What works for successful learning processes?

Published on 6 September 2021

Paul Knipe

Director of Consultancy, Impact and Influence

The UK Aid sector has faced unprecedented challenges over the last 18 months due to the global Covid-19 pandemic, reduction in funding, and shake up of the politics and policy driving development.

Constant throughout all the debates and changes has been the importance of quality evidence and learning to enhance development impact. But how can this take place in an organisation such as the UK Government Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO)? Put simply, what works?

This is the fifth blog in a series that examines how an organisation like the FCDO can successfully use evidence and learning to increase development impact, drawing on the experience of the IDS-led Knowledge, Evidence and Learning for Development programme (K4D).

Other blogs in this series:

Ten steps towards rewarding learning experiences

K4D runs facilitated learning processes that can take place over weeks or months. We are learning how to work effectively with FCDO and believe that our learning is relevant to other organisations across the development sector. Here are ten steps that can lead to successful, rewarding learning experiences:

  1. Agree the broad learning need and leadership

A facilitated, long-term learning process – or a ‘learning journey’ as we call them – is a good way to raise awareness and understanding of complex, emerging development challenges, and how best to respond to them. The need may arise to support new strategic priorities, interdisciplinary challenges at regional level, or in response to recommendations arising from discussion and evidence. This process can be quite an undertaking, lasting 6-12 months or more. When the broad need has been agreed, a day-to-day lead from the organisation with senior level backing is crucial to champion and drive the journey forward. A weekly or fortnightly meeting among the core team guiding the process, ensures effective leadership and delivery.

  1. Take time to design the detail together

A range of perspectives should feed into the learning design given the complex, emerging and interdisciplinary topics explored. This process is itself a learning activity that can take time, sometimes months, to define the learning outcomes and approach. A theory of change (ToC) can frame and guide the learning approach: what are the objectives? Who are the key audiences? What are the impact pathways and assumptions? For example, the Inclusion in Crises Learning Journey held two workshops to define its ToC, supported by a report from the K4D Helpdesk to give a synthesis of evidence on the topic.

  1. Clarify participation levels and roles

Defining audiences and their levels of engagement aids the design and pitch of activities. The Prosperity Fund Covid-19 Learning and Evidence Initiative had three levels of participation:

  • Primary: Participation in learning design, involvement all activities, with learning/strategy work in between sessions, perhaps a few days per month over a set time period
  • Secondary:Participation in a series of activities, with individual learning encouraged in between, perhaps a day per month
  • Tertiary: Occasional participation in a seminar and engagement with learning resources, perhaps a few hours per month.
  1. Build an impartial evidence base 

Provide an impartial synthesis (such as our Helpdesk reports) of evidence from a range of sources on the subject, often illustrated with examples, which can be a valuable way to enhance learning and application. These can provide the initial evidence base at the start of the learning journey, or be commissioned to address evidence gaps as the process unfolds.

  1. Factor plenty of space to engage

Space to discuss, reflect and engage is crucial. By chiseling out space in busy schedules, staff have the time to focus, learn and explore complex development challenges, such as how to scale up social norm change, the longer-term implications of changing food systems, or drivers of political violence and implications for security and justice programming.

  1. Bring together different perspectives 

Learning activities should bring together colleagues from across disciplines, government departments, and development partners, who may not otherwise have the time or opportunity to cross paths. Different perspectives can enhance the experience and support application, as shown, for example, by a series of DFID multi-cadre conferences on ‘leaving no one behind’. Interdisciplinary learning is among the most valuable and rewarding aspects of learning activity.

  1. A range of learning activities can work

Various learning activities, modes or approaches can be successful, depending on the need, audiences, and outcomes. Accessible, engaging spaces that incorporate multiple perspectives is the thread running through them. Since the onset of Covid-19, virtual learning has become another constant, increasing participation across disciplines and geographies by using Microsoft Teams and online facilitation apps like Mural. Other approaches include:

  • Peer to peer learning: sharing real life examples and their challenges, opportunities and solutions has proved valuable. Most learning journeys now incorporate case studies from peers that help practitioners with their own learning application.
  • Communities of practice: the Water Securityand Security and Access to Justice learning journeys have worked with existing communities of practice across government, building on the different perspectives and shared interest, to shape and deliver learning agendas. This can give communities stronger mandates, ownership, and a role in championing learning.
  • Action learning sets:the Education in Fragile and Conflict-Affected Situations (FCAS) learning journey paired advisors with different backgrounds across different country offices, to work through specific problems and learning from each other’s experiences.
  • Modular ‘short courses’:a series of modules is a good way to introduce a broader topic and to explore some of the core themes within. The Health Systems Strengthening learning journey ran seven modules exploring the topic supported by a range of multimedia resources.
  • Ad hoc learning events:informal ‘brown bag’ lunch seminars and webinars tied to a specific product have proved popular and are also quick to organise.
  1. Involve external experts 

Participants value input from external experts, providing independent analysis, thought leadership, scrutiny and challenge. They bring perspectives from a range of contexts and can enhance the learning experience. Their role can vary from one-off presentations to longer-term thematic input and guidance around application of learning. The Tax and Gender learning journey involved keynote presentations from experts in the Global South along with longer-term input from a senior fellow at IDS linked to the International Centre for Tax and Development.

  1. Provide concise, clear resources to support uptake

A range of different resources can enhance uptake. Talking heads videos, opinion pieces, resource guides, and reading packs with infographics are proving popular. Resources introducing topics and practical application in multimedia formats have high engagement rates, such as these on Water Security and the Introduction to Humanitarian Action multimedia resource pack. Concise, clear products are especially valued. Weekly evidence summaries on topical subjects such as the health impacts of Covid-19, have high engagement levels and are contributing to development policy and programming.

  1. Learn from the process, capture impact and enhance institutional memory

After Action Reviews, impact stories, and monitoring and evaluation performance data is capturing impact and feeding back into the learning process. Evidence is emerging of K4D’s contribution to development impact, by feeding into policy and programming. We know that K4D learning journeys are feeding into complex, multi-stakeholder strategies for MENA and Africa country-based programming, thematic policy such as on Tax and Gender, and work with international partners such as the World Bank. As signaled by the Independent Commission for Aid Impact, it is essential that internal systems and repositories are in place and accessible for continued learning and stronger institutional memory.

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