Embracing Uncertainty, Diversity and Othering for Learning

For a little over 2 years I’ve been supporting an internal learning program for my colleague Pete Cranston of Euforic Services. As we wrap up this project on “Learning about learning” in an international development context, Pete and I have debriefed and he is writing a series of comprehensive blog posts on our reflections. I want to pick up on one particular aspect of our conversation that struck me through the work, and which has also come up in a number of other contexts: the role of others in our learning. How does otherness help us learn? (Dr Zuleyka Zevallos, thanks for your great resource site on otherness!)

What we observed

Instead of starting with defining otherness, I want to share my experience. One important way to learn is with and from others. This is particularly relevant in workplace learning. In international development, regardless of the domain (agriculture, health, water/sanitation/hygiene, etc.) each investment of money, time and practice holds the potential for useful learning – useful to those implementing the work themselves, and to others interested in the same work. Often these lessons get stuck locally, or even remain invisible or unconscious because they don’t get a chance to be examined by ourselves or others. It is no surprise that many find a stark lack of reflection time, alone or with others. We learn through reflection, conversation, and the modeling and mentorship of others.

Our hypothesis in the learning to learn project (LAL for the acronym lovers out there) was that simply by creating more space and opportunity for conversational interaction between project staff, new insights would emerge and existing insights would gain wider visibility and application. We had a particular emphasis on conversational practice, both face to face and online. Learning with and from each other. While there was no explicit intention for mentorship, that possibility was always open.

Through the process, we noted the following three things that made a difference in conversational learning:

  1. Come out as a learner. Declare our intention and orientation towards learning by how we prioritize time and how we practice as learners. This includes being open about not knowing, willing to take learning risks (what, you don’t KNOW the answer!!!) and practice the art of asking questions and LISTENING to answers.
  2. Recognize what we are doing is reflective practice. We call it M&E (monitoring and evaluation), reviews, and all those business process words. It is more fundamental: Stop. Think. What did we actually learn? What do we know more about now? What new questions does that uncover? Unless we are intentional about our reflective practice, the learning drips by. Another way to view this is the idea of  catching ourselves learning. Simply noticing triggers the potential and recognition of learning.
  3. Create space and leadership for learning.  We can think about making it happens as about space. Or spaces. The fastest, but perhaps least rich is surveys. The shrink the time commitment and we know time is the biggest impediment. But what about actually making spaces for reflection? Can we commit 10 minutes in a weekly meeting? Something once a month? An annual learning review? We need to PUT that stuff in, notice when and how it becomes intentional. We must lead with it from from top by role modeling and recognizing reflection as a valid, yes, IMPORTANT use of our time. Yes, stuff t happens without leaders, but leaders make it happen better by lending legitimacy. We must lead from every direction and in every corner. Reflection and learning can be recognized by donors. Without being too literal, what about 10% for M&E, 10% for communications, and 10% for learning. That leaves 70% for the DOING and probably will increase the effectiveness and value of that doing.Don’t get me wrong. Learning is also random, chaotic, free flowing, emergent, and what we learn may often be different than what we set out to learn. The LAL project included very basic funded Learning Exchange Visits where grantees visited each others projects and went into the field. They had real time with each other and stuff just happened. The immersion triggers experiences and memories that take you conceptually to a new point. They can suggest new practices, behaviors and even ways of monitoring and evaluation. In the pursuit of learning with an open agenda, we embrace uncertainty and find new learning entry points.

Adam Frank writes about the Liberating Embrace of Uncertainty, which resonates with these three things Pete and I observed:

For science, embracing uncertainty means more than claiming “we don’t know now, but we will know in the future”. It means embracing the fuzzy boundaries of the very process of asking questions. It means embracing the frontiers of what explanations, for all their power, can do. It means understanding that a life of deepest inquiry requires all kinds of vehicles: from poetry to particle accelerators; from quiet reveries to abstract analysis.

So what about otherness?

When we discussed #3, I asked Pete, what did we notice about the culture of the organizations and individuals involved? We talked about the huge value of the leader’s openness, despite a position of positional and resource power (the funder!) We talked about the diversity of project staff – geographically, organizationally, amount of experience (age), etc. Then I was reminded about a question Bron Stuckey had recently asked on Facebook :

I am wondering how you would respond to the proposition “The best person to influence the practice of a novice is someone who was most recently a novice themselves” It’s some research bubbling up for which I have a real passion. I do have to admit it is more driven by intuition and first hand experience than a body of literature or prior research 🙂 Just wondering what my respected colleagues think of this proposition. Does it fit with your research, experience and vision?

The discussion that followed Bron’s question was diverse and fascinating. I’m sharing the thread,  Bron Stuckey Learning With Others with her permission. Through it came the thread that learning happens in a (diverse) ecosystem of people, contexts and content and that who we learn with influences our learning.

The other we know and who knows us: Sometimes we learn best from people who’s experience is close to or just advanced of ours. It is a place of relative comfort.

The other we respect (and/or fear): Sometimes we learn from people with influence and power because that causes us to pay attention. Sometimes we learn from the deep experience of a expert or long-time practitioner.

The other we aren’t so sure about: Sometimes we learn from people who are different from us, hold different opinions and experiences because that asks us to examine our own understandings, biases and assumptions. This is a powerful but often more challenging set of others when we can step across mistrust and even animosity and step curiously into learning from someone who really is the “other” from us.

How otherness feeds into #1, #2, and #1

Coming out as a learner means we have to trust ourselves, regardless of the “others” we engage with. So part of our identity has to be “learner.” Reflective practice asks us to question our own assumptions, not just those of the “others.” And creating space for learning asks us to invite in the “others.” So for me, the bottom line is a strong look inward into identity, reflection and invitation. This requires us to stop our often unwitting exclusion of others, of not inviting, not listening and not engaging. Thus the opening picture. I bet you wondered why I picked it, right?

Stuff that Inspired this Post:

Symmathesy = Learning together.(Pronounced: sym- math-a-see) A working definition of symmathesy might look like this:Symmathesy (Noun): An entity composed by contextual mutual learning through interaction. This process of interaction and mutual learning takes place in living entities at larger or smaller scales of symmathesy.Symmathesy (Verb): to interact within multiple variables to produce a mutual learning context….

The way in which we have culturally been trained to explain and study our world is laced with habits of thinking in terms of parts and wholes and the way they “work” together. The connotations of this systemic functional arrangement are mechanistic; which does not lend itself to an understanding of the messy contextual and mutual learning/evolution of the living world.

Reductionism lurks around every corner; mocking the complexity of the living world we are part of. It is not easy to maintain a discourse in which the topic of study is both in detail, and in context. The tendency is to draw categories, and to assign correlations between them. But an assigned correlation between a handful of “disciplinary” perspectives, as we often see—does not adequately represent the diversity of the learning fields within the context (s). The language of systems is built around describing chains of interaction. But when we consider a forest, a marriage, and a family, we can see that living entities such as these require another conceptual addition in their description: learning.


P.S. Added on Friday – Catherine mentioned an image in her comment below. Here is the image!


So You Want to Host a Web Meeting? A Resource

webconferencingA long time ago in a planet far far away, a group of people asked if I could share some of my web meeting tips. I have a lot of tips, most of them learned from many many colleagues from all over, both from watching the masters work and from resources they have created. Finally, I got around to starting the project. It was supposed to be a “tip sheet” of 1 page, both sides. hahahahahaha…

Because I love my smart friends like Pete Cranston (the instigator, I might add) http://uk.linkedin.com/in/petercranston, Susan Stewart http://guidedmeetings.com/ and Bonnie Koenig http://www.goinginternational.com/about/, I started a google doc. They added ideas, and I started writing.  You can see the genesis here.

Many pages later we have  So Yo Want to Host a Web Meeting? I hope you find it useful, and as always, I welcome comments, suggestions for improvements, additional resources, and catching me if I did not attribute properly. The latter was very difficult because so much of this has been learned along the way and ingrained into my practice. The challenges of standing on so many shoulders!!

Edit: 2/17/16 A great pre-webinar activity for when people are logged on and waiting for the meeting to begin from Rachel Smith at The Grovehttp://www.grove.com/pdfs/Do-Nows.pdf 

Pete Kaminski: Tools as Substrates for Community

codrawing3A while ago, my friend Peter Kaminski wrote something that was so terrific, I said “May I blog that?” He said yes. So it is about time I share this (emphasis mine):

I just wrote elsewhere: “The trick with wikis is to think of them as a substrate for community, and to work on the community, not the wiki. A wiki is like a table in a meeting room. It doesn’t create the meeting, or the discussion, but does enable it and create a place to spread out, organize, and retrieve information.

The other thing is that most people aren’t good at using wikis; you need 5-10% of the participants to be “wiki gardeners,” specifically tasked (and constitutionally able) to keep the table somewhere in the middle between sterile and a terrible mess.”

And, “Remember not to fetishize the tools; rather, use them as part of enabling people to work better together.”

There is so much goodness packed into those words. I might add “remember, not to fetishize community!” 🙂 And a great reminder as we gear up the online part of the UDGAgora project and Project Community. (I’m going to share this post over at our Project Community faculty blog as well!)

Thanks, Pete!

Biscuits and Being Better Together

biscuittweetAll it takes is a tweet about grating frozen butter to make better biscuits to get me to click into a web page. And when I arrive, I find this most wonderful quote that can certainly apply to far more than biscuits. (Emphasis mine)

Sitting down to a plate of towering warm biscuits, with butter, sorghum and orange-blossom honey, we get philosophical on details, like placing biscuits so they’re touching.“When you’re touching, you lift each other up and you rise higher,”

Duvick agrees. But if they rise too high and slump over, they still taste good.

via What’s the secret to really tall biscuits? | CharlotteObserver.com.

Elinor Ostrom’s 8 Principles for Managing A Commmons – Words to Live By

The work of Elinor Ostrom comes up again and again as I engage with people from different parts of my diverse network. This is always an indicator to PAY ATTENTION. Here is a brief summary of Ostrom’s * Principles for Managing a Commons via “On the Commons.” This has been in my draft file for too long, so I’m getting it OUT!

A classic example of this was her field research in a Swiss village where farmers tend private plots for crops but share a communal meadow to graze their cows. While this would appear a perfect model to prove the tragedy-of-the-commons theory, Ostrom discovered that in reality there were no problems with overgrazing. That is because of a common agreement among villagers that one is allowed to graze more cows on the meadow than they can care for over the winter—a rule that dates back to 1517. Ostrom has documented similar effective examples of “governing the commons” in her research in Kenya, Guatemala, Nepal, Turkey, and Los Angeles.

Based on her extensive work, Ostrom offers 8 principles for how commons can be governed sustainably and equitably in a community.

8 Principles for Managing a Commons

  1. Define clear group boundaries.
  2. Match rules governing use of common goods to local needs and conditions.
  3. Ensure that those affected by the rules can participate in modifying the rules.
  4. Make sure the rule-making rights of community members are respected by outside authorities.
  5. Develop a system, carried out by community members, for monitoring members’ behavior.
  6. Use graduated sanctions for rule violators.
  7. Provide accessible, low-cost means for dispute resolution.
  8. Build responsibility for governing the common resource in nested tiers from the lowest level up to the entire interconnected system.

As I prepare to facilitate a research scientists team retreat with communications and teamwork on the agenda, I am refreshing myself with some foundational ideas and thinking. Anything else I should be looking at or revisiting?

via Elinor Ostrom’s 8 Principles for Managing A Commmons | On the Commons.