How do we know we’re learning?

“We will live or die by our critical reflection and ability to internalize learning”, said Darren Saywell, Wash Director, Plan International, in a recent online Q&A on sanitation. That “there is an over-emphasis on Knowledge products and outputs and not enough emphasis on the reflection and learning processes that produce sustainable change within projects and organisations” is something we’ve long argued.And in the KM work we’re doing with a large sanitation program, we explicitly built in activities that foster a self-consciousness about learning, believing that in this way the process of learning is enriched and has a better chance of becoming embedded in how people work and interact (and thereby increasing the likelihood of sustainable change). But it’s precisely this kind of critical reflection that is so often squeezed out of operationally demanding jobs. One programme grantee illustrated the point by recounting how he’d hardly noticed an important innovation when it passed by in an email. It took a visit to the site in question to engage his attention and jog his memory about the email.

We’ve engaged the inimitable Nancy White to work with us on this Learning about Learning process. While talking about preparations for the recent annual convening of programme grantees Nancy suggested we, the organisers, be, “on the watch for those moments when reflection and learning is visible and to note when it’s happening, in what context, why and as part of what process” suggesting that, “understanding these things may help us better architect time/space/structure for learning”.

Learning Leaders

The portfolio manager, Jan Willem Rosenboom, rose to the challenge wonderfully, agreeing to lead group conversations and reflections about learning. Senior staff agreeing to lead and model the process is all too rare, and his stepping forward set the tone for the event. Jan Willem introduced an intriguing approach to the process, known as art-form conversations[1], developed by Brian Stanfield of the Institute of Cultural Affairs (ICA), with whom he’d worked in Kenya and Europe.

At the end of Day One Jan Willem held up one of the flowers sitting in the middle of the tables in the room and asked people to contemplate it, describe what they saw – list its’ attributes. You can imagine the looks in the room, but people began contributing. We were then asked to think of how it related to other flowers that we’d seen, compare it. The group (nearly 50 people) was getting restive, a bit ribald, but answers kept coming. Next, what name would we give it: guffaws and some gently mocking answers, including the ‘Rosenbloom’. And finally a question about what difference this might make to our how we use flowers in the future, at events or at home. There was less reaction, people were acknowledging the process underway, which was reinforced in the next question, “so what did you learn from that process?”

The group had been taken through an aid to reflection, developed by Stanfield, summarised below

OBJECTIVE
Facts
e.g. What can you see?
REFLECTIVE
Reaction
e.g. Where have you seen something like this before?
INTERPRETIVE
Implications
e.g. What does this mean to you?
DECISIONAL
Actions
e.g. How might this principle be used?

The process was instructive in itself but, more importantly, triggered a reflective conversation about learning, with participants noting things like the fact that knowledge is contextual, that our previous experience defines what we see, that we all have different reactions to the same thing, and so on. Jan Willem closed with a request for participants to reflect on their learning on that first day, first alone, maybe noting some things down, and then chat to another. The whole process worked well with the group, people were quiet and reflective by the end of the session.

And once the tone was set the process continued throughout the workshop. The second day was taken up with field visits, which were discussed in a feedback session at the beginning of Day Three. At the end of that session, just before coffee, Jan Willem asked people:

  • Give me a word, or phrase that you remember from presentations?
  • What surprised you?
  • What would you like to learn more about?
  • What are we learning?
  • Where do you see that can influence your work back home?

Again, the simple process encouraged people to reflect on both the activity and on their own learning processes, which triggered the reflection from one participant that it is very “difficult to be influenced outside our expectations and learning frameworks”.

Small reminders continued: one lunchtime there was encouragement to think about a question that was triggered in the sessions and to share them with one or more people. Another lunchtime participants were encouraged to think about whom in particular would be a good person to have a conversation about the issues of the day.

And what difference did it make?

The workshop was designed to maximise opportunities for exchange, conversation, discussion, story-telling. Overall feedback has been very positive, people appreciating the opportunities to dig deeper into issues, share experience, exchange ideas and build relationships. And while we don’t have objective evidence – it’s not something that would come out from an evaluation survey – my own experience of facilitating and participating was that there was a richness of texture to the exchanges, a greater criss-crossing of exchange than in many workshops. And the high profile leadership meant that learning about learning was explicitly on the agenda, an issue that we’ll follow up in other blogs.

[1] There is a nice description of its genesis in the book “The art of focused conversation: 100 ways to access group wisdom in the workplace” by Brian Stanfield . Googlebooks has the relevant excerpt. 
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