Learning more about the RSA Evidence Champions Network: a Q&A with Aidan Daly, Creative Learning and Development Coordinator

March 5, 2020

I’ve been really interested in the RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce) Evidence Champions Network since I first heard about it. Much of my day-to-day work involves evaluating cultural learning and engagement, so I am a big advocate for any initiatives that build confidence around this. I spoke to Aidan to find out more about the RSA Evidence Champions Network and how it does this. What resonated most from our conversation was how important it is to be open about and learn from mistakes. In an environment of pressure and accountability, this can be hard, so networks like this provide an important safe space. Here’s more from our discussion...

What is the Network and who is it for?

Aidan: The Evidence Champions Network is a national community of practitioners that represents the diversity of the arts education and cultural learning landscape. Champions include those working in arts and cultural organisations, schools, funding bodies and as freelance artists. Champions are all keen to promote better use of evidence and evaluation in art and cultural learning. The network supports them to use research from others and evaluate their own work so they understand the difference it makes and can continuously improve the quality of the work.

How did the network come about?

A: The Network was set up as a partnership between the RSA and the eight Arts Council England Bridge organisations. The impetus came from lots of people understanding how important it is to use evidence to inform practice, but there not being a lot of support for how to do this. Instead of framing evidence-informed practice as something purely for funder requirements, the real idea behind the Network is about making evidence and evaluation meaningful for practitioners themselves. Through the network, champions meet experts who they can learn from, but it’s also about peer support. This includes encouraging each other to be open about making mistakes and recognising the value of learning from these.

Can you tell us about the Evidence Handbook and webinars?

A: We’ve received really good feedback from Champions about the Handbook. It’s basically a ‘how-to guide’, supporting practitioners to evidence the difference they make in their work. It is split into 4 sections - Source, Lead, Learn and Share:

  • Source – how to gather evidence, including finding credible evidence and exploring what’s worked elsewhere.
  • Lead – taking collective ownership and ensuring the onus is on making meaning in day to day practice, not doing it for someone else; getting the scale and scope right; supporting community and participant engagement.
  • Learn – planning for and collecting accurate evidence; includes more detailed guidance around tools such as surveys, interviews and focus groups; how findings inform the bigger picture of change and how to make conclusions.
  • Share - supporting colleagues, peers and the sector as whole to learn; encouraging others to be evidence rich. There is a big focus on being able to talk about when things didn’t go as planned – learning from failure.

Our webinars explore the themes in the Handbook and have also responded to some requests that emerged from our conference in September. We facilitate a mixture of expert presentation and group discussion. There have been practical demonstrations of research methodologies such as interviews and focus groups, as well as more theoretical discussions about data bias.

In addition to the Handbook and webinars, the Champions communicate via a Slack group to share information, updates and ideas.

What are your main reflections about the Network so far?

A: The main takeaway from our annual conference this year was that Champions are feeling more confident about evidence and evaluation in their work, but at the same time still feel like they are at the beginning of a journey. There is so much more appetite for sharing and learning, and Champions value the Network as a place to share lessons learned from past mistakes, and the opportunity to connect with peers is also highly valued. It’s a positive process and people want it to continue.

How does the Network fit into the wider Learning About Culture project?

A: The Network forms one of three strands of Learning About Culture.

The second strand is the five randomised control trials of arts-based learning interventions, measuring whether they improve outcomes for children in areas such as literacy, confidence and creativity skills. When the results of the trials come out, we wanted the champions to be equipped to engage with the findings, understand how they apply to their own work and also to help their peers across the sector to do the same.

The third strand is about sharing learning from existing best practice – you can read the report here about ‘arts rich’ schools, which explores what enables schools to place arts at the core of their learning offer.

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Featured in the March 2020 edition of The Learning Diaries. Aimed at those working in learning, engagement or participation in the cultural sector, this newsletter will share updates from our team on sector events, ideas from some of our projects and links to new research. To receive The Learning Diaries, visit the sign up page.