Four young researchers reflect on their work at UNICEF Innocenti
The authors worked at the UNICEF Innocenti from May to November 2021 as interns within the Research in Education and Development (READ) team. Here they talk about their experience and lessons learned as young researchers at UNICEF’s Office of Research - Innocenti.
Four of us flew from different parts of the world – France, Peru, Philippines, and the United States – to work as interns at the UNICEF Office of Research – Innocenti in Florence, Italy. Living in Florence and having the opportunity to immerse ourselves in a variety of education research projects was something out of a dream. We were different and diverse in our individual backgrounds, and interest and specialty in research, but our internship experiences brought a shared memory of warm collegiality and of both personal and professional aspects of education research. In this blog, we share our reflections from our internship experiences and the different elements that constitute successful research in action from stakeholder partnership to professional and ethical management of research:
Co-creating with stakeholders
Co-creating research with stakeholders at the onset ensures alignment with priorities and promotes research uptake and sustainability. When we let national governments and other local stakeholders take part in conceptualization, they identify research problems and approaches that could best respond to the challenges that they are experiencing. Additionally, the co-creation process allows them to take full ownership of both the research and the resulting policies.
Kevin: “With co-creation being one of the core guiding principles of the Data Must Speak (DMS) research, I particularly witnessed how Ministries of Education (MoE) and various stakeholders co-developed and co-implemented the research to fit their context. Before the research takes place, stakeholders participate in co-creation workshops to analyze the resources and contexts associated with school performance in their country. They also participate in actual data collection, cleaning, and analysis. For instance, in Nepal, MoE personnel and other education stakeholders participated in technical workshops on using a statistical software that strengthened their technical skills in research and allowed them to harmonize existing education datasets.”
Adapting research to reality
Something we learned right away as new researchers at UNICEF Innocenti is that there are no one-size-fits-all solutions. Drawing from our academic training and applying it to ongoing research requires us to think on our feet, constantly adapting to what is most relevant, practically and ethically feasible and appropriate. There are no cookie-cutter answers: The best research approach for a given situation will look different for each case. It is also imprinted upon us very strongly that the goal of our research is to best serve the programme and ultimately improve the lives of children around the world.
Andrea: “I recently worked to support the restructuring of survey instruments for the Akelius programme in Mauritania. We started from a ‘data we would like to have’ standpoint, then worked our way to ‘data that is available’, keeping in mind the time it requires for students and teachers to fill out the surveys. I also learnt quickly that what I, as an external researcher, consider useful data is not necessarily the data and analysis that would best inform and benefit the program implementation. Embedding research into program implementation is a process of tailoring, and it is important that it be done in close collaboration with local project staff and management.”
Working collaboratively across disciplines
Another highlight of our experience was the opportunity to work with a diverse, interdisciplinary team. At Innocenti, we are a mix of cultures, experiences, disciplines and methods. The four of us ourselves have been trained in a broad range of topics – education, psychology, economics, communication, etc. We each bring something different and equally important to the table and are ultimately focused on a common goal, rather than on defending our respective methods. This has been a valuable experience - we have a lot more perspective now and can no longer go back to working in our own disciplinary silos.
Turning research findings into action points
The internship has demonstrated to us how powerful and useful research can be for the improvement of children’s lives. A crucial part of research is not only generating more knowledge and conducting a methodologically appropriate project, but most importantly, informing policy and guiding action. Therefore, it is essential to translate research findings into concrete and contextualized policy recommendations that can be applied by stakeholders at different levels. This is a key step if our aim is to bridge research, policy and practice, and ensure a high research uptake.
Stefania: “For the WCAR ‘Time to Teach’ report, we developed policy recommendations for stakeholders at different levels (national, subnational and district) based on rigorous existing evidence. We previously conducted a literature review to inform this section of the report and included specific initiatives to address the gaps identified in the education systems of participating countries. We ensured that all recommendations were feasible in the context we were working in”.
Tailor-fitting research outputs
Disseminating research findings can be an overwhelming process for researchers who have been trained to produce long reports. It is easy to rely on communication and design specialists when producing research outputs tailored to different audiences beyond academic journals. However, researchers should be good communicators as well. Understanding the basics of the design process can go a long way in terms of disseminating research findings effectively and promoting research uptake.
Kevin: “When it was time to share the findings of the DMS research in Lao PDR with various national and local education stakeholders, the real task was thinking of a way to present the research in a manner that is easy to understand and engaging. After a series of conversations with the MoE, we decided to publish a series of short and catchy policy briefs (Policy Brief 1 and Policy Brief 2) to complement the longer quantitative report. This way, the target audience was given a chance to quickly read and reflect on the main research findings, while attending to their other equally important day-to-day tasks.”
Researchers versus ‘subjects’ of research
Being immersed in the field of educational research, it is challenging to empathetically situate ourselves in the harsh realities that subjects of our research confront in their everyday life. Amid the hectic procedures of research from web scraping to data analysis and internal/external review processes, it is easy to forget that the “subjects” or true beneficiaries of the research are millions of young children in need who are living and breathing right now in all corners of this world.
Youngkwang: “In It’s Not Too Late to Act on Early Learning, I had a chance to advocate for the importance of reopening pre-primary education to alleviate the learning loss of many young children across the globe. However, preoccupied with procedural sequences of the project, I was thinking less of the young children missing out on opportunities due to school closures, but rather about the ‘process.’ Although I was very proud of being a part of the research project, I found myself feeling relieved from the completion of the project and planning for another upcoming project. In this self-reflection, I learned the importance of not losing touch with the bigger, ultimate goal of research – to genuinely advocate the very lives of many young children in need."
Who are we doing the research for?
Honestly speaking, it is hard for us as interns to only think about the lives of many young children living in far distances across the globe. As young researchers, we cannot help ourselves from thinking about how effectively we are serving the needs of the organization we are working for. Throughout the internship, we have to constantly measure ourselves whether we acclimate to the organizational culture (whether or not we make any faux pas) and whether we are making the best out of our internship and fine progress in our career trajectory. While it is very difficult to suppress the stream of these thoughts, we need to keep asking ourselves this fundamental question: Who are we doing the research for and why? Yes, this internship is a great opportunity to learn about educational research and to proceed in our career paths. More importantly, however, it is an honorable opportunity to support and shape the future of young people in the world and to remind us that we too are young people who share the same future.
Reflecting on ethics
Collaborating across different education projects at UNICEF Innocenti has made us think about what ethical research really means and what it entails. We have learned that, beyond formal reviews by ethical committees, there are critical questions that researchers should ask themselves: Why are we doing the research? Is it feasible in that location? Who benefits from the research? These questions allow us to challenge our own assumptions and ensure a more reliable and context-specific research process. Moreover, it is crucial to consider what voices the research findings are echoing. When possible, it is key to include the users and actors involved in delivering the services we are researching. Their voices will provide us with some of the most valuable insights.
Stefania: “When drafting the ‘Time to Teach’ reports, I have learnt the importance of truthful storytelling. The way in which we jointly presented qualitative and quantitative data in the WCAR report helped us to tell the story of the challenges faced by teachers in the region. We wanted our findings to reflect teachers’ experiences as much as possible, for readers to understand the complexity of the drivers that can lead them to be absent from schools. When selecting quotes to illustrate findings and writing sections of the report, I tried to ask myself if my words were echoing the tough circumstances that teachers live every day to reach their students”.
Our time as interns and young researchers at UNICEF Innocenti flew swiftly. Armed with passion to discover how we can improve the lives of children and youth through research, we were welcomed whole-heartedly by the READ team and given the opportunity to fully immerse ourselves in every aspect of the research process. What made our internship experience truly special was our willingness to actively collaborate with one another and a strong sense of collegial connection amongst us four interns. As we complete our internship at UNICEF Innocenti and continue our journey as researchers, what will stay with us are important lessons of what constitutes exemplary education research and fond memories of learning together with the kindest, most supportive team.