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No fear to learn: A transformative approach to become a learning organization

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No fear to learn: A transformative approach to become a learning organization

Learning is central to the Global Schools Forum’s (GSF) mission and vision. As a community of organizations working to improve education outcomes at scale, GSF is always looking to strengthen the ways we generate and diffuse learning among our community. To reflect on how GSF can be a better learning organization and help its community to improve its learning processes, the GSF Team invited Donika Dimovska, Chief Knowledge Officer at Jacobs Foundation to share Jacobs Foundation’s experience of embracing and promoting learning among its partners and grantees.

When explaining the journey that Jacobs Foundation has been on, Donika proposed that a learning organization embraces learning as a process and not as an end. Learning is generated from the actions, but also from the processes and the systems the organization has in place. Crucially, it is important to build and to encourage new mental models among the organization’s team to embed learning practices into the processes and the systems. The role of the Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning (MEL) system is reinvented in this context. First, it is important to design a MEL system that is comprehensive to provide the evidence needed and, at the same time, it is simple enough to be understood and used by the team members. Second, the MEL system has to support the team members to learn from the process of learning itself. In that sense, a learning organization is an organization that learns and that is also looking for ways to learn more and better: that learns to learn!

Jacobs Foundation has defined three learning dimensions: the “why”, the “what” and the “how”. In the “why” dimension, the organization tests and validates the assumptions in its Theory of Change to promote more learning. The “what” dimension encompasses all the activities to fill the knowledge and practice gaps in its key thematic priority areas. Finally, the “how” dimension collects the learning for a better understanding of the approaches and core competences. Donika also explained that they decided to establish a partnership with an external monitoring organization to enhance their learning process by testing their assumptions on a more regular and iterative basis.

However, learning at the organization level is not always easy and organizations can be resistant to learning. Donika went on to explain one of the main barriers to learning: fear of failure. In an article she wrote on embracing intelligent failure, Donika suggested that “‘Failure’ is still rarely acknowledged, mostly because it is poorly understood, and importantly, how to learn from it effectively is still viewed by most organizations as more of an art than a science”. She argues that embracing failure as an opportunity for learning will require a “a shift in mindset that fully embeds systematic, intentional, proactive – vs ad-hoc and accidental – learning as part of its culture and even encourages intelligent failure. This requires leadership and commitment and means putting the systems and processes in place to proactively test our hypotheses, articulate our assumptions, continuously collect data, refine methods and work together with our partners and peers to iterate, learn and improve”.

Resistance to learning is not only explained by fear. In an article in the Harvard Business Review, the authors identified 3 other barriers for learning at the organizations besides the fear of failure. First, having a fixed mindset reduces learning because it forces people to focus too much on performing well. On the contrary, having a growth mindset encourages people to look for challenges and learning opportunities and to get better through effort and practice. Second, higher reliance on past performance curtails learning as it moves away from the potential and openness to learning based on curiosity, insight, engagement and determination. Finally, there is a phenomenon called attribution bias. In this phenomenon, people explain successes through hard work and failures through bad fortune. If so, then, it is impossible to identify the actions that led to failure and to learn from them.

How to overcome these barriers and to dynamize the learning process? According to Donika, there is one critical step to ignite the learning process: asking the right questions. And asking the right questions is not an easy task. For instance, in an article on the art of asking higher quality questions, the author proposed that good questions are aimed at understanding rather than at judging; moreover, they are broader in intent and invite more input. But asking the right question is an evolving process. Good questions start as simple curiosity questions that help people “to dig deeper and slow down our thinking — which, in turn, may reveal to us unknown unknowns or information we may have missed last time we explored the topic”. Asking the right questions is good for learning, but it is also good for the organizations as good questions increase the quality of decisions and foster collective intelligence.

This reflection session with Donika prompted new questions for the GSF Team, especially, as GSF is supporting organizations in their scale journey through the Impact at Scale Labs. Moving along this journey will generate new learnings along the implementation process when facing challenges due to increased reach, such as more complex logistics and management. Scaling up impactful projects and innovations will necessarily require asking the right questions that help disentangle and address those challenges. Asking the right questions will also help improve the learning process and have a better evidence base for the decision-making process along the path to scale.

The GSF team is committed to finding ways to share the learnings from the scaling journey with the wider GSF community. We hope those learning products can help other organizations to learn and to innovate. More importantly, we hope our processes and our systems can enable GSF to learn more and better to guarantee we can rapidly and flexibly respond to the challenges and the expectations of all the organizations in our community.

About Jacobs Foundation:
Established in 1989, the Jacobs Foundation strives to improve children's learning and education by promoting the generation and translation of evidence into policy and practice globally. 

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