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Learning is engagement

Compelling discussion, commentary, stories on agriculture within thriving ecosystems.

How do we learn? According to psychologist David Kolb, through experience. Kolb is the founder of the experiential theory of learning which says learning is, "the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience [and] results from the combination of grasping and transforming experience."

Learning through engagement.  Photo: Swathi Sridharan on Flickr Learning through engagement. Photo: Swathi Sridharan on Flickr

How many of us truly love “grasping and transforming experience”?

For researchers trying to get from outputs to outcomes, one way to grasp experience is set up an ‘engagement platform’. In general terms, an engagement platform is an opportunity for individuals and people representing organizations with different backgrounds and interests to come together to diagnose problems, identify opportunities and implement solutions.  We say ‘opportunity’ because an engagement platform is not a committee and you can never be sure what’s going to emerge from the grasping and transforming.

Over the past ten years, the CGIAR Challenge Program on Water and Food (CPWF) has used engagement platforms across a wide range of scales to address an equally wide range of challenges.  We recently prepared a brief note on CPWF experiences for Africa Agriculture Science Week titled “Seven ways to catalyze African innovation through engagement platforms.” The brief outlines some basic principles for those interested in going down this path followed by several examples from the field.

From what I have seen first-hand, researchers who successfully leverage engagement platforms have several characteristics in common. First and foremost, they are as much or more interested in doing research that results in real outcomes as they are in publication. They are open-minded and adaptable. They know their own limitations and they understand that “policy making” is a social process and that research results are not often a major factor influencing that process. They see research itself as a social process in which trust and relationships are as important as the research outputs.

It’s not all about researchers

Researchers and their work are only part of the story, something those trained up in a classic research tradition can find difficult to come to grips with at first. The researcher is now one of several actors and not necessarily the most important. The engagement platform becomes the hub for any number of intermediary organizations, each with a vested interest in the outcomes and hence the direction of the research.

Examples of such intermediaries include Naga House in the Mekong, FANRPAN in the Limpopo and CONDESAN in the Andes.

In The New Invisible College: Science for Development, Caroline Wagner says, “Science operates at the global level as a network—an invisible college.” Wagner’s book is about extending that global network deeper into the national and local fabric.  “The forces driving the emergence of the new invisible college can be discerned and put to work to improve productivity and distribution of scientific activity.” We believe engagement platforms are one of those forces.

Be sure to join us for a special side event on engagement platforms with special guest Dr. Lindiwe Sibanda, CEO FANRPAN if you are attending AASW. The event will be held on, Thursday, 18 July 2013 from 1330-1630 in Committee Hall 2 at the Accra International Conference Centre.


I am personally convinced that IPs are one important mechanism to promote community leadership and empowerment in RWM investments. But in trying to prepare a convincing brief on the NBDC "key messages", including recommending adoption of IPs in some form, I am struck by the total lack of convincing scientific evidence. CPWF is supposed to be science-based, but unfortunately our scientists are rather slow about publishing results in refereed journals, which I think is a necessary step to maintain credibility. A skeptical policy maker will be hesitant to invest.

Doug, I wonder how much scientific evidence is necessary in this case. Perhaps all the evidence needed to convince people that IPs are useful are useful outcomes from the IP.

I guess I thought scientific credibility is important to support recommendations from CGIAR--because of the "R" part. Anyway, a good example I just came across is a systematic study of the actual outcomes of the use of "innovation funds". It is largely positive and adds a huge amount of credibility to claims this is a good idea (as the NBDC is claiming). It illustrates my point on the importance of scientific credibility.

Doug, sounds like an interesting paper. Can you send me a copy?

Nice article! Great post about Learning is engagement! You efforts putting this blog together was worth the while. Congratulations again on a good job Terry.

I do agree with learning is engagement after working with farmers since 1986 in Africa it is important farmers, private sector, government etc to be able to transfer new technologies from the recerch centres.