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Designing research strategies to create connections between adult and higher education policies, politics and practices

Patricia A. Gouthro

Mount Saint Vincent University, Canada

Paper presented at the 37th Annual SCUTREA Conference, 3-5 July 2007, Queen's University Belfast, Northern Ireland

While publishing refereed journal articles and attending scholarly conferences are valued activities within the academic world, the unfortunate truth is that this form of knowledge dissemination rarely penetrates far beyond the rather insular world of academe. As a consequence, in recent years there has been increasing pressure on academic researchers applying for funding to demonstrate that their work will impact on policy development or educational practices. While acknowledging there are problems with supporting a narrow and prescriptive view of research that may constrain and devalue research that does not appear to have immediate 'practical' value, I believe that there is merit in exploring research strategies that can create connections between policies, politics, and practices. To do this, I provide examples of a methodological approach that I have used in the design of current Social Science and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) funded study on women's lifelong learning trajectories and a Canadian Council on Learning (CCL) funded grant exploring issues around active citizenship. In this paper I will discuss the challenges of generating interest and gaining the attention of decision makers in political, administrative, and policy areas with regards to research. Secondly, I will overview the methodological design that I developed in these two studies to address these concerns. Finally, I will assess some of the ongoing challenges with this methodological approach and consider the implications of this for future research.

Is anyone listening?

I once read a depressing statistic that the average academic journal article is read by seven people. Since two of these individuals are probably family members, it means that the paper you spent months writing is likely to only ever be read by a few researchers in your particular field of interest. Publishing in refereed journals, while highly valued in the academic world of tenure and promotion, is not the most effective means for disseminating information to a broader audience. A key question for academics then, is how to ensure that their research is shared with both policy makers and practitioners. To take this up, we need to ask critical questions about common practices and strategies for developing and sharing academic research.

In considering the difficulties of getting policy makers to pay attention to current research findings, Lomas points out that "researchers and decision makers tend only to connect, if they connect at all, around the products of their processes" (2000, p. 140). This is often problematic because policy emerges from a complex process of negotiations, political considerations, and contributions from divergent interest groups. He argues that:

Just at the point of decision, after the issue has bubbled up onto the policy agenda, after it has been framed within a particular context, after the limits have been set around feasible options, the researcher arrives brandishing his or her study. This is a less than opportune time to insert research into this now complex stew (2000, p. 140).

As a consequence, policy makers may not be that all that interested in reading the results of the research once it is completed, particularly since the results are often disseminated in dense academic language.

With regards to teaching, St. Clair (2004) notes that there are different interpretations of the ways practitioners adopt or use research. While some findings indicate that practitioners are most likely to gauge the value or effectiveness of a particular study by evaluating it against their own personal experiences, it may be that using and applying research is a more complex process, as individuals integrate knowledge into a broader understanding of their work over time. While educators may not be able to recall particular studies that impact upon their teaching philosophies or practical approaches in the classroom, as research in a field accumulates, the knowledge gradually seeps through the consciousness and then the actions of the practitioners. St. Clair (2004) notes the dissemination of research results is often a slow, trickling process. It may take decades for research to move from initial inception to actual practice.

It is clear, though, that facilitating connections between research, policy and practice is not simply about academics ensuring that others listen to what they have to say. Ideally the relationship between policy, practice and research should be a dialogical one. Bynner and Feinstein note that, ‘social science does not in itself produce policy but it can provide an empirical and theoretical sounding board against which to test policy ideas and it can contribute to those ideas through offering new ways of looking at things’ (2005, p. 177). Similarly, St. Clair argues that ‘the critical viewpoint asserts a strong articulation between research and practice…[that] suggests that the activities of research and practice are not only mutually informing, but they are mutually constitutive to a large extent’ (2004, p. 230). For research to be effective in informing policy and lifelong learning practices, researchers must also be responsive to concerns raised by both practitioners and policy makers. This is not always an easy road to navigate, because of different political agendas and practical considerations. Yet for academics committed to a more critical and/or pragmatic approach in educational research, these are the difficult questions to be considered in developing programs of research.

Connecting the dots

A traditional approach for sharing research with practitioners and policy makers involves disseminating information at the conclusion of a research study through a written summary of results, whether this takes the form of an academic article, report, or media release. As St. Clair argues ‘the act of distributing research in textual form implies that it can be applied as a foundation for practice and that it is reasonable to value abstracted knowledge as a valuable resource for practice’ (2004, p. 226). In this sense, knowledge dissemination is viewed as a rather didactic practice, with academics positioning themselves as the experts who are charged with the responsibility of distributing their findings. All too frequently, however, these findings are either ignored or taken up in a very different way than the researchers anticipated. Paul Armstrong (2001) discusses this concern in an earlier SCUTREA paper where he explores the processes and challenges of academics learning to do research. He explains that 'however objective I believed myself to be in all aspects of the research process, I did not anticipate that the readers of the research were not going to be as objective in their interpretations of my interpretation' (2001, p. 31).

Colin Griffin (2006) notes that the relationship between policy makers and academic researchers has been characterized by a general failure to sway the direction of educational policies towards a more liberal or humanistic approach. To understand this, he argues, requires examining decision makers in the area of policy and educators in the field of lifelong learning as coming from ‘distinct communities of practice’ (2006, p. 561). He argues:

The problem nowadays is precisely that national governments and international organisations actually have embraced lifelong learning as policy: they simply have not implemented it in forms that many lifelong educators themselves advocate. In this sense, lifelong learning remains too radical an idea in the face of the overriding economic imperatives of employment and global competition (2006, p. 563).

Policies designed to support lifelong learning may undermine the more radical or subversive intent of researchers, and findings may be appropriated to bolster very different political agendas than academics envisioned (Griffin, 2006). The critical heritage in adult education points to the role of academics in maintaining hegemonic control in society, thus undermining truly democratic opportunities for lifelong learning. Similarly, Ian Martin argues that the economic focus of current policies support educational ventures so that 'lifelong learning is, in the end, about social control, managing the consequences of macro economic policy' (2001, p. 259).

As a critical feminist, I am troubled by these concerns. Yet I believe that in an imperfect world, our role as researchers is important in raising issues that would be otherwise neglected, even while acknowledging that our research may not always be used the way that we would wish. Currently I am working on two research grants in which I incorporated roughly the same methodological approach to try to create opportunities for my research to engage with policy makers. I acknowledge Griffin’s concern that 'the concern of policy makers is with research as a product, whereas that of researchers is with research as process and practice' (2006, p. 567). But I believe that in part, this is because of the common strategy for researchers to wait until their research is completed before they communicate with policy makers.

In designing my Social Science and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) funded grant, Understanding Women's Lifelong Learning Trajectories: Implications for Adult and Higher Education in Canada, I struggled with these questions of creating a research design that would engage policy makers and practitioners. In this particular study, I had fairly pragmatic goals. Over the years I have concentrated on developing a critical feminist theoretical framework to explain some of the issues around inequality and accessibility that impact on women's success in lifelong learning contexts. Drawing upon critical theory, I focus particularly on the impact of Habermasian theory in adult education discourse, which explores the relations of power created by colonization of the ‘lifeworld’ by the ‘system’. This is evident in the pervasive influence of the marketplace on lifelong learning discourses (Gouthro, 2002). At the same time, I am concerned that the primary focus on economic issues minimizes other factors that constrain women's opportunities for lifelong learning. This gender blindness also overlooks inherent masculine biases of existing critical theoretical analyses that exclude or minimize other significant sites of living and learning, such as the homeplace (Gouthro, 2005). In this study, I am interested in obtaining empirical evidence, through the use of life histories with mature women learners across Canada, to assess the usefulness critical feminist theory in explaining the complexity of women’s learning pathways. From this, I hope to generate some useful suggestions and recommendations that can be implemented to support women in continuing their formal learning opportunities.

My second grant, Active Citizenship for Women in Nova Scotia, is funded by the Canadian Council on Learning (CCL). This has been designed as a pilot project that may be expanded to national study on active citizenship. In this study I am interested in exploring factors that impact on women’s decisions and abilities to participate as active citizens in local, regional, national, and global communities. Results from this research may help to inform decision makers about the barriers and supports that enable or inhibit women’s participation as active citizens.

In both studies, I hope that my research ultimately will help to create changes that might address the root causes of inequalities that hinder women’s full participation in society, both as lifelong learners in adult and higher education contexts, and as active citizens in their communities and government. To do so, however, requires engaging with decision makers at the administrative and policy levels of universities, government, and community organizations. With this in mind, I decided that in addition to conducting life history interviews with ‘lifelong learners’ and ‘active citizens’, I would also interview a number of ‘key informants’. Key informants are individuals that I (and, in the CCL grant, my research team of students) have identified as people who might have some influence as policy makers or administrators.

I soon found that Colin Griffin makes a good point when he questions ‘who exactly are the policy makers?’ (2006, p. 562). He notes that ‘it would seem that from the point of view of adult and lifelong learning educators, policy-makers are always ‘other’ than themselves, which in terms of the complexity of the policy process does not do justice to the role of those who implement policy in the actual formation of it’ (2006, p. 562).

In my SSHRC grant, it was a little more straightforward to identify the individuals who might be considered to have influence as policy makers.

Potential key informants were identified by doing an initial web search of people in government and university administration. In each Canadian province there is a Minister assigned to a portfolio that varies from province to province (in Canada, education is under provincial jurisdiction) but encompassed post-secondary education. I also included federal government organizations around post-secondary learning, and the administration at a range of different universities (both the large, research oriented ones (a part of what in Canada is called the G-10) as well as mid-sized and smaller institutions. The semi-structured interviews for key informants are kept fairly short (around forty-five minutes) with questions targeted at determining what these individuals believed were the supports and barriers that either supported or deterred women from participating in higher education contexts. I found that there was some overlap between the categories of ‘lifelong learners’ and ‘key informants’, in that some of the ‘key informants’ fit the same criteria as the ‘lifelong learners’ - women, over the age of forty, who were current or recent graduates of university, and self-identified as lifelong learners.

In my CCL grant, the blurring of boundaries between ‘active citizens’ and ‘key informants’ has been even more problematic. A woman who has an active political role either in government or in a leadership position with a community group might be considered to fit into either category. In these instances, we have had to make a collective judgement call as whether we will approach the individual to participate as an ‘active citizen’ by sharing her life history, or as a ‘key informant’ by speaking to supports and barriers that exist for women to participate as active citizens.

The process of doing this research reveals that it is not always easy to slot people into particular categories, as policy makers, learners, or practitioners. But in acknowledging this, perhaps it is possible to explore the fluid, complex, and reflexive nature of decision making processes. Edwards, Ranson and Strain argue that:

policy on lifelong learning will not achieve its aims of creating a learning society, because it has an inadequate notion of change, lacks an understanding of the diversity of learning practices among people, and considers learning as cumulative rather than reflexive (2002, p. 530).

One way to challenge this, it seems, would be to encourage policy makers to think a little more critically about policy issues. By adding key informant interviews to my research studies, I have found that in some instances, by the end of the interview, the individual seems to be thinking a little more deeply about the questions that are being raised. This type of critical questioning encourages participants – who are also in a position to be engaged in formulating policy – to be troubled a little. Through the interview process, ideas and taken for granted perceptions may be challenged. In the process of answering question, the participant may start to question his/her assumptions. Some of the questions asked are: Why might we need to have policies that address women’s concerns? Are there structural factors that inhibit women’s ability to participate fully as learners or citizens? From these questions, participants may then ask themselves: Does this have anything to do with my role (be it as an administrator, official, or employee in a policy division)? If these questions are taken up seriously, it may ultimately generate some interest in thinking about alternative approaches in developing policies and practices so that considerations around gender issues are taken into account.

Ultimately, it is my hope that by being engaged in the research project, key informants will start to conceive of themselves as stakeholders in the research process. By contacting individuals in key decision making areas early in the research process, I am finding that they are often very interested in finding out more about this research. Virtually everyone who has agreed to participate in my SSHRC study (as well as the majority of individuals who did not participate but passed on the request to others in their organization) has indicated they are interested in receiving the summary report from this study. By requesting this report, they may be interested enough in the topic to read and reflect on some of the issues that are raised. A similar level of interest is evident in the CCL study on active citizenship.

By incorporating interviews with key informants as a part of the research process, I gain insights into their perceptions of barriers and supports that exist for women in different learning contexts. In addition, I learn more about the ‘community of practice’ amongst individuals who work in administrative, government, and policy environments. Bynner and Feinstein argue that ‘the most effective relationship between research and policy is rather in the nature of a continually updated dialogue’ (2005, p. 177). This would seem to support the argument that Edwards, Ranson, and Strain (2002) make that we should not be striving to develop educational policies and practices that simply enable learners to react to existing changes. Instead we should be striving towards creating greater reflexivity – the ability of learners, educators, and policy makers to think in critical ways about emerging practices, challenges, and innovations that can be used in lifelong learning contexts. While recognizing that individuals who are successful in administrative and policy contexts often have a rather different political orientation than critical educators do, seeking opportunities to converse about these differences, to raise difficult questions, and to assess possible strategies for change is important.

Time will tell…

One of the challenges in considering these kinds of questions, is that critical educators must reflect upon the power practices at play with regards the politics of linking research, policy, and practice. For instance, drawing upon earlier research (Belzer & St. Clair, 2003), Ralf St. Clair makes the important observation that 'if policy suggests that research must have the demonstrated potential to inform and improve practice directly, this has enormous implications for the type of research being conducted and the methodology being used' (2004, p. 226). Similarly, Armstrong notes that it is naïve not to recognise that 'the use of research for specific purposes is a recognised political issue, and those who control the purse strings feel they have the right to buy particular outcomes' (2001, p. 31). While I think that it is important to explore methodological approaches that may provide opportunities for practitioners, policy makers, learners and educators to communicate with one another, this does not mean that I would support limiting funding to a narrow definition of research that is perceived to have immediate, practical benefits. I am also very leery of privatised funding for research, that may stifle academic freedom in trying to limit, control, or direct the types of results that will be produced from research.

Currently in Canada, the mandate of the Canadian Council on Learning is to only fund ‘applied research’, while the Social Science and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) still has a broader framework. However, as Tara Fenwick (2006) points out in her critique of ‘The Essential Skills Initiative" in Canada, increasingly there is pressure created through funding agencies to direct academic work that is responsive to the ‘knowledge economy’ that reinforces a very narrow conceptualization of what constitutes valuable and important learning. Edwards, Ranson, and Strain also argue that ‘more conventional views of learning as the transmission and acquisition of knowledge and skills are implicit in many current policies [on lifelong learning]’ (2002, p. 527). Griffin cautions that ‘commissioned research, upon which so much of lifelong education policy is based, constitutes the accommodation or incorporation of the research process into the policy process itself’ (2006, p. 570). As a critical educator, I have to interrogate my own practices. In the process of applying for funding to do research, I have to justify how this will impact upon policy development, or in the case of CCL funding, how this can be considered ‘applied research’. In doing this, I may hope that I am creating a sense of partnership or dialogue between different interest groups, but I also run the risk of undermining my own critical sense of agency. Being able to write critically, to challenge the status quo, and to question existing practices, is integral to maintaining academic freedom. At this stage in my research career, I have not felt that my work is being screened, monitored, or edited. But as numerous critical educators have noted (Gouthro, 2002), the influence of the marketplace in lifelong learning discourses often has a stifling effect on voices of dissent and challenge.

I like St. Clair’s (2004) whimsical, yet slightly idealistic conclusion about the relationship between researchers and practitioners – although they come from different places, there can be a basis for a beautiful friendship. Considering the political and power differentials between critical researchers and policy makers, I understand Fenwick’s (2006) more ambivalent response, although I am not yet quite as cynical as Griffin (2006). As I negotiate my way through the complex process of meaning making, learning, and critical inquiry, I am still struggling with these issues, and learning my way into what are the possibilities and challenges of connecting research with policy, politics, and practice.


Armstrong, P. (2001). Becoming and being a researcher: doing research as lifelong learning. Proceedings of the 31st Annual Conference of SCUTREA. pp. 30-33.

Blezer A & St. Clair R (2003) Back to the future: Implications of the neo-positive agenda for adult education, Unpublished manuscript, Rutgers University, NJ.

Bynner J & Feinstein L (2005) ‘What can policy learn from research on the wider benefits of learning?’, London Review of Education, 3, 3, pp. 177-190.

Edwards, R, Ranson, S & Strain, M (2002) 'Reflexivity: towards a theory of lifelong learning' International Journal of Lifelong Education, 21, 6, 525-536.

Fenwick T (2006) 'Control, contradiction, and ambivalence: Skill initiatives in Canada', Proceedings of the 25th Annual Conference of the Canadian Association for the Study of Adult Education.

Gouthro, P A (2002) Education for sale: at what cost? Lifelong learning and the marketplace, International Journal of Lifelong Education, 21, 4, 334-346.

Gouthro, P A (2005) A critical feminist analysis of the homeplace as learning site: Expanding the discourse of lifelong learning, International Journal of Lifelong Education, 24, 1, 5-19.

Griffin C (2006) ‘Research and policy in lifelong learning’, International Journal of Lifelong Education, 25, 6, pp. 561-574.

Lomas J (2000) ‘Connecting Research and Policy’, Isuma, 1, 1, pp. 140-144.

Martin, I (2001) 'A note of unfashionable dissent: rediscovering the vocation of adult education in the morass of lifelong learning' Proceedings of the 31st Conference of SCUTREA, pp. 257-260.

St. Clair, R (2004) 'A Beautiful Friendship?' The Relationship of Research to Practice in Adult Education. Adult Education Quarterly, 54, 3, 224-241.

Taylor S (2004) ‘Researching educational policy and change in 'new times': using critical discourse analysis’, Journal of Educational Policy, 19, 4, pp. 433-451.

This paper has been approved for inclusion in the proceedings through an anonymous peer refereeing process.

This document was added to the Education-Line database on 22 June 2007