector. Part of the difference in views is contest over what evaluation is ultimately for. At a recent conference workshop, one youth worker was railing that they were sick to death of having to meet meaningless targets set by funders that don’t support their learning and can do more damage than good. I would agree that such targets can blinker evaluation and undermine authentic investigation. Instead of a purely linear approach to measuring pre-determined outcomes in youth work, we should create space for divergent understanding and outcomes to emerge. Inevitably this contested space will lead to feelings of discomfort amongst evaluators as their assumptions are tested and challenged by a range of voices, which I think we should welcome and even intentionally cultivate.
Specifically, in order to foster evaluation as a pedagogy of discomfort we need to give greater consideration to who participates in evaluation and exactly how they are being listened to. I think we need to reflect on our positionalities (in terms of our identities, biases and positions of power) and recognise these affect what knowledge is produced and valued. We should also recognise that those with different positionalities to our own might say something different and potentially more valuable. This point was brought up at our recent gathering by Mariyam Farooq from Black Thrive, urging for a school framework where children and young people hold power on par with other school personnel, through being trusted and supported to make decisions about their intellectual development.  I agree with this call wholeheartedly, but effective engagement is challenging and I’m worried there is too often a view that participation of diverse voices in evaluation should be straightforward. In my view, if no part of creating a participatory evaluation is disruptive, then perhaps we are doing something wrong.  At worst, this desire for relatively frictionless participation can lead to tokenism and inclusion of the ‘easiest’ young people to reach and listen to. There needs to be space for discomfort, for disjuncture, for different views and time to examine them, so that participation in evaluation can offer the richest possible understanding.
A good example of this is in Suzy Braye and Liz McDonnell’s participatory research on young fathers’ experiences, which clearly acknowledges the difficulty of cultivating a context of authentic participation, at the same time as acknowledging its value. Securing engagement with the young fathers, distributing power and collecting rich data all created tensions in the research which had to be directly and substantially engaged with. However, as a result it was felt that the process of learning and the findings that emerged in the project were transformed by this pedagogical discomfort rather than constrained by it. Such engagement in evaluation, far from being antithetical to the principles of youth work – like some evaluation practice - embodies the very principles on which youth work rides.
To foster this positive discomfort there are also serious methodological considerations and ‘you can’t just assume that by including the excluded it will change’ (Angela Davies and Judith Butler in Conversation). Methods that allow critical processes of engagement as well as alternative values to emerge are needed to push evaluation towards genuine curiosity and investigation of practice.  Evaluation methods need to constantly consider who is deciding what knowledge counts, who and how they are being listened to and what data the method being used can feasibly capture (and what it is missing out). I will be striving towards co-creating a context such as this with organisations taking part in the Youth Programme Quality Intervention UK pilot . I will be drawing on techniques from Augusto Boal’s theatre as well as other methods that investigate thoughts as well as feelings and experiences. And at the top of my priorities will be creating the circumstances for new and divergent information to surface which as an evaluator, might trouble me.