There’s gold in them there groups

28th March, 2011

It’s Monday morning and in two hours time I’m expecting to facilitate one of the most challenging focus groups this year. One might expect this to be one of those “I’ve brought a stone and now let’s squeeze blood from it” type scenarios. An hour has been allowed for this meeting, we may well be through in 40 minutes.

However, it’s not the first time I’ve been here, and for that reason I’m back again. I also happen to know that this will be one of the most rewarding pieces of work I will do this week because the “client” has built evaluation and an ethos of listening into the DNA of the organisation and even the smallest bits of evidence captured are considered gold dust.

The “client” in this case is a secondary school and today I am making a Governor visit to one of the subject departments I am linked to. Following a meet with the head of department to discuss the subject “self evaluation”, I will get to spend lunch with a group of Key Stage 4 students. I will take them through a facilitated discussion to find out how they see things, what they think is working in the subject, what’s not, whether they believe the homework they get is appropriate, how they are supported in lessons and outside of lessons. And so on.

The real challenge is to make sure we do indeed sieve out the gold dust. Of course, no one in the school refers to this as a focus group, it’s just a lunchtime meeting with students without the influence of teaching staff present. But I will draw upon my experience of moderating diverse groups of people to make sure we make the most of this valuable opportunity. As far as participants go, these young students are the most perceptive and constructively critical group of people a researcher could ever hope to spend time with. Most of them fundamentally care about the quality of education they receive. They understand more than we often give them credit for and they will provide the most fascinating insight into their lives in school. Ask them sensible questions and they will tell you.

Ask them questions based on our pre-perceptions of how we think they should respond, and we may well get nothing.