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UWC Impact Study with Harvard Graduate School of Education Researchers

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The UWC mission is to make education a force to unite people, nations and cultures for peace and a sustainable future. We provide students with a holistic education so that they develop the skills and qualities that will enable them to take responsibility for shaping a better world. But when a mission is about developing ethical individuals with a bias for action who make the world more peaceful and sustainable, how can an organisation possibly know whether or not this mission is being achieved?

In 2014 UWCSEA saw an opportunity to take the lead in helping the UWC movement as a whole to understand whether or not we are fulfilling our mission. Initial discussions helped to identify that what was being measured was not inputs or outcomes, but rather impact. Further discussions led to further complexity. We were dealing with very tricky questions related to:

  • additionality (would any impact we found have happened anyway?)
  • causality/attribution (how can we be sure it was the UWC experience that had the impact?)
  • the burden of ‘proving’ impact in an educational context where improving learning is the focus of any research (what is the purpose of proving impact and is it even possible?)
  • and defining our shared understanding of  intended impact and theory of change (what do we intend to happen and what is our theory of how it happens?)

It became clear that finding answers to the question of impact while dealing with these complex questions would require a carefully designed longitudinal study. Moreover, we would require research partners who would bring some objectivity as well as social research expertise. Most importantly, it became clear that the longitudinal study required an initial study that, as well as providing insight into impact, could provide a roadmap for a long term project on a global scale.

An initial ‘exploratory impact study’ was planned and funded by a generous donor from the UWCSEA community, and we entered into a partnership with Research Schools International, led by researchers from Harvard Graduate School of Education. The initial study involved three other UWC Colleges (Red Cross Nordic, Waterford Kahmlaba and USA) who joined the project in September 2015, providing a great opportunity for collaboration within the UWC movement - as well as some internal comparative data.

Initial study

These study made two basic assumptions, as follows:

  1. That the principle ways the UWC schools and colleges achieve the mission is by developing certain skills and qualities in individuals
  2. That individuals with these skills and qualities will have a positive impact on the world that is in line with the UWC mission

Researchers from the Harvard Graduate School of Education Dr Bruno della Chiesa and Dr Christina Hinton, along with Sylvia Malo based in the UWC International Office and Vanessa Christoph in Germany provided the research and co-ordination for the study.

Honing the research questions proved both fascinating and challenging as senior colleagues engaged in rich conversations with the researchers. Eventually we agreed the following:

  • What ethical values do current and former members of the UWC community think are important and developed as part of a UWC education?  
  • Do current and former members of the UWC movement think that they have developed, or are developing, these ethical values?
  • How has the school informed the development of these ethical values?
  • What examples can current and former members of the UWC community give of how these concepts are manifested in their lives today?

Participation and data collection

The data collection instruments included surveys, face-to-face interviews and observations.  In addition, a set of ‘thought experiments’ were conducted with a selection of students and alumni. These ‘moral dilemmas’, where the process of thinking through the dilemma was more important than the decision at the end further added rich examples and ideas to the survey data. Researchers were embedded at UWCSEA for several weeks over the course of the study, as well as visiting two of the other participating schools, which further added to the data.

In all 2,365 students and alumni from the four UWC’s were involved, with 677 of the alumni and over 1,000 of the students coming from UWCSEA.

Initial Findings

As expected, the exploratory study identified that, while there is no clear definition of impact, there is certainly something worth investigating further. Initial findings included:

  • Respondents overwhelming believe that their UWC experience had a significant impact on their ethical values and that these values are incorporated into their daily lives.
  • There is remarkable consistency between students and alumni across all schools in terms of: their definitions of what constitutes a better world; which kind of values were developed; their belief that their ethical values were developed at UWC
  • The commonality of shared ethical values appear to override differences in gender, selection process, scholarship status, educational model and country of origin
  • Key experiences referred to as contributing significantly to impact include: service experiences; specific conversations that emerge during the academic programme; the experience of being in a multi-cultural, multi-lingual environment with people with diverse backgrounds and experiences
  • Impact on society is as yet unclear

Next Steps

Thanks, once again, to the generosity of several donors from the UWCSEA community, the UWC movement has been able to form a further partnership with Harvard Graduate School of Education. This time the project will be run with researchers from Project Zero, led by Howard Gardner, and in the context of a shared interest at Project Zero and at UWC in the development of civic and ethical potentials and behaviours of young people for the good of wider society.

Most importantly, with the inclusion of external control groups and a study conducted across all 18 schools and colleges, the study will be of interest to the wider educational field and may provide some important insights into the impact on society of an education that is focused on developing ethical young people.

The study is due to begin in earnest in July 2017.