Logo UNICEF Innocenti
Office of Research-Innocenti
menu icon

4 Realities when Co-creating Education Research

The Data Must Speak Experience
01 Jun 2023
DMS Blog experiences

Authors: Kevin ClidoroJessica Bergmann, and Renaud Comba


Since its launch in 2019, the Data Must Speak (DMS) Positive Deviance Research, together with Ministries of Education (MoE) and education partners, has worked to identify and scale the behaviours and practices of exceptional schools (i.e., positive deviant schools). Through a co-creation and co-implementation approach, the DMS research has generated evidence to contribute to addressing the learning crisis in 14 countries. 

However, the DMS research has faced unprecedented challenges brought about by the COVID-19 global pandemic. During the early stages of the research, the team and partners could not travel, engage in in-person activities, and sustain momentum for research implementation amidst emergency response. While the team has successfully adapted its activities, they were confronted with unforeseen realities when co-creating the research, even after pandemic restrictions were lifted. 

What are the realities and complexities of the research co-creation approach, and how does the DMS research team respond to these?  

1. Different Perspectives and Capacities 

The DMS research team, MoE, and partners offer different perspectives and expertise when working together. The DMS research team recognizes the uniqueness of each country’s education landscape and acknowledges that the MoE and local partners are in the best position to drive change and impact within their own system. At the same time, the DMS research team brings technical expertise in research design, innovative methodologies, and data analysis.  

As such, the DMS research team and partners engage in co-creation sessions through core and technical working groups (see Part I blog), even when these sessions can be time-consuming and difficult at times. These sessions are used to align priorities, capitalize on each other’s strengths, and support each other in driving the research forward and promoting its uptake. 

2. Competing Priorities and Changing In-Country Conditions 

One of the realities when co-creating research is the shifting priorities of governments and local partners. The DMS research has witnessed such shifts during the pandemic, where governments primarily focused on emergency response and recovery programming. These shifts naturally happen during changes in government leadership and political conditions. 

For instance, the DMS research in Ethiopia has moved at an uneven pace due to the pandemic response, recent conflict, and changes within the national government. As the DMS team has become more aware of the potential roadblocks for countries in each stage of the research, they have strategically moved to a non-linear implementation by preparing aspects of later stages, while earlier stages are still ongoing. This way, no research stages are stalled, and the overall timeline is not significantly affected. 

3. Data-Related Realities: Access, Preparation, and Utility 

The DMS research leverages existing administrative datasets (e.g., Educational Management Information System [EMIS], learning assessments/examinations data, and household data) to identify positive deviant schools and scale their excellent behaviours and practices.  

In Tanzania (Mainland and Zanzibar), the DMS team and partners sat together to source older datasets that were archived once a new data system was introduced.  One of the most common challenges of this research is merging years of data and/or data from different sources, especially when no unique school code stays constant over time and throughout datasets. 

In Ghana for example, to address issues on merging datasets, fuzzy merging (i.e., matching school names based on the degree of similarity in their spelling) was employed. Most importantly, this created the space to have in-depth conversations surrounding the power of administrative data and the value of having a multi-year analysis of merged datasets in policymaking. 


A group of education researchers sit in a room and are looking at a projector, deliberating datasets.


4. Demand for Contextualized Research Outputs

There is a high demand from MoEs and local partners for contextualized and easily digestible research outputs. Usually, full reports are complemented with shorter thematic policy briefs. Additionally, to meaningfully co-create at country level and break down language barriers, DMS research outputs are written and published in the national language. For instance, in Lao PDR, thematic policy briefs in Laotian and English were prioritized over a full report when explaining the factors associated with school performance and present the behaviours and practices of positive deviant schools.  

Aside from engaging with partners through high-level meetings and in-country, regional and international conferences, the DMS team has also produced an animated explainer video and recorded a podcast. As the DMS research progresses, new output formats and ways of effectively disseminating research findings will be piloted and tested to improve research uptake. More importantly, the DMS research’s dissemination and uptake strategy is aimed at promoting the research as a global public good. 

Research co-creation presents realities and offers new points of collaboration and understanding that may be uncommon in traditional research approaches. The DMS team believes that there is no “one-size-fits-all solution” to facing those realities.  


One key lesson that the DMS research team has learned is the importance of staying true to the core principle of research co-creation – meaningfully engaging partners as co-owners – all throughout the research journey. 


This blog is the second in a three-part series sharing the value of prioritizing co-creation approaches when designing and implementing education research. The first blog detailed the ‘what’ and ‘how’ 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.