Reflections on learning and reflection


July 11th, 2013

Johnnie and I have just completed a week’s training on learning and reflection in Malawi, Africa, with 35 people from a humanitarian organisation. Bob Dick, a friend and mentor, once said “The best time to plan something is after you have done it, because then you understand it.” Too right!

To say we take an unconventional approach to training is probably an understatement. Preparing an agenda for a whole week’s worth of training is an exercise in plotting potential topics and activities. It has little to do with the reality of having people in the room and responding to their needs in real time. While we were clear about the experience we wanted people to have, and some of the content, and what we hoped they would learn, the order in which that would happen was dependent on many factors: people’s interests and enthusiasm, their questions, how well they could understand us (always a factor when English is a second or third language for most participants) and what we learned during the process ourselves. We wanted to model being flexible and adaptable – something it’s hard to do if tied strictly to a pre-prepared agenda.

It was interesting to hear some of the participants in feedback later in the week say that when they entered the room for the training on the first morning they thought they were in the wrong place: no tables, no screen and data projector, no bulky manuals.

On reflection, it was probably quite a shock to the participants to be thrown in the deep end of our style of training. No wonder there were a few grumbles about “where’s the training manual?” As with an agenda, I prefer to develop the training manual as we go, reflecting what we actually did, and adding additional information and further reading. I have a hunch that people are more interested in content and theory after an experience. I also have a hunch that receiving a report/manual a few days after a training has finished allows the brain to subconsciously process the information and experience.

Of course, I could be wrong about all of this, in which case there are plenty of people who provide conventional training. If however, you want to break down some of those conventions, disrupt patterns and habits, and learn by doing rather than listening to presentations, then our approach might just be the ticket.

It will come as no surprise to hear that we use improvisational theatre techniques and principles in our work. The principles in particular, such as Letting Go and Accepting Offers can be quite abstract unless they are explored in an active way. We use games to provide a way to illustrate these principles. In this case we used Bunny Bunny and Paired Drawing. Letting Go and Accepting Offers are not easy to grasp, yet it is possible, through playing these games and activities, to explore what they feel like in a safe and supported way.

It became clear to us that learning is often a social activity. When immersed in a complex training experience, not everyone can remember everything, so group reflection is a good way of reinforcing learning. Conversation is also at the heart of learning, and opportunities to be in conversation with others were repeated throughout the training.

Other key principles we introduced to people in this training were turn-taking, asking curiosity-motivated questions, avoiding solutions and advice, and empathy. It is SO easy to jump to conclusions when in a group, to tell people what they should do, offer advice and walk away feeling as though we have made a difference. In many cases we haven’t. We haven’t listened, we haven’t felt compassion and empathy for the person’s situation, and our advice, no matter how well-intentioned will go unheeded, because it’s ours, not theirs.

We believe iterative processes are at the heart of learning. By returning again and again, through different games and activities, to these core principles we hoped to embed these in people’s minds and bodies (so as they knew what they felt like as well as understanding them in their heads).

It is easy to fall into patterns and habits and to continue to do what we have always done because ‘that’s the way we do things around here’. Change and innovation require a different mindset, to see what we always see, but to think differently.

The philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer, said: The task is not so much to see what no one yet has seen, but to think what no body yet has thought about that which everyone sees.”

Learning, change, and innovation require courage and vulnerability. The courage to try something different or new in the face of expectations to do things the way they have always been done, and vulnerability to admit that you don’t know what might work until it has been tried. With these activities we put ourselves out there as role models of courage and vulnerability to explore new ways of coming to an understanding of our own, and the organisation’s challenges, with learning and reflection.

A lot of new ideas and ways of being in groups had been explored during the week. Some participants struggled with the nature of the training that reflected the way learning happens in practice, compared to the standard approach to providing training (one that we would argue leads to little or no learning and change). Only time will tell what real impact we’ve had. In the meantime, it’s pretty fair to say we learnt a lot. Our challenge is to continue to push the boundaries – our own and of others’  - and not to fall into our own trap and fail to break our own habits.

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