Creative spaces can give a voice to young people in Africa

10 August 2018 EducationGCRFSouth Africa

South African children

In celebration of International Youth Day 2018 we are highlighting Newton Fund and Global Challenges Research Fund science, research and innovation projects, which are making a difference to young people’s lives around the world.

By Alison Buckler

“The world’s young people need safe spaces - public, civic, physical and digital spaces where they can freely express their views and pursue their dreams”

It’s difficult to argue with this statement, which is part of the United Nations Secretary General’s message for International Youth Day on Sunday 12 August. But it needs to go further. It’s not enough that young people’s views are freely expressed. Their views must be heard and used to shape policies that affect their lives.

Perhaps nowhere is this more important than in schools.

Secondary education underpins national and global development strategies. The UN says it is a minimum entitlement, to give young people the knowledge and skills to secure a decent livelihood.

Access to secondary schools is expanding. But in what has become known as the “Global Learning Crisis” it is estimated that only half of the world’s children and adolescents meet what are considered to be minimum proficiency levels whether they go to school, or not. There are also huge disparities within countries: one third of black students at township schools in South Africa meet learning targets compared with 85% of white students.

There are countless reports about how to fix the crisis with more “big data” on learning metrics, but current monitoring systems focus on measuring competency in literacy and numeracy.

Of course, the purpose of education is much broader. Little is known about learning related to civic education, digital literacy, financial management, media literacy, health literacy, ethical reasoning and so on. It is much harder to measure and compare these aspects of education, but they are precisely the aspects that can powerfully shape young people’s participation in the public, civic, physical and digital spaces the UN Secretary General imagines for them.

So how can we think differently about what young people are learning (and why they might not be)? One way is through storytelling.

I was in Cape Town earlier this year at an iBali (story) Network workshop for researchers and practitioners from across Sub-Saharan Africa. Their work coalesces around youth, the arts and education and focuses on using creative, collaborative storytelling approaches to understand young people’s experiences of learning in African schools.

Stories are often associated with fiction, but the process of generating real-life stories through research is increasingly understood to inspire political action on social issues. Story research, like arts research more generally, can change the way we see the world. Stories bring experiences and ideas into public and policy domains in a way that statistics or reports rarely can.

When done well, storytelling research doesn’t just extract knowledge from young people, the process of developing a story supports them to think about and share their experiences in new ways. This can often lead to social change at the personal and local level (led by the storytellers), as well as the larger-scale changes made possible when the stories are communicated to audiences in positions of authority.

Participants at the iBali workshop described how many education researchers in Africa are channelled towards the data sciences. Big data is big business. Meanwhile, arts and humanities departments are chronically under-funded. Academics working at the intersection of arts and education lack opportunities and resources for networking, collaboration and dialogue. Thanks to the Global Challenges Research Fund and the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the iBali Network is supporting African early career researchers to develop expertise in storytelling approaches, to make links with other academics, international NGOs, local organisations and policy makers, and to develop collaborative research proposals based in their own national contexts, paving the way for future storytelling research with young people.

We know that many young people in Africa face under-resourced and overcrowded classrooms, unstable home environments, crime and gendered social pressures, forced employment, poor sanitation and health challenges. We know that faced with these contexts, some young people succeed, and some struggle. But we know surprisingly little about why this is. Learning metrics demonstrate the scale of the challenge, but we also need much more research based in schools, with young people at the centre. This will not just show us what young people are learning but also how and why they are learning, and how they – and others – can respond to the challenge.

Rather than just “data-points” we need to see young people as “data producers”, at the forefront of the research and development agenda.

Young people need public, civic, physical and digital spaces. But they also need creative spaces where they can reflect on and purposefully communicate their worlds as well as the skills they need to live in these worlds. If researchers and policy makers can tap into, support, listen to and learn from these creative spaces, we stand to gain much more inclusive education systems that work for the young people who need them. #YouthDay #SafeSpaces4Youth

Dr Alison Buckler is Research Fellow in Education and International Development, and the convenor of the International Teachers, Education and Sustainable Development research group (RITES) at the Open University. She is leading the iBali Network of expert and early career researchers focusing on storytelling approaches for understanding learning exclusions in schools in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Follow the iBali network on Twitter