The role of think tanks in education
“Education is an important and lasting way in which university-affiliated think tanks can impact the world”
By connecting the worlds of the practitioner and the scholar, says Aaron McKeil of LSE IDEAS, think tanks – university-affiliated think tanks especially – act as conduits between the two.
They strive to convey concepts and ideas from academia to practice and to bring experience and insider knowledge from practice to academia. Research and working groups are some of the most common mediums for this activity, but education has an important function and role too.
Think tanks, especially university-affiliated think tanks, can provide education by conveying academic knowledge to practitioners, at various levels. They can also provide education by connecting students to the distinct type of expertise that professional practitioners can provide.
Combining both, however, is perhaps the special role that university-affiliated think tanks might provide. This is to say that university-affiliated think tanks are specially positioned for conducting a style of education that has a good balance of both, what we might call a balanced combination of “practical” and “intellectual” learning.
By practical learning, I mean “how-to” learning, where students benefit especially from the practitioner-led teaching that conveys experience about how to perform and conduct certain activities in practice, be it negotiation or strategic planning, for example.
By intellectual learning, I mean developing an ability to formulate and answer deeper questions about “how come”. This is academic learning that scholars provide insight into, through their conceptually refined and evidence-based answers about why activities in practice tend to have certain outcomes and patterns.
Education that teaches students “how to” whilst also training them to understand and explain “how come” is on the whole more substantial than education with purely one or the other. The challenge is combining these types of learning into a working whole. University-affiliated think tanks, however, are particularly well-positioned to invite and connect practitioners and academia in the classroom.
On the LSE Executive MSc International Strategy and Diplomacy programme, for instance, we provide a unique education for mid-career professionals combining both practical and intellectual learning. Developed for decision-makers, this programme is designed to enhance strategic thinking and diplomatic negotiation skills.
“Education that teaches students “how to” whilst also training them to understand and explain “how come” is on the whole more substantial than education with purely one or the other”
While students acquire the analytical tools to understand and explain a changing world, students also receive exposure and close guidance from practitioners, serving and retired, on how to operate within it, in practice.
Moreover, as an executive programme for working professionals across public and private sectors, students themselves bring and share their experience in the classroom.
Take, for instance, one of the programme’s graduates, Karen Pierce, Permanent Representative of the United Kingdom to the United Nations and incoming UK Ambassador to Washington. In her experience, she said, ‘Right from the first week I was able to apply the lessons I had learnt to our operational and policy work and to coach my teams to look at issues differently.’
With a growing and global alumni network across public and private sectors, this programme has been one of the most significant ways in which LSE IDEAS (recently ranked the number one university-affiliated think tank in the world) has contributed to connecting the world of practice and academia, through education.
Education is an important and lasting way in which university-affiliated think tanks can impact the world. Students at various levels of education take their learning into practice and make use of the concepts and skills they have acquired as they shape practice and contribute to policymaking.
Their “how come” understanding of the world shapes how they identify strategic challenges and formulate their strategic policies. At the same time, however, their “how-to” learning gets put to use in bringing their strategies to colleagues and putting their strategies to the test of practice.
University programmes excel in offering professional pedagogy of the academic skills and intellectual types of learning. Think tanks, connected to the policy world, have the opportunity to tap into professional practitioner networks. University-affiliated think tanks, however, are perhaps especially well-positioned to provide a combination of the two.
About the author: Dr. Aaron McKeil is Course Tutor on the LSE Executive MSc International Strategy and Diplomacy Programme.