How do policy makers learn?

A discussion session during the SADC executive course

A discussion session during the SADC executive course

I know, I know. This kind of question can yield ‘clever’ answers like ‘they don’t’. But before any of you comes up with an answer like that, stop and think for a bit; and…did you catch onto the fact that most of social science is about understanding, hence it is ultimately about increasing control. Being so, all social science is – directly or indirectly – linked to policy and policy making.

Having figured this one out, and inhabiting a research field that is closely related to policy, I would suggest that we take the question about how policy makers learn seriously. There are three reasons for this that I can think of: 1) most funding for social sciences is very likely to come from users (policy and management) in the future; this may be for research or executive courses; 2) enlightened policy makers are much easier to work with and they contribute much more value to our societies; and 3) enlightened policy makers don’t just happen; they develop through learning.

For many years now, I have worked closely with policy makers in both research and executive education. Yep, I love theory and I strive to develop it where possible – this is where my heart is. My (understands my employer’s) bread and butter, however, is often in research that is funded by policy makers and intended to contribute value to their work (or be useful). Through about twenty years of doing research for policy, I have had only one clear-cut moment of glory (understand ‘the lightheaded feeling that I have really contributed value and enabled social change’) – when in mid-1990s Prof Luke Georghiou and I did a survey of research equipment: one of the outcomes – a calculation of how much investment the UK government need to make in research equipment and facilities were we to keep at the forefront of science –  resulted in considerable increase of the science budget shared between the Wellcome Trust and the government.

These and similar reflections made me ask myself the question

How do policy makers learn?

And it seems to me that, just like most people, policy makers learn in four principal ways, namely:

  • From other people (this is when we lecture, deliver a talk, or simply explain, advise and instruct others);
  • Through other people (this is when we watch what others are doing and learn how to match situations and behaviour);
  • From book and other artefacts; and
  • From their experience.

Here lies the problem! Looking at these four point, it is not difficult to see that at least three of them are somewhat problematic. Policy makers come from variety of educational backgrounds and they are not necessarily well versed in the domains of their remit. In other words, at least initially, policy people dealing with science don’t necessarily understand its detailed workings. Obvious vehicles for learning would be attending an executive course, commissioning expert opinion (consultancy) and/or reading some of the literature on the topic.


  • executive courses are usually short and lecture based (research shows that generally people forget about 85% of a lecture before they leave the lecture theatre);
  • consultancy is generally seen as a ‘regular economic transaction’ – knowledge product is exchanged for an amount of money; this doesn’t provide a platform for continuous, working interactions and co-production which can enable ‘learning from others’; and
  • most specialised academic writing is difficult to comprehend.

This, while possibly the case, is not very useful if we aim to come up with provisions that enable learning. Hence, I decided to re-frame the question as:

Why do policy makers fail to learn?

And there may be a number of reasons (factors) preventing learning but there seems to be a pattern emerging around the following:

  1. Lack of trust – the people from and through whom learning can occur are not sufficiently trusted.
  2. Lack of interest – often attending an executive course may not be the idea of the person attending; furthermore in many cases it is not straight forward to link the content of an executive course and the everyday tasks people perform.
  3. Lack of relevance – it is not immediately obvious how the content of the course informs policy making. Often this is an expected outcome of the disconnect between academics and policy makers.
  4. Lack engagement – there are no provisions for engagement or these are not taken up.
  5. Lack of time – these people are usually very busy and they cannot devote the time necessary to gain some, albeit limited, mastery of their ‘object’.

Instead of doing a ‘conceptual piece’ on how these can be ‘corrected’ I’ll tell you briefly about a different kind of executive course that the MIoIR is running in Africa.

Science, Technology and Policy Course for the SADC Countries

This course aims to develop policy making capacity in the SADC countries acting on the initiative by the Ministers of Science and Technology in the region who asked South Africa to lead developments. UNESCO is supporting it by providing funding and actively following progress.

Prof Alaphia Wright

Prof Alaphia Wright

This STP course is targeted at high and mid-level policy makers; they were nominated and their ministries (organisations) undertook to ensure participation and enable conditions for engaged learning (more about this one later). The course is led by Profs Edler and Laredo and involves five senior academics from MIoIR (Flanagan, Uyarra, Rip and Nedeva) and colleagues from the University of Zimbabwe.

Prof Laredo after a mentoring session :)

Prof Laredo after a mentoring session 🙂

You can read more about the course here. Now let me move on to how is this course different.

  • This executive course takes place over nine months (September 2012 to July 2013) not couple of days.
  • There are three ‘contact’ weeks taking place in South Africa. these are spaced through the length of the course and in between mentors (academics) are in regular and intensive virtual contact with their mentees.
  • This course (the ‘contact’ weeks) is residential which means that there are ample opportunities for socialising
  • Lecturing takes part mainly during the first of the three weeks and sessions cover key issues in policy. Concerted effort was made to ensure that the sessions are interactive, engaging and the links between the material covered and policy were made apparent.
  • Discussion is encouraged during and after the sessions. For instance, the second week of the course consisted mainly of face-to-face discussions between mentors and mentees.
  • Participants were supported in identifying and researching topics that are pertinent to their jobs. They will present their ideas during the third ‘contact’ week of the course.
Prof Edler during a mentoring discussion

Prof Edler during a mentoring discussion

Now let me, in light of the points set out above, get back to the reasons why policy makers fail to learn.

  1. Lack of trust – this course offers the framework conditions for building trust through the length, outside the course interactions and mentoring structures. Also, the involvement of the University of Zimbabwe brings to the table local knowledge so that the argument ‘it doesn’t work like this where I am from’ is difficult to sustain.
  2. Lack of interest – this is dealt with in three ways: by explicitly linking the content and everyday policy concerns; by engaging participants in discussions and by asking them to  research a topic that is key to their work activities.
  3. Lack of relevance – as above.
  4. Lack of engagement – this is remedied by allowing ample time for discussion and by setting up a project that has clear milestones and end result.
  5. Lack of time – this is still hard but…the fact that participants will present their work during the last ‘contact’ week of the course focused the mind.

I would be very interested to hear what do you think about policy people learning but it seems to me that accounting for the reasons why they don’t learn when designing learning platforms may be a productive way to follow.

About hoods and unorthodox teaching approaches

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No, you have not started seeing things; it is me – Dr. Maria Nedeva, Manchester and Lund Universities academic – wearing a hoodie with the hood up. And no, we have not moved to the estates, I am not getting ready for participant observation (who would believe a fifty year old, white, middle class woman in a hoodie anyway) and I am most certainly not getting ready to join the church. Having started in a good academic style by telling what this is not about, let me now tell you what it is.

After six years in university management (building successful Doctoral schools and being the Associate Dean for post-graduate research of a very large faculty), a year of rapping up and research, and a year of sabbatical I am finally teaching a full load. This means that I teach a philosophy of science course to PhD researchers, a course on innovation and creativity to undergraduates and a methodology course to Masters students. This story is about the last course and the one where we, academics, are most exposed at present; but I am digressing a bit.

My colleague Kate Barker and I have been taking turns teaching methods and methodology to Masters (and PhD) students for almost couple of decades now. We have almost perfected the art of bouncing the course from one to the other with minimal disruption and optimal efficiency. Or this is what I thought! My optimism, having nothing to do with content and all to do with disruption and efficiency, didn’t take into account administration where things can go really wrong if routines are broken an tasks deviate from the ‘ordinary’ even by the smallest degree.

So when this year it was my turn to teach methodology to Masters students and I had to move the course from Mondays to Fridays (I am not bragging about being busy, I know this is making me look bad; but there are still many conflicting demands on academics’ time and we do self-exploit) the system broke down. While, blissfully unaware, I was delivering my last lecture in Lund, my students – equally unaware – were expecting me to be in a lecture theatre in Manchester. Getting more and more annoyed – after all, they are the customer and they have been messed about again!

To cut a long story short, four days later, (very) early in the morning I had to stand in front of about sixty really cross Masters students and deliver the first lecture of the Methods and Methodology course. This is not a mean feat even when facing a crowd that still trusts you; but…

So, when my eyes moved around the lecture theatre and I spotted a guy wearing a hoodie with his hood up, I wasn’t really surprised: after all people have to make their feeling known somehow. If I were in a lecture with my hood up what I’ll be saying will consist of good, punchy Anglo-Saxon words, none of them longer than four letters and these are better not repeated on this blog. What I’ll be feeling and conveying will be disrespect!

If I told you that I just got on with it and mumbled my lecture you are not going to believe me. Instead, I looked the student squarely in the eye and said:

“Would you mind taking your hood off, please.”

“Is this a requirement of the course? ”Cause if it isn’t, I am not doing it!” – defiance in his voice.

“No it isn’t a requirement of the course; it is a much more basic requirement of proper behaviour.”

Nothing happened; the hood stayed up!

I did a decent job of the lecture; I suppose, being so tired and vexed made me forget that I have to be good and I just was. Usually, my lectures rate high for entertainment value – deep down, I am just a frustrated actress and a stand up comedienne.

I could have left it at that and just gone on with my life. But I kept thinking about it and about what this young people learned from it. Here is what I came up with:

  • They learned that they are the customer;
  • The customer can misbehave because he/she has the power in the relationship;
  • Lecturers can’t do much; they can ‘suck it up’ and carry on;
  • Lecturers don’t care.

Next thing I knew is that I was thinking: ‘This is wrong! I have a room full of young, bright people full of promise – and paying a rather large fee – who will be left with the deception regarding their status, their rights and obligations and my place in all that. In other words, they will be left confused about why they are paying their student fee (apart from education being a privilege in the UK, this is).’

I decided that for the next lecture I’ll wear a hoodie and will teach with my hood on; not in revenge but as a fairly unorthodox pedagogical method – remind them about the categorical imperative of Kant and the Golden Rule of the Bible.

I needed a hoodie; for this one I decided that I may as well buy myself a Manchester University one. After all, I have a number of Georgia Tech tops (don’t ask) and wear them often when travelling – and Georgia Tech is not paying my salary but Manchester University still is. On my way to the shop, I stopped at the undergraduate office; when they heard about my plan the administrators were so excited to hear how it went that I got a free hoodie (this is what I am wearing on the picture, thank you Linda).

So, for my last lecture I appeared in my brand new, warm and cuddly hoodie. Looked around and…the student was wearing a nice top, looking straight at me and ready for whatever I threw his way; in a way of knowledge and skills this is :). So I just smiled and:

1)      Told the class that their belief that they are paying such large fees so that we make them entrepreneurs is misguided. They are paying this fee because we open gates (help them see opportunities) where they only saw walls. Part of this is that we are here to broaden their thinking and expand their minds. You think this sounded slushy? Well, maybe but it gave me an outlet into Kant.

2)      Told them that being successful and being an entrepreneur is a personal choice, a bit like being moral: I can teach them ethics but I can’t give them morality.

3)      Than explained that wearing hoodies is not my usual style; but that I was going to lecture with the hood on if their colleague was wearing his. They laughed and their trust in me increased. As to the ‘Hoodie Student’ we agreed that for next lecture we’ll both wear our hoodies – and have research methodology ‘hip-hop’ style.

All is well when it ends well! But this makes me think about:

  • How by casting our students as ‘the customer’ we are in effect short-changing them; and
  • How easy it is for academic colleagues just to ‘give up’. How easy it is to forget that teaching is not ‘just a job’ but it is a calling and our highest duty.