Even The Beatles needed an Intermediary

By José Manuel Torres

Analyst, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills

Key points:

– For a stronger and better use of evidence in education, we need people and organisations who help connect the worlds of research, practice and policy: the knowledge intermediaries.
– Teachers’, schools’ and ministries’ specific needs will influence intermediaries’ roles and activities.
– We need to better understand what forms of intermediary activities work to strengthen research use to whom and under what conditions.

In 1958 Liverpool, a young guitarist named George joined the Quarrymen, a band made up of two other musicians, John and Paul. The three of them played rock and roll in bars and small venues whenever they could and had a couple of residencies in Hamburg, Germany. It was not until 1962, when they were signed by producer George Martin, that they were joined by drummer Ringo and they did their first big recording. In their 10-year lifespan, the newly renamed Beatles were pioneers in terms of recording, song-writing and artistic presentation and went to become one of the most influential bands of all time.

In this case, George Martin can be considered a “music intermediary”. He connected musicians with mass audiences. But it was not a straightforward nor a passive process. Martin helped develop their creativity and provided innovative production, while The Beatles had to adjust some of their songs’ tempo and adopt a professional approach to performing.

More than just an intermediary

Just as music intermediaries are between musicians and audiences, research or knowledge intermediaries are between research producers and research users. Intermediaries in the education sector aim to increase evidence-based decision-making and a research-use culture in policy and practice. For this, they do not just move knowledge from research producers to its users, they do a lot more.

First, intermediaries can be knowledge managers. They create and translate knowledge, adapt it into different formats and disseminate or diffuse it. A clear example of this is the Teaching and Learning Toolkit, developed by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF), a carefully curated summary of education evidence on over 40 approaches to improving teaching and learning   

Second, intermediaries can act as linkage agents. They create and promote knowledge-related relationships and networks and, through these, they enable the multiplication and expansion of knowledge. As an example, a couple of weeks ago, the Campbell Collaboration hosted the What Works Global Summit 2022, focused on evidence synthesis to information decision making in social sciences. There, three plenaries and 38 parallel sessions gave around 1200 participants the opportunity for one-on-one and group networking.

And third, intermediaries can perform a capacity-building role. They develop and support the necessary understanding, skills, capacities and conditions to create, adapt, communicate and use knowledge for a sustainable and scalable development of research-use practices and processes. NESTA, through its former Alliance for Useful Evidence, provided a range of training courses and workshops, called Evidence Masterclass, where policy makers learnt about how to use evidence in their policy work.

These are, however, only the three most commonly known roles. Intermediaries can also act as system-level or cross-actors coordinators, strategic leaders to enhance use of evidence or research-use advocates.

Different needs, different intermediaries

Intermediaries can play just one of these roles or an amalgam of these. The roles played are defined by two main factors. On one hand, the resources, experience, capacities and intention of the intermediaries themselves (like George Martin) or their funders’. On the other hand, the interests and goals of the intended beneficiaries, these being research producers (The Beatles), research users (all the music lovers) or both.

Thus, acting as an intermediary requires flexibility and receptiveness, as intermediaries have to adapt their work to stakeholders’ needs. This fluidity and context-dependency suggest that for every particular need, there is a particular intermediary role to satisfy it, which may be played by one or several organisations – or even none. There is no “magic recipe” on what an intermediary should be or do. In George Martin’s case, he worked with The Beatles and a host of other stars. However, other music producers excelled in other genres by using a variety of different techniques.

How do we know that they work?

Intermediaries can thus change their sectors. For the education sector, they can have a lasting impact on student learning and on the quality of education. However, we know very little about their actual impact and under what conditions they deliver that impact. Their work has been widely overlooked when it comes to monitoring and evaluating it. Between 3% and 13% of identified knowledge mobilisation activities were evaluated, and when they were, the evaluation was mainly in the format of “end of project” reports. Furthermore, most evaluations rely on measures such as number of webpage views, clicks and downloaded articles, whereas the extent and quality of research use remains hidden. The broader impact on policy and practice, as well as ultimate social outcomes are often neglected.

There are however some interesting insights to consider from the few evaluations made. Initiatives that make evidence accessible and those that encourage interactions, although both promising and necessary, are not sufficient for increasing research use. They must be supported by increasing teachers’ and policy makers’ motivations, opportunities and capacities for the use of research.

The general lack of understanding of intermediary activities may negatively affect the development, support, perception and value of research intermediaries. It is necessary to study what is effective to achieve a research-use culture in policy and practice, under what conditions and how intermediaries can help to do it. Otherwise, we may miss out on the next educational Beatles.