Essential elements of knowledge mobilization to scale a youth-led education innovation

By: Lydia Wilbard,Sandra Spence Posted: 23 June 2023

In this blog series, we highlight lessons on positioning evidence for use through knowledge mobilization, drawn from the applied research projects of the Global Partnership for Education Knowledge and Innovation Exchange. Check out the other blogs in this series here.

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Credit: CAMFED/Kumi Media

Knowledge mobilization for scaling is rewarding, especially when it brings together expert partners who contribute a 360-degree view of the innovation, entrusts them to actively gather the information they need from on the ground, and provides opportunities and platforms for them to exchange perspectives from different contexts to spur creative thinking.

The Global Partnership for Education (GPE) Knowledge and Innovation Exchange (KIX), a joint endeavour with Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC), is supporting CAMFED to explore, with government partners, scaling a youth-led social support and mentorship program to improve quality of education for marginalized girls in Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe through applied research. Together we are considering the relevance of the Learner Guide model for the achievement of respective national objectives to improve equitable education and post-school opportunities for marginalized youth. Learner Guides are young women who volunteer to return to their local secondary schools to deliver structured life skills classes, provide individual mentoring and role modeling, and create school to community linkages through home visits to improve learning and reduce dropout.

Knowledge mobilization is essential for this innovative participatory research project. What we have been learning is that by creating well defined stakeholder teams and engaging them in active, immersive processes, knowledge mobilization becomes a continuous, generative process. It moves the scaling journey forward by driving evidence gathering and understanding of potential adaptation in a contextually relevant way. This process took partners on a 12- to 18-month journey from first learning about the Learner Guide program, to discussing practical ways it could be integrated into existing government processes and structures in their respective countries.

Bringing the right people together

Scaling committees have been created in each of the three countries in which the project is examining scaling through government partnership. These committees bring together experts with clear roles who, over regular meetings and site visits, inquire into, debate and explore the elements of the Learner Guide program and its potential for their contexts.

Since its founding in 1993, CAMFED has partnered extensively with communities to co-implement equitable education access and learning programs, especially for girls. We partner through school, community and district-based committees which carry out defined tasks. In parallel, at national levels, CAMFED formalizes reciprocal support and obligations with relevant ministries through memoranda of understanding to ensure continuity of partnership across changes in political leadership. We also created National Advisory Committees to gather national-level guidance from government officials for our education programs.

Scaling committees build upon these principles of partnering and upon our National Advisory Committees.  At the outset of our project, stakeholder mapping enabled us to consider a new range of potential contributors with expertise specific to the process of scaling the Learner Guide program. From the government, we needed both decision-makers and technical experts. In addition, because the Learner Guide program is multi-sectoral – cutting across education, youth and gender – we needed to draw in diverse ministries to mobilize the full synergistic potential of their mandates. Mapping contextualization was important because responsibilities for these sectors are held by very different structures (ministries, departments or units) and positions within each country. In addition, finding specific technical expertise required us to consider beyond ministries. For example, the Tanzania Institution of Education provides advisers for curriculum adaptation, and in Zambia, the Teaching Service Commission provides experts to understand the value of Learner Guide training and potential accreditation.

With many non-governmental organizations contributing to the education space, CAMFED also recognized the strategic value of engaging representatives from civil society organizations and coalitions who could contribute their perspectives and help drive wide systems change and enable scaling. For example, the Coordinator for the Tanzania Education Network is a member.

Frontline implementers made up the third key category of scaling committee membership. These include district education and other government officials, heads and teachers from schools, and Learner Guides representing both youth and community.  They contribute practical knowledge of program implementation together with community contextual nuances.

Gathering information to ensure relevance and ownership of data

With the scaling committee structures in place, the process of gathering knowledge was planned and implemented.  Scaling committee members were engaged as participatory researchers to actively define the information they needed. School visits were an essential evidence-gathering and learning activity for scaling committee members in all countries. During the visits they not only observed Learner Guides in action, they also interviewed students, Learner Guides, teachers and community members using standardized questions that they had developed prior to the visits to reflect their priorities.

Committee members returned from school visits eager to consolidate their data and share learning with members who were unable to join the visits. In each country, seeing the program on the ground and hearing directly about its impact from all those groups confirmed to partners the value of the Learner Guide program. The fundamental question shifted from if the Learner Guide program should be scaled to how it could be scaled. This catalyzed deeper discussions and deliberations about possibilities of adaptation for wider integration of the program elements.

Retaining continued participation of scaling committee members, especially given their other job commitments emerged as a challenge. Adaptations were made to the information gathering process by capping the number of school visits (which usually required multi-day trips to rural areas) when members believed sufficient information had been collected. Noting that the highest-level government decision-makers were not always available engage in all meetings, we asked them to assign representatives who had time to participate and who had authority to make direct recommendations to and from the scaling committees. In this way we could maintain an open and high-level feedback loop.

Sparking deep inquiry and cross-fertilization of ideas

Creating an environment that stimulates knowledge exchange, learning and new ideas is essential. A two-day regional meeting hosted by CAMFED Tanzania in November 2022 illuminated this requirement. It brought together 77 members of scaling committees from Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe, Learner Guides, students, and project researchers.

The overarching goal of the meeting was to unlock the expertise and knowledge gained by scaling committees and to learn by sharing and deep inquiry.  Structuring the agenda was challenging. We had extensive ground to cover but could not demand time-consuming preparation of our volunteer scaling committee members. For this reason, on the first day CAMFED staff and research partners set the stage and created a common understanding through short presentations about the research process and data gathered to date. 

The second day was designed to be owned and led by the scaling committee members, shifting them into active engagement mode. Participants sharing common expertise from different countries gathered into working groups to consider and debate questions including: Where do you think the Learner Guide program will add value to the education system? What recommendations do you have as the government to improve the Learner Guide program? How can existing structures be leveraged and the Learner Guide program adjusted? Where do you see your potential role as a government/stakeholder in scaling up the Learner Guide program?

Scaling committee members engaged energetically, demonstrating their deep understanding of the program and ownership of evidence they had gathered. They discussed similarities and differences across the three countries and exchanged practical suggestions for adapting approaches for Learner Guide program elements for their different country contexts.  

The scaling pathway is long and complex, but continuous learning and progress is achievable using strong structures and active facilitation of all dimensions of knowledge mobilization.