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5 Ways Data Must Speak is Co-Creating Education Research

31 May 2023
DMS Co-Creation 3

Authors: Kevin Clidoro, Jessica Bergmann, and Renaud Comba


The Data Must Speak (DMS) Positive Deviance research believes that the most significant agents of change in the education sector are grassroot-level stakeholders, and that they should be at the forefront of addressing education challenges within their contexts. As such, the DMS team co-creates our research with stakeholders and partners, working together on research design, data collection and analysis, and evidence uptake. 


Traditional research approaches have often regarded key stakeholders only as end-users of knowledge. Whenever research is designed, data is collected and analyzed, and findings are disseminated, stakeholders are consulted in some stages but usually detached from the entire research journey. Sometimes, researchers only ask stakeholders to join a meeting at the start of a research project to introduce the design and methodology and at the end to share key findings. These research practices result not only in disengaged stakeholders but also in an underutilized sea of knowledge.  


More recently, meaningful co-creation has gained prominence as a research approach for ethical, impact, and sustainability reasons. Having direct roots from participatory research approaches, the core principle of research co-creation is to engage stakeholders as co-owners of research. Rather than only being end-users, stakeholders are now active and fair partners. The DMS team works with local and national education stakeholders throughout the research journey with clearly defined purposes. 


From research design to research uptake and impact, how can education research be co-created? Below is the five-step approach of the DMS research: 

1. Identification of DMS champions from all levels 

Champions in the education sector are those who aspire to effect change, have relevant technical capacity and skills, and have a certain level of authority, such as staff from the Ministry of Education (MoE) and representatives from the development sector. The DMS research identifies and engages champions actively throughout the research journey. Engaging champions from the outset is particularly important to ensure buy-in from country-level stakeholders. For the DMS research, champions are key in building the DMS consultative and technical working groups. 

2. Formation of consultative and technical working groups 

The consultative and technical working groups (TWG) are two distinct groups of country-level stakeholders and partners. The consultative working group is usually composed of 20-25 members, including decision-makers and experts from the MoE, school-level stakeholders, development partners, and local academics. This group acts as a steering committee providing high-level inputs into the research design, methodologies, timelines, and uptake strategies. The TWG is a smaller, more specialized group composed of monitoring and evaluation experts and statisticians from the MoE and its agencies. This technical team is involved in the day-to-day implementation of the research – including data collection, data merging and analysis, as well as report writing. 


A group of Data Must Speak researchers and Ministry of Education professionals pose for a photo


3. Collaborative design and implementation of data collection tools with school-level stakeholders 

In all participating DMS research partner-countries, research tools are co-developed with key stakeholders. This co-creation strategy puts school-level stakeholders (e.g., school leaders, teachers and community members), the implementers of education programs and policies, at the center of evidence generation. For instance, representatives from various Lao PDR Ministry of Education and Sport and the National University of Laos, designed and reviewed the DMS research questions, methodologies, and instruments. Additionally, instead of hiring external enumerators, about 60 teachers-turned-researchers collected data from schools across the country, putting Laotian partners in the driving seat. 


“I think it is important that teachers are involved in studies on education because it will help them get a better understanding of the different challenges to effective education and help identify solutions." 

– Soon to be Teacher

4. Data analysis with key stakeholders

The TWG and DMS researchers jointly prepare, merge, and analyze existing datasets to identify exceptional schools (i.e., positive deviant schools) in given contexts. The technical co-creation sessions help DMS researchers better understand country-specific contexts. They also strengthen the technical research capacity of the TWG members, fostering a symbiotic relationship where we both learn from each other. During a co-creation session in Madagascar, TWG members created their own statistical codes to analyze datasets further. As a result of the co-creation sessions, the Ghana MoE incorporated findings from the DMS research stage 1 analysis on factors associated with school performances when applying for the Global Partnership for Education’s (GPE) System Capacity grant. 


A Data Must Speak researcher points to a whiteboard and discusses findings to a group of Ministry of Education professionals.


5. Development of research outputs and dissemination strategies with country stakeholders 

Outputs from DMS research are co-developed with the MoE and country stakeholders. Due to the demand for contextualized research outputs, DMS researchers have prioritized producing outputs in easily digestible formats (e.g., thematic policy briefs, human-centered videos, and podcasts). In Togo, findings from DMS research stage 1 analysis were incorporated into a report and three thematic policy briefs in French.

There is a lack of universal understanding of what research co-creation really is and how it can look in practice. Historically, co-creation has been used loosely to refer to any forms of research contextualization and stakeholder engagement. The DMS research team, partners, and key stakeholders work together to account for diverse expertise and capacity, and adapt to local contexts, cultures, and political landscapes. This is a critical component for meaningful and impactful research co-creation.


This blog is the first in a three-part series sharing the value of prioritizing co-creation approaches when designing and implementing education research. The second blog will present key challenges of the DMS research co-creation approach, and the third will showcase the observable impact and lessons learned. Stay tuned!

The DMS Positive Deviance research aims to mitigate the learning crisis by using existing data to understand the behaviours and practices of exceptional schools (i.e., positive deviant schools). It is co-created and co-implemented with Ministries of Education, partners, and key stakeholders. The DMS research relies on mixed methods and innovative approaches (i.e., positive deviance, behavioural sciences, implementation research, and scaling science) to generate knowledge and practical lessons about ‘what works,’ ‘why,’ and ‘how’ to scale grassroots solutions for national policymakers and the broader international community of education stakeholders.

The DMS research is currently implemented in 14 countries: Brazil, Burkina Faso, Chad, Cote d'Ivoire, Ethiopia, Ghana, the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Madagascar, Mali, Nepal, Niger, the United Republic of Tanzania, Togo, and Zambia. It is made possible through a coalition of donors: Global Partnership for Education (GPE) and International Development Research Centre (IDRC) Knowledge and Innovation Exchange (KIX), Hewlett Foundation, Jacobs Foundation, Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (Norad), Schools2030 initiative (Aga Khan Foundation), and UNICEF internal resources.