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Learning to learn

Published on: 12/12/2012

Learning is critical to development, so development practitioners need to reflect on how to nurture learning processes.

Adult learning is about connecting with people who help put information in context and suggest new ways of understanding or applying it.

To make a positive and lasting change learning processes should not only bring together a wide range of people to identify and share lessons, but also encourage critical analysis and strengthen the adaptive capacities of those involved.

Learning for adults is less about taking in new information than it is about connecting with people who help put that information in context and suggest new ways of understanding or applying it. But, to allow this to happen requires dialogue and skilled facilitation.

This means we need to understand how the sector works in a given country and how people learn already (both formally and informally). And, it is equally important, that we are aware of the hidden power dynamics between groups and individuals, and the perceptions and incentives that could catalyse or inhibit learning and change. This awareness will help us find ways to facilitate interaction and ongoing learning processes that suit the given context and individuals involved.

In a previous post, I mentioned that IRC dedicated time for an exchange of views about what 'learning' and 'adaptive management' mean and our role in facilitating such processes. I wrote that we need to understand and articulate the value of learning and adaptive management for improving sector performance, while also providing practical support to sector professionals so that they can continuously learn, and create a positive change.

There is no one-size-fits-all learning process, but there are some generic lessons that we have learned about how to facilitate learning and adaptive management:

Watch your words

In some countries the word 'learning' is associated with school, even kindergarten. This sensitive issue can mean that our efforts are not successful. The same applies for a concept like 'learning alliance': in some countries a 'sector leadership group' would be seen as a more serious (ie acceptable) body and would be more likely to generate commitment among sector professionals.

Whatever name the learning process or platforms go by, what is important is that we keep in mind the end goal of learning: to solve problems and improve our performance. Learning should not be viewed as an add on, but recognised as something that is central to delivering water and sanitation services that 'people want and that can be maintained. 

Start from existing capacity

Build on existing platforms, processes and forces for change in the sector. Being a change facilitator is not the same as starting up a new platform, facilitating a single workshop or introducing a predefined framework. To be effective we need to identify and work with others to define the direction and steps toward a culture of learning and adaptive management.

Beware of enabling factors and constraints to learning

In a given context there are incentives or disincentives to share and learn, and often constraints to put those lessons into practice. We need to understand the hidden dynamics, power and emotions at play and what triggers the commitment to learning. Different countries may have different learning cultures, organizational and personal dynamics will profoundly affect the learning processes. Understanding how the sector operates is a first step in effectively promoting and supporting learning.

'Social learning': a collaborative learning process

For learning facilitators, there are two further considerations :

Who leads?

National level leadership is important for catalysing and supporting adaptive management based on learning. IRC wants to co-create new knowledge (for example in projects like WASHCost, Triple-S and WASHTech), but also facilitate learning processes. It's important that development concepts are adapted to the local context and taken forward by local actors.

External agents like IRC work in support of others: in other words if we want learning and adaptive management to become embedded in sector policies and practice, we need to support local change makers who can make that happen, instead of relying on short term 'learning' projects. Such change processes take longer, but are likely to be more sustainable.

Who's in/who's out?

The sector consists of many individuals and stakeholder groups at different institutional levels. In order to be effective facilitators of learning and change, we need to map the sector and existing learning processes or mechanisms of information sharing. In order to achieve positive and sustainable change our learning processes are participatory and seek to address power inequalities.

When civil society really engage with civil servants and consumers, when researchers, entrepreneurs and politicians reflect on plans, problems and lessons, potential solutions can emerge. At present, sector platforms usually do not systematically focus on learning and change or do not bring together all the people concerned. To achieve change, it is important that learning processes build on monitoring data and systematically (and honestly) evaluate failure and success.

Facilitating learning and change is about designing good learning processes, but also about creating safe learning environments. This can open the space for critical questions and constructive conversations. We need to bridge the divides between different individuals and the groups or institutions they represent.'Learning' is a slippery container term, so to make learning processes effective it is important to ask: learning for what and for whom?

As change facilitators, we need to keep learning too! This quote from The Communication for Social Change Consortium sums it up for me: "Learning to change involves learning from change.Learning from change involves changing who learns1."

1Source: Measuring Change: A guide to participatory monitoring and evaluation of communication for social change. The Communication For Social Change Consortium, Byrne, A. Gray-Felder,D., Hunt, J and Parks, W. (eds). 2005


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