How to Bridge the Skills Gap? The Scientific Benefits of Old-Fashioned Drill

By Helen Abadzi, College of Education, University of Texas at Arlington

LearnIn 2014, a television show in the United Kingdom, “The Apprentice”, selected candidates for their business acumen and quick wits.  Two young women and a man teamed up to develop a product that would be marketed and sold. They had to calculate the amount of incense fluid to buy for 60 reeds that weighed 100 grams each. To the amazement of the audience, the two women declared that they could not do the calculations.  The failure to perform on the spot a set of relatively simple math operations was found unacceptable, and they were shamefully removed from the show.

This was a poignant case of a skills gap demonstrated before thousands of viewers.  The workers could not quickly meet the demands of the job.  And almost every day, some publications or conferences refer to this gap.  For example, in the 2016 World Strategic Forum, university presidents and senior bank managers shared their views on the importance of high-level skills for technological achievement and innovation.  Speakers envisioned education systems as engines of innovation and entrepreneurship, driving job generation, reducing inequality, and increasing competitiveness. A frequent argument is that traditional schooling does not work. Education thinking must change in order to prepare the youth for complex 21st century skills.

Recommendations are often long on visions but short on specifics. And learning research on the skills gap is rarely cited.  But the tendency to aspire high and skip the boring basics seems to permeate schools worldwide. Teachers are trained to avoid activities that are considered traditional (chalk and talk, drill and practice) and teach creatively: engaging students in innovative ideas, collaborative learning projects, and personalized learning on the topics that suit student interests.

Are such activities likely to bridge the math skills gap of performing math calculations when needed?  Research on memory and learning suggests otherwise. And the cards are not stacked in favour of innovation.

First some basics.  “Skill” means ability to link and execute sequences of items relatively effortlessly.  The items may be concepts and procedures. To create skills, we must assemble these chains piece by piece, like connecting cars for a toy railroad. The right car must be found and put into the place it fits best for optimal performance.  We must practice the many times, get feedback and correct errors, so that the sequence is performed effortlessly and rapidly.  The process also moves the skill from our conscious, explicit memory into the unconscious, implicit memory.

There is a pattern in this chaos.  Practice results conform to certain mathematical trends.  Progress is initially rapid and levels off with practice, forming an L shape. For example, Cuban workers initially improved the time needed to roll a cigar rapidly and continued to improve slowly, even after rolling 10 million cigars for seven years. It is possible to estimate timeframes and training costs through these almost universal learning curves.

Consider a beginners’ music class in a school.  The teacher writes notes on the blackboard:  Sol la si do si la sol fa mi…  Then the teacher points to the notes one by one.  Each child has a flute, finds the correct hole, then pauses looking for the next note.  The execution is slow and riddled with errors, but the teacher corrects, and the children try again.  By the end of the lesson, nearly all children play a tune laboriously but in the right sequence.  Tomorrow they will play the second part of the song, again finding the notes one by one. Then they will put them together, and link the piece to the tune they learned the previous day.  After a year of consistent practice, they will read notes and find holes in milliseconds and unconsciously. And when asked to play what they know, they will instantly, fluently perform, without thinking.

We need the automaticity because we have very little processing capacity at a given moment.  Your current thoughts reside in “working memory” (short-term memory is one of its components). That mental space is very limited; it holds 4-7 information items for perhaps 12-25 seconds. Then they disappear!  We have no time to think consciously about everything that we do. We must make a few key decisions in milliseconds and execute other simultaneous tasks unconsciously. Automaticity allows us to offload tasks from our working memory and thus have time to think about more complex issues.  If we take too long to execute, we may forget what they were doing, run out of patience, or miss the chance to perform them.

This peculiarity of working memory creates a premium for instant acts and thoughts.  To read, think, walk, type, or talk at the same time, actions must be performed in milliseconds.  It is usually insufficient to know how to do something but recall it an hour or a week later. Skills are marketable mainly if they are executed effortlessly whenever they are needed.

A learning curve depicting the effects of trials over several days; the vertical axis shows reaction time in milliseconds, and the horizontal axis shows practice blocks (Speelman and Kirsner 2005, p. 33; reprinted with permission).

A learning curve depicting the effects of trials over several days; the vertical axis shows reaction time in milliseconds, and the horizontal axis shows practice blocks (Speelman and Kirsner 2005, p. 33; reprinted with permission).

The stepwise process of linking basic units is one reason why it is inefficient to teach complex skills to students who have not automatized the prerequisite components.  Creativity, innovation, complex thinking about a topic are only possible after people know a great deal about it, practiced assembling the information, and bring it into their working memory in milliseconds.

However, practice activities may seem needlessly repetitive and pointless.  It is tempting to reduce them in favour of more creative and fun activities.  High-scoring and well-to-do students may easily automatize what they do not already know.  But lower-performing students who skip the boring basics may be short changed in exactly the skills they need for productive work.  Finding fun ways to facilitate practice is important, but mere fun activities may not create proficiency in procedures such as mental math.  Furthermore, research shows that interest in various topics results from knowledge and practice.  If young people get too little basic math practice, they may say that they are not interested in math or that it takes a lot of intelligence to perform.

Skills caught in the web of innovation

Educational institutions must prepare students for complex skills and must do so as efficiently as possible.  But educational practices are often at odds with learning research.  Colleges of education rarely teach cognitive science, so automaticity are neglected.  In fact these concepts may be regarded negatively. By contrast, creative classroom activities may engage students and reduce discipline problems.  But they do not do lower-scoring students a favour. “Traditional,” “old-fashioned” reading or math drill exists because over the centuries teachers realized the utility of practice.  Learning is biologically determined, and its rules do not change on demand.  The skills gap originates in deficits of basic performance chains.

Unfortunately the various eminent persons who lecture on skills often give the wrong advice.  Their beliefs reflect the perspective of people who have highly complex skills. Their focus inevitably is what their own very accomplished children can do.  Similarly, international agencies give general, idealized policy advice to governments. The specifics to teach basic skills efficiently to the entire population are often considered details, left up to teachers.

To teach any skills to for any subject, the process should be like that of the flute instruction. In reading, students must be taught reading through individual letters, and these must be practiced in combinations for many hours. In math, chains of numbers must be similarly manipulated. Instructional time should therefore be used to maximize practice in order to speed up performance.

There is indeed a need for a paradigm shift in educational thinking and skill preparation.  But students need early engagement in drill and practice. Freeing up working memory pays big dividends in innovation and critical thinking later on.  To explain these counterintuitive concepts, it is important to practice international education according to memory research.  It is also important to finance more of it, particularly research on the mastery of low-level, component skills.

The challenges are large, but they must be confronted if the Sustainable Development Goals are to be met in 2030.  Means must be found to train staff of donor agencies and governments on the ways that people process information.  Only then can the skills gap close.

Helen Abadzi is a Greek psychologist who speaks many languages. After spending 27 years as an education specialist at the World Bank, she is a researcher at the University of Texas at Arlington.  To improve the outcomes of education investments she regularly monitors research in cognitive psychology and neuroscience.  Her publications can be found at:

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Funding Education in Sub-Saharan Africa: Can the Momentum be Maintained During the Current Economic Slowdown?

By Birger Fredriksen, Results for Development Institute.

africaThe impact of good quality education on a country’s economic growth is now quite well understood. The inverse relationship – the impact of economic growth on education — is given less attention. This is especially so with respect to the importance of sustained high per capita income growth needed to generate both the education funding and the jobs needed to make rapid education growth financially and socially sustainable. This applies particularly to sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), given the region’s continued high population growth, massive need for education catch-up, and very slow growth in modern sector job creation.

On this background, the recent slowdown in economic growth in the region gives cause for concern. IMF’s October 2015 Economic Outlook estimates SSA’s GDP growth at 6.8% per year during the period 2004-08, 5% during the period 2009-14 and projects 4% on average for 2015 and 2016. The revised projections of early April reduce the growth estimate for 2015 to 3.4% and projects 3.1% for 2016. Thus, accounting for an annual population growth of 2.7%, annual growth per capita declined from 4.1% between 2004 and 2008 to 0.7% in 2015 and 0.4% in 2016.

The slowdown is caused by a combination of complex global, regional and national factors that have no short-term fix. They include the end of the commodity boom, poor infrastructure including chronic power shortages, and increased insecurity in many countries. Therefore, should this stagnation in per capita growth become the “new normal” for the medium term, the risk for sharply reduced growth in education budgets is very real.

A blog I posted on October 2, 2014 on this site, reflected on the massively increased funding that SSA needed, compared to other developing regions, to reach the 2015 EFA goals. The two main reasons were because of its massive needs for education catch-up and rapid population growth, both of which will continue over the 2015-30 period. Despite the progress in access since 2000, SSA’s share of the world’s out-of-school children increased from 40% in 1999 to 57% in 2013. Further, the quality is very poor and two in five children drop out prior to the end of the primary cycle. Also, the gap between SSA and other regions in enrolment ratios has increased since 2000 in both pre- and post-primary education. And the “catch-up challenge” is made much more difficult by the fact that SSA’s school-age population is projected to grow by one-third between 2015 and 2030 compared to a slight decline in all other major developing regions.

Since 1960, education progress in the region has depended closely on economic growth. This is well illustrated by the way the rise and fall in economic growth has made reaching a Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) of 100% for primary education a moving target for most countries:

  • 1960-1980:A period of strong education growth: The GER increased from about 35% to 80%. While the target of 100% by 1980 (agreed in Addis Ababa in 1961) was not attained, enrolment in 1980 exceeded the number implied by the 100% target by 24% because the population of school age grew by more than 90% between 1960 and 1980 for the countries in question instead of by 18% as expected. Up until 1975, growth in funding was facilitated by an annual 1-2% per capita economic growth as well as an increase in the share of GDP allocated to education, reaching 4.5% in 1980.
  • 1980-2000: A period ofeducation stagnation: The GER declined to 73% in 1993 and only regained its 1980 value in 2000 (rather than Education for All as agree in 1990 in Jomtien). Economic decline was the main cause. GDP per capita dropped by about one-third between 1970 and 1997, and education budgets grew by only about 1% annually between 1980 and 2000 as compared to 2.7% for the school-age population. The lack of fiscal space also hampered the reforms needed to transform SSA’s education systems, designed for an elite, into mass systems. In turn, slow progress on reforms led to more performance-based aid and the promise by donors at the Dakar 2000 World Education Forum to prioritize countries that prepared good plans.
  • 2000-2015: Resumption of growth: The GER reached about 100% in 2013. Although this does not imply universal primary education – the Net Enrollment Ratio was only 78% and some 30 million primary school children are still out of school — this was a major achievement. Economic growth accounted for about two-third of the rise in education budgets that made this possible. The remainder was largely due to a rise in the share of GDP spent on education and in foreign aid, both of which are expected to provide more modest contributions between now and the year 2030. On average, SSA already spends a higher share of public budgets (18%) on education than do other regions. Further,aid has stagnated globally in recent years and SSA’s share of aid for basic education has declined sharply (from 50% in 2002 to 28% in 2014).

In sum, a concerted effort must be made to prevent the economic slowdown from causing further delay in achieving the EFA dream as well as the new targets in the education SDG. This effort must include higher priority for sub-Saharan Africa in the allocation of aid. But because most funding by necessity is from domestic resources, more must be done to generate more such resources including by increasing the tax base. Also, there is still scope for increasing education’s share of public budgets in many countries. Finally, tighter budgets will make it even more important for both governments and donors to make budget trade-offs in favour of population groups who are now missing out on basic education.

This blog was first posted on the World Education Blog of the Global Education Monitoring Report on 27th April 2016. It is released to coincide with the Global Action Week run by the Global Campaign for Education, under the theme ‘Fund the Future: Education Rights Now!”

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International Organizations and the Setting of Educational Agendas: The Case of the Arab Regional Agenda for Improving Educational Quality

By Clara Morgan, UAE University

classroomThere is growing interest among scholars in understanding the internationalization of domestic policy and the important role international organizations (IOs) play in setting educational agendas.[1] With IOs such as the World Bank, UNESCO and the OECD positioning themselves as designers of universal educational solutions, political authority in education has gradually shifted from the national to the supranational arena.  It thus becomes imperative for scholars to analyze critically how educational governance across scales is enacted regionally and domestically.  As Beech notes, IOs promote an abstract universal model of education for the information age encompassing “principles of decentralization, school autonomy, the professionalization of teachers, a curriculum based on competencies and the setting up of central evaluation systems”.[2] Through the creation of this ideal type model, IOs are in a position to construct indicators for measuring progress towards the model, defining the problems associated with attaining objectives, and providing solutions for improving educational outcomes.

Recent developments in the Arab region reflect a movement towards an ideal type educational model that is concerned with educational and teacher quality and the evaluation of educational learning outcomes based on results from international student assessments.  However, other than reports from IOs such as the World Bank analyzing the quality of education,[3] there has been little scholarly work critically exploring the effects of these regional developments. My research study, which was funded by the Arab Council for the Social Sciences (2015-2016),[4] contributes to our understanding of the effects of universalizing educational policy processes by tracing the development of an Arab regional initiative that was co-funded by the World Bank. Under the auspices of the Arab League Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organization (ALECSO), the Arab Regional Agenda for Improving Educational Quality (ARAIEQ) was conceived at the 2010 Arab Ministerial Colloquium on Quality of Education and the Doha Declaration on Quality Education for All.[5]

ARAIEQ was a three-year initiative that ended in 2015. Its aim was to improve the quality and relevance of education services in the region through regional collaboration while also functioning as a think-tank, a network of experts, and a resource for tools and knowledge for policy-makers. There were five programs areas under ARAIEQ including (1) educational evaluation and policy analysis; (2) teachers’ professional development; (3) early childhood development; (4) curriculum innovation and information and communication technology in education; and, (5) entrepreneurship education. Each program was hosted by an organizational entity in the Arab region.[6]

My study focused on two of these programs – the Arab Program for Education Evaluation and Policy Analysis (APEEPA) and the Arab Program on Teacher Policies and Teacher Professional Development (APTP). APEEPA’s two main activities revolved around mapping the region’s educational evaluation systems and developing the capacity to analyze results of international student assessments for evidence-based policy development. UNESCO’s regional bureau in Beirut hosted this program. APTP’s main activities included mapping teachers’ development policies in the region, conducting in depth case studies of teachers’ policies in three countries, and developing a regional teachers’ policy framework. APTP was hosted by the Queen Rania Teacher Academy in Jordan. To gain an understanding of how these initiatives are reflected nationally, I took as my case studies Jordan, Lebanon and Tunisia.

Based on my preliminary findings, one can say that an attempt was made to fabricate an educational quality space in the Arab region with the institutionalization and integration of data-driven practices that inform educational policy developments and reforms.[7] Practices disseminated through ARAIEQ’s policy learning processes (e.g., country reports, mapping exercises, and workshops) embodied new governance forms. Certain policy actors in the ARAIEQ network acted as “policy brokers”,[8] mediating relations across transnational, regional, national and local scales, thereby facilitating the transfer of ideas and the adoption of new ideas and practices. At the same time, my findings indicate that several factors constrained the construction of an educational quality space in the Arab region and limited the degree to which universalizing policy transfer and policy learning processes could take place.  I will elaborate on three of these factors:

  1. Lack of sustainability: Interview participants pointed out that these IO-funded initiatives have limited effects at the regional and national levels due to the lack of sustainability. In the case of ARAIEQ, participants indicated that this should have been a 10-year program that aimed at building capacity in the medium and long-term.
  1. Lack of commitment from ministry of education bureaucracies: Interview participants indicated that a regional initiative’s impact is constrained since state bureaucracies must ultimately be responsible for institutionalizing educational quality practices. Levels of commitment varied across countries. Senior officials rarely were represented at ARAIEQ activities. Most participants were technical specialists that could not influence the decision making processes in their ministries of education.
  1. Local socio-economic and political problems: Interview participants shared with me their country’s specific educational quality problems. For example, Jordan, Lebanon and Tunisia all have issues of inequitable access and educational opportunities. This is exacerbated when poor children are concentrated in low quality public schools while more well to do students are concentrated in private schools. All three countries also suffer from an urban-rural divide with urban public schools having a higher quality level of teachers, facilities and resources compared with rural schools. In addition, in both Lebanon and Jordan, the presence of Syrian refugees in the public school system has placed an enormous burden on public school systems.

In summary, while ARAIEQ was a laudable attempt at building knowledge capacity among the region’s countries, the policy transfer and policy learning that took place was limited to a small number of technical specialists.  In addition, universalizing educational quality solutions rarely are able to address deeper issues of socio-economic inequities and the lack of political transparency and accountability.  As an expert I interviewed put it, despite such regional initiatives, “the problems are still there, but worse”. Perhaps we require an alternative vision and paradigm to educational quality rooted in our communities with students, teachers and parents working collaboratively to achieve the vision for an equitable and just education.

Dr. Clara Morgan is Assistant Professor in Political Science at UAE University. Her research interests include the global governance of education and educational developments in the MENA region. She can be reached at  To learn more about this research study, please visit:

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[1] For example, see Jones, P. (2006). Education, Poverty and the World Bank.  Rotterdam and Taipei: Sense Publishers; Meyer, H.D. and Benavot, A. (Eds.). (2013). PISA, Power, and Policy: the emergence of global educational governance. Oxford, UK: Symposium Books; Pereyra, M., Kotthoff, H.G., & Cowen, R. (Eds.). (2011). PISA Under Examination: Changing Knowledge, Changing Tests, and Changing Schools. Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.

[2] Beech, J. (2009). Who is strolling through the global garden? In Cowen, R., and Kazamias, A. (eds.) International Handbook of Comparative Education International agencies and educational transfer (pp. 341-357). Dordrecht: Springer.

[3] For example, see The World Bank. (2008). The Road Not Traveled. Education Reform in the Middle East and North Africa. The World Bank: Washington, D.C.; The World Bank. (2013). Jobs for Shared Prosperity. Time for Action n the Middle East and North Africa. The World Bank: Washington, D.C.

[4] For more information, see the ACSS Research Grants Program 2013-2016:

[5] For more information, see:

[6] More information can be found on the ARAIEQ website:

[7] Ozga, J., Dahler-Larsen, P., Segerholm, C., and Simola, H. (Eds.) (2011). Fabricating quality in education: Data and governance in Europe. London: Routledge.

[8] Grek, S., Lawn, M., Lingard, B., Ozga, J., Rinne, R., Segerholm, C., and Simola, H. (2009). National policy brokering and the construction of the European Education Space in England, Sweden, Finland and Scotland. Comparative Education 45(1): 5-21.

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Reflections from Geneva – Vocational Education in the Context of Violence Extremism

By Tara Noronha, Mercy Corps.

A few weeks ago, the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) – supported by NORRAG – convened a workshop in Geneva that brought together key practitioners, donors, policymakers, and researchers for thoughtful, honest discussions on vocational education in the context of violent extremism. The world as we know it is changing rapidly; all of us in the room shared feelings of urgency in understanding the drivers of violent extremism and what role, if any, vocational education can play in addressing these root causes.

In Geneva, I shared lessons from Mercy Corps’ employability work from around the globe. Mercy Corps works in more than 40 countries, in some of the most difficult environments in the world. We work with young people who are dealing with the typical trials and tribulations of youth but are also doing so in places such as Iraq, Afghanistan, and Yemen where the rules of the game are constantly changing. These youth are not only dealing with typical transitions, such as school to work and reliance on families to becoming financially independent, but they are also navigating these pathways in extremely complex circumstances – amidst conflict, political strife, climate shocks, poverty, etc.

While we have seen the extraordinary ways that young people are shaping their economies, their communities and their futures, there is still much work to be done. Over the past several years, Mercy Corps has embarked a comprehensive research agenda in the countries where we work, which deepens our understanding of the complex factors that drive youth to support political violence.

One thing we have learned is that in isolation, vocational training cannot combat poverty or violence. It’s not the ‘magic bullet’ intervention and it never has been. However, when vocational training is done right, it can be extremely effective in equipping youth with relevant, marketable skills. For example, through the INVEST program in the Helmand Province of Afghanistan, Mercy Corps’ vocational training model has enabled vulnerable male and female youth to increase their employment. Our model promotes demand-driven courses (routinely informed by market assessments) and a close relationship with the local private sector. Our initiatives focus on both supply and demand; we know that promoting a healthy private sector and ensuring safe and decent jobs are just as important, if not more important, than building technical skills.

The INVEST program was extremely successful in achieving its intended goal of ‘increasing market-driven knowledge and skills which generate income and employment opportunities’ for more than 25,000 youth and in developing a proven, replicable model for vocational education. As a learning organization, Mercy Corps conducted an impact evaluation to understand if these economic impacts had any influence on youth’s attitudes towards political violence. While the program had significant impact on employability and employment outcomes, it did not affect youth’s attitudes towards political violence. Future programs which intend to directly address the root causes of youth participation in political violence must first understand the multiple and often interconnected economic, social, and political factors which are at play and then ensure an intentional, adaptable approach.

Mercy Corps’ recommendations for smart, holistic youth development programming are aligned with many of the conversations in Geneva:

  • End siloed, single-sector programming, and support multi-sectoral, multi-year programs with adaptive management structures that create systems within which youth can thrive.
  • Be realistic and ‘keep it real’ about the utility of vocational training as a single intervention to address unemployment or violence.
  • If the need is identified, ensure that all vocational education is demand-driven and is linked with real income opportunities in the local labor market.
  • Identify the most vulnerable youth – and be vigilant about ensuring programs don’t just reach privileged youth in urban centers.
  • Do not make assumptions about the drivers of instability. Shape future “countering violent extremism” (CVE) strategies through rigorous, iterative analyses of the political, social and economic factors that drive youth to support political violence and how violent extremist recruitment tactics evolve.
  • Increase investments in two-track governance programs that connect youth “voices” with meaningful reforms on issues of corruption, predatory justice systems and exclusive governance structures.

Tara Noronha is a Senior Youth Employment Advisor at Mercy Corps. For more information, please visit

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Countering Violent Extremism – can Education and Vocational Training Play a Role?

By Martine Zeuthen, The Royal United Services Institute (RUSI).

hornEuropean specialists in Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) and education programming gathered in Geneva last month, to discuss the role of education and vocational training in CVE programming.

I was invited as a CVE practitioner. I run an EU-funded CVE programme in the Horn of Africa which includes training of law enforcement officers, civil society programmes and individual mentorship.

In my view the essential issue for CVE programming is that we are very clear on what we are trying to achieve and to articulate a clear logical progression from activity to impact. From some conversations at the workshop it seems that some policy makers and practitioners do not wish to target their interventions towards individuals and communities at risk of recruitment and radicalisation but rather wish to have inclusive programmes. In other words their end goal is to contribute to building an inclusive society rather than managing the present problem of radicalisation and recruitment to violent groups. I respect and see a value in this approach as a type of long term development intervention. But the more inclusive the programme, the more difficult it is to show that the intervention prevented violent extremism.  The further we move from the problem the more tangential the intervention is and the harder it becomes to measure any effect.

Measuring effect is essential for CVE programmes as the big void in this field is knowing what works. We need to evaluate continuously.

There are two basic assumptions about the link between violent extremism and education. Assumption 1 is that critical thinking skills enhance resilience against violent extremism. Assumption 2 is that employment and vocational training contribute to a sense of identity, belonging and meaning, and these then contribute to increased resilience. The problem is that many, perhaps most CVE programmes are implemented without testing these assumptions – although the workshop highlighted a couple of exceptions, in particular programmes run by Mercy Corps [Editor: see forthcoming NORRAG blog for more information].

Investment in CVE provides opportunities to articulate, develop and test these assumptions. The implementers of such programmes overseas must also consider the level of risk they are willing to take (this will depend on the context). This will inform how close they are willing to get to the violent individuals.

The discussions highlighted a preference for the term preventing violent extremism (PVE). In my view this is fine if it is seen as a largely semantic response to concerns about linking development funding to the counter terrorism agenda. However, if in fact this indicates a reluctance to focus interventions towards those at risk and to aim programmes at reducing the appeal of and engagement with violent extremist groups, then the consequence is likely to be further politicisation of development assistance. Why not just call it vocational training in fragile environments?

Unfortunately recruitment and radicalisation to violent groups are extremely complex processes and therefore requires complex solutions and complex programming.

As a CVE practitioner I recommend the following as good practice in bringing education and vocational training into CVE:

  1. Undertake rigorous field based research to systematically test the assumptions behind your programme, and to assert under what circumstances education and vocational training contributes to preventing or countering violent extremism;
  2. Use the analysis to identify who is at risk and develop a clear strategy for engaging with these individuals, as well as work out how to measure the impact your programme aims to have on these individuals;
  3. Accept that PVE or CVE work is political and work closely with political sections to ensure that political pressures help not hinder development;
  4. Design your programme flexibly to ensure real-time learning. Make adaptations as you learn more about the context in which you are engaging;
  5. Be clear about the level of risk you are willing and able to take and therefore how close you can get to the problem in your programme.

As I said, this is a complex problem that requires complex solutions. Anyone engaging in this agenda must be ready to learn and as lessons are developed, and must constantly question  established assumptions. That way, programmers can make the adaptations required to ensure the best possible effect.

Martine Zeuthen is the Team Leader for an EU funded program called STRIVE – ‘Strengthening Resilience to Violent Extremism in the Horn of Africa’ at The Royal United Services Institute (RUSI). Email:

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Preventing Violent Extremism: What Role for Education and Training?

By Laetitia Houlmann, Consultant SDC Education Network and Aude Mellet, NORRAG

Sadly, a more than topical issue

Picture_CCEven if it’s not a new phenomenon, the prevention of violent extremism (PVE) is – sadly enough – a highly topical issue in light of the tragic events that the world has been facing lately. As it is gaining in importance on the international agenda and in the media, the sharing of experiences, lessons learnt and knowledge in this field is more than necessary. The technical workshop on “Vocational Skills Development (VSD) in the context of Violent Extremism”, held at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva on 16-17 March 2016, aimed to discuss the multiple and complex drivers of violent extremism and to analyse to what extent well-conceived VSD programmes leading to employment and social integration could contribute to mitigate these.

The debate was centred around some of the most commonly perceived push factors of violent extremism, namely social exclusion, lack of economic prospects or violent environments, as well as other potential drivers identified by the participants, such as identity crisis and loss of values (be it at an individual or societal level), pressure of urbanisation, migration and displacement of population, lack of social mobility, or state repression. Conceived as a first step to explore synergies and interrelations between VSD programmes and PVE, it brought together experts – researchers, policy-makers and practitioners – from these two areas to examine the issues from the perspectives of both the short-term security agenda and the longer-term development agenda.

PVE through a holistic and context-specific approach of VSD with a focus on socio-economic integration

In the first place, the choice of using the broader concept of vocational skills development (VSD) – instead of technical and vocational education and training (TVET) more limited in scope – is not insignificant. Indeed, VSD is part of an education-training continuum encompassing basic education when needed, technical and practical skills training, and also soft and life skills, in a lifelong learning perspective.

Through this holistic and integrated approach to education and training, VSD programmes arguably contribute to empower the youth, enhance their analytical thinking and give them a sense of purpose, resulting not only in employability and economic integration, but also in social – or societal – inclusion. In the same way, education and training could have a role to play in helping the youth to build their identity in contexts marked with loss of landmarks or values. Since socio-economic integration is often considered as a prerequisite to address violent extremism, VSD programmes pursuing these goals could at least be considered as PVE-relevant, even if they do not specifically aim at preventing violent extremism.

The workshop was precisely an occasion to share experiences and evidence from the field in an attempt to find out which specific components may play a role in the mitigation of violent extremism. Various examples presented during these two days underlined the importance of designing not only comprehensive but also context-specific programmes. To begin with, involving the communities, and in particular young people, in the process is an important factor to enhance acceptance and sustainability. Besides, a sound understanding of the local dynamics and labour market helps implementing appropriate VSD training, and avoids creating false expectations among beneficiaries such as lack of jobs matching the VSD offers, or favouring one target group over another. A further challenge that can be mitigated by a thorough analysis of the context, needs and power relationships in a given society/community relates to the potential stigmatisation of the individuals or populations labelled as “at risk”. In this sense, examples of training programmes including components such as coaching, peer- to- peer support or socio-emotional learning were particularly interesting, and hence would be worth exploring further.

Inclusive, comprehensive, context-specific and demand-oriented education and training as a driver to reduce inequalities and to improve the socio-economic environment of the youth could therefore be seen as an efficient tool to prevent extremism. One conclusion that can be drawn from this workshop is that a VSD approach to training seems more likely to channel PVE relevant elements than a more commonly used VET approach focusing on technical skills. Unfortunately the precise causal links between all the variables at stake are still based on assumptions, and more research is needed if we want to validate them and inform programmes and policies.

The way forward: fostering research and involving the youth?

Who is at risk? What kind of training and skills are the most likely to improve young people’s resilience and societal integration? Does employment really contribute to preventing violent extremism? How do we measure the outcomes of VSD programmes in terms of PVE? These were some of the main questions addressed during the workshop, most of which remained unanswered. This illustrates once again the need for research both at macro and micro levels. On the one hand, there is a lack of common understanding of the very concept of violent extremism, and the differentiation with other terms such as terrorism and radicalisation which are often used interchangeably in the media. On another hand, research and studies conducted at the field level could enhance evidence-based programming by collecting data on methodology, evaluation systems or perception. In this regard, special emphasis should be placed on involving researchers and practitioners representing “the South” since they are too often absent from the debate.

This need for research is certainly a challenge, but also an opportunity to break down silos by looking at the literature and experiences from the fields of education, peace building, or even urban violence, as innovative approaches and lessons-learnt may be useful for designing informed and PVE sensitive VSD programmes. Likewise, engaging with the security sector could help to develop a better understanding of how PVE materializes. The difficulty is, however, that research and evidence-based programming will require long-term investment, while the security agenda is looking for short-term responses. This dilemma in turn raises some questions about the securitisation of development – and more specifically of education. In other words, as expressed by one of the participants, can we find a progressive security approach that is compatible with a development approach?

Amidst all these interrogations and uncertainties, one thing is clear regardless of what research will specifically show: young people must be more actively involved at all steps of policymaking and programming – from needs assessment to design, implementation and evaluation. Whereas they are often seen as victims or even part of the problem– they should rather be considered as drivers of change. This is all the more necessary in the case of PVE through VSD as in other youth-focused interventions, as young people are both the first beneficiaries of VSD programmes and the primary group concerned with violent extremism.

To conclude, even though VSD and education at large can and should play a key role in addressing violent extremism, one must remain realistic on the fact they are not the panacea. PVE is a complex issue and a broader approach involving not only development but also security actors is needed in order to stimulate critical analysis and build innovative policies and programmes.

This workshop was initiated by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) Employment and Income (e+i) Network, in preparation of the Geneva Conference on “Preventing Violent Extremism – The Way Forward” taking place at the United Nations on 7-8 April. It was supported by NORRAG and SDC Education Network.

Based in Geneva, Laetitia Houlmann is working as a consultant in international education and training, in particular in the field of development cooperation. She is currently in charge of the backstopping of the SDC Education Network. She worked as a Communication Officer at NORRAG between 2012 and 2015. Aude Mellet is Communication Officer at NORRAG, where she is also working on a project related to development studies and international education. Her background is in economic and social history and development studies. Emails: and

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NORRAG (Network for International Policies and Cooperation in Education and Training) is an internationally recognised, multi-stakeholder network which has been seeking to inform, challenge and influence international education and training policies and cooperation for almost 30 years. NORRAG has more than 4,500 registered members worldwide and is free to join. Not a member? Join free here.

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Thinking about the Education Think Tank Phenomenon

By Velibor Jakovleski, NORRAG and the Graduate Institute, Geneva.

thinkGone are the days when the main sites of knowledge production were universities and specialized government agencies. Technological advances, together with the increasing reliance on data to inform policy-making, have resulted in an almost industrial production of research. Since the 1960s and 1970s in particular, the think tank has proliferated and become a more important aspect of that industry.[1]

Think tanks have been defined as “non-governmental institutions; intellectually, organizationally and financially autonomous from government, political parties or organized interests; and set up with the aim of influencing policy.”[2] The definition sets a relatively high threshold for autonomy, but in reality the dividing lines between think tanks on the one hand and government, business, or academia on the other, is not always so clear.

Think tanks like Brookings might be labeled as “independent” based on their financial autonomy and ability to set their own research agenda. Others like the African Leadership Centre – a joint initiative of King’s College London and the University of Nairobi – are organisations that can be classified as university-affiliated. USA-based Mathematica Policy Research, on the other hand, is a for-profit corporation that undertakes education research and provides data collection services to clients. Others conduct research with obvious ties to the state, as is the case with the National Institute for Educational Policy Research in Japan. All are set up with the aim to influence policy, but they differ in organisational form.

While there might not be consensus on what a think tank is, they can all be described as organisations which combine policy research and advocacy with the objective of informing policy. They can be relatively autonomous, or they might have ties to – or explicitly serve the interests of – a government, a political party, business, or university.

The field of education has not been impervious to the proliferation of think tanks, their various organisational forms and their sometimes uncertain influence on the policy process. Declining public expenditure on education has led to the outsourcing of policy-orientated research on education. And the increasing focus on demonstrating and evaluating education outcomes has also resulted in an expansion of research on education-related matters.

In an attempt to make sense of this relatively recent trend in education, NORRAG has conducted a preliminary mapping of think tanks in the field, finding 133 organisations around the world that undertake research and advocacy with the objective to somehow shape education policy.[3] Based on information provided on their websites, education think tanks were classified according to geographic region and organizational type (independent, associated with a government, university-affiliated, or for profit businesses).[4]









The modern education think tank is rather concentrated geographically – a notable 39% of all education-related think tank work is being done in one country: the United States. The finding is consistent with the view that think tanks are essentially a post-1945 American phenomenon.[5]

Moreover, 71% are self-reported as “independent” organisations, with 16% operating as research institutes at universities, and only 9% associated with a national government. Again we see parallels with the general trend: the majority of policy research and advocacy conducted by think tanks is done by private and independent organisations.









While organisational autonomy is good for producing good research, it does not guarantee it. In fact, quite the opposite can also be true, as a lack of oversight and peer scrutiny can result in biased work that might advocate for special interests. Some have even directly critiqued the “scientific” basis of the research produced by education-orientated think tanks as nothing more than work that is “slickly produced yet ideologically driven”.[6]

Hence the emerging problem: an increasing reliance on think tanks to inform education policies without assurances that their work is sound and unbiased. With the global spread of think tanks likely to continue, the question then becomes how to keep think tanks accountable?

Out of that concern, the aptly named Think Twice Think Tank Review Project – based out of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado – has been providing expert third-party reviews of selected think tank publications since 2006. This year alone the project has conducted seven reviews of education-based reports by major think tanks like the Manhattan Institute, RAND, and Centre for American Progress.[7] In each case, reviewers found either methodological issues or unfounded conclusions based on the evidence presented.

As sources of some of our fundamental public policies, think tanks play a growing role in today’s market for ideas. In that context, it’s all the more important to be aware from where our policy ideas come before we consume them. We like knowing where our fruits and vegetables come from, and whether they’ve been sprayed with chemicals. Why should we be less interested if our education policies are “Made at the Cato Institute” or if they’ve been sprayed over by a slick advocacy campaign?

It’s important to place think tanks on the education scene and recognize their potential to impact policy. The next step is a more difficult one, determining to what extent their work is actually related to specific education policy outcomes.

[1] Medvetz, T. (2012). Think Tanks in America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[2] Pautz, H. (2011). Revisiting the think-tank phenomenon, Public Policy and Administration, 26(4), 423.

[3] NORRAG is not claiming that this is a definitive list, and some think-tanks will have been missed (if that’s your organisation, please get in touch !). As a point of reference, one of the most referenced projects on think tanks lists only 65 education think tanks in their latest report.

[4] The next phase of NORRAG’s review of international education think tanks will explore the ideological slant of think tanks and attempt to measure their influence on policy outcomes.

[5] Gray, C.S. (1977). ‘Think Tanks’ and Public Policy, International Journal, 33(1), 179,190.

[6] Welner, K.G. & Molnar, A. (2007). Truthiness in Education, Education Week, February 28, 2007.

[7] The Project’s reviews can be found at:

Velibor Jakovleski is a Programme Officer for the Programme for the Study of International Governance at the Graduate Institute in Geneva, Switzerland. He is also a Research & Project Officer for NORRAG. Email:

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NORRAG (Network for International Policies and Cooperation in Education and Training) is an internationally recognised, multi-stakeholder network which has been seeking to inform, challenge and influence international education and training policies and cooperation for almost 30 years. NORRAG has more than 4,500 registered members worldwide and is free to join. Not a member? Join free here.

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