Recommendation 1: A Theory of Change Model for Court Education

This post in an explainer on the use of a theory of change model for the development and delivery of court education. It is designed to support and contextualise the first recommendation of the project  The widespread use of a theory of change framework has the potential to improve knowledge and understanding of the value of court education for school students and embed elements of best practice and is recommended for all court education providers both internationally and in Australia.

What is it?

A theory of change is a framework that has been utilised by a number of civic and legal education providers as a strategic tool to support their stated mission and aims.

The Center for Theory of Change defines a theory of change as:

a comprehensive description and illustration of how and why a desired change is expected to happen in a particular context…

[It identifies]the desired long-term goals and then works back from these to identify all the conditions (outcomes) that must be in place (and how these related to one another causally) for the goals to occur.

The use of the framework in civic education is well established. Organisations like CivXNow, Generation Citizen and Young Citizens have embraced them.  In legal education, the Legal Education Foundation and Community Legal Centres of Queensland have articulated their usage of the framework.

Adoption of theory of change models by court education providers could be very useful in building understanding of the important work they do.

Why use a Framework?

Bringing about widespread systemic and societal change by securing funding and conducting evaluation of the effectiveness of programs and resources  is challenging for small court education providers. The majority of organisations involved in the Court Education Project identified difficulties in evaluating education programs and securing long term funding. Having a framework would allow court education providers to better articulate the expected outcomes of their programs and therefore meet the expectations of philanthropic funders.

How to build a Theory of Change

The National Council of Volunteer Organisations in the UK sets out the process of building a theory of change and the Legal Education Foundation summarises this into five key questions that organisations need to ask when building their framework.

  1. What is the ultimate goal or aim of my project?
  2. What are the intermediate outcomes of my project?
  3. What are the activities I am going to undertake to achieve my desired outcomes?
  4. What are the causal links between the activities I am planning to undertake and the outcomes I hope to achieve? How do the intermediate outcomes I hope to achieve relate to each other and my ultimate goal? 
  5. What assumptions have I made in designing my project? 

This process of backwards mapping involves identifying a project or organisation’s long term goal, then working backwards to  an intermediate goal and  finally a starting point. This provides a pathway to change and an inbuilt evaluation matrix  that can assist in tracking progress in achieving identified outcomes.

A valuable part of the process of building a theory of change is acknowledging any underlying assumptions. An example of this is programs and resources mapped to a curriculum without consideration of timing. If teachers aren’t: teaching the mapped part of the syllabus, or it’s a compulsory assessment block at the time a court education program is delivered, t uptake of programs and achievement of identified outcomes may be adversely impacted. This can be a significant issue on legal anniversary days/weeks and other significant anniversaries.  By tackling this assumption and accomodating flexibility whilst building the theory of change framework may improve the achievement of strategic outcomes. The Better Evaluation coalition suggest the following:

The project or program activities are intended to contribute to the change process.  How they do this can be understood as an action theory – a theory that if the project or program does particular things, these activities will trigger the type of change identified in the change theory.

Linking organisational values, strategic goals and program evaluation to outcomes in a theory of change can assist governments, courts and other funders to support and integrate programs.


The resources below have been chosen to assist in the development of textual and visual representation of a theory of change.

This Tasmanian Government website on How to Write a Theory of Change is an excellent practical tool.

Young Citizens have designed an excellent visual representation of their theory of change. You can download it here .

CivXNow’s evidence based theory of change articulates the link between outcomes and the knowledge and engagement of young people.

The Better Evaluation coalition directly links the building of a theory of change to evaluation in this blog