It’s what we think we know that keeps us from learning.Claude Bernard
Several years ago I was working with a team in the U.S. to figure out how we could improve the effectiveness of clinical practice in the children mental health system. In the early phase of this research we asked a sample of mental health professionals to rate their own effectiveness as clinicians using school grades. It may not be surprising that the average rating was A+, with A being the lowest score. This stood in direct contrast to the accumulating empirical evidence, which indicated that the typical clinical practice is not very effective in improving outcomes for children and youth. There is also little research support for the belief that more experienced clinicians produce better outcomes. A meta-analysis of child and adolescent treatment studies for depression, for example, found that professionals and graduate students produced equivalent outcomes1.
Without systematic feedback and learning, simply gaining more experience is, in most cases, not sufficient for actually improving practice. The psychological perspective confirmation bias can explain this. As humans we are prone to confirmation bias. That is, we seek out information that confirms what we already believe. If clinicians think they are A+, they will seek out information that will confirm that and often ignore contradictory information. It is difficult, however, to create change among a group of people who believe they are A+ professionals. A common barrier to learning in professional settings is the lack of time for critical reflection, an environment conducive to experimentation and innovation, and systematic feedback regarding the effectiveness of one’s work. As a consequence, most people keep practicing the same way they have for many years.
If we look at the organizational and collective level the situation is not much different. In fact, it may be even worse. While the challenges communities are facing, such as climate change and immigration, are increasingly complex, there are very few opportunities for systematically learning how to address these issues as a collective. Community organizations are pushed by funders to evaluate, innovate, and collaborate; however, they are asked to do so with no or very little additional resources or capacity building.
So the question becomes: how do we create a situation that allows a whole community to learn together how to best address key social challenges?
In response to this question, some of us at Sustainable Societies Consulting Group (SSCG) have been involved in the development of the Learning Community (LC) model. This model offers a new way of collaborating and creating collective impact that emphasizes learning, alongside collective impact, as a central strategy to addressing complex social challenges. In a LC, members value the continuous pursuit of knowledge, feedback, and experimentation as well as the flow of information and resources between academic institutions and practice groups. The value of learning is built into key structures and common processes. Ideally, funding agencies and policy-makers contribute to a learning ecosystem that provides a safe environment for innovation and experimentation. By linking learning institutions, such as universities, to community networks in a systematic and coordinated way, both will profit in a mutually beneficial way while creating meaningful social change.
The LC model is being applied in the Region of Waterloo through a partnership of the Waterloo Region Immigration Partnership (WRIP) and multiple centres/departments at Wilfrid Laurier University. The goal is to create meaningful social change in regard to immigration and social inclusion. WRIP partners contribute deep insights into service practices, service gaps and needs, information gaps and needs, and implications of current settlement policies. Laurier partners are leveraging their knowledge, expertise and resources to attend to the needs and challenges related to refugee resettlement and inclusion services identified by the WRIP. A Learning Team is tasked with synthesizing findings from across the coordinated projects and initiatives to inform practice and future actions of the LC.
Generally when we at SSCG work with organizations we emphasize the importance of learning. We do this in how we conceptualize evaluations as opportunities for organizational development and in how we work with organizations on capacity building. We also keep very close ties with the university and support professional learning programs such as the Program Evaluation as Organizational Development certificate program at the Centre for Community Research, Learning, and Action. It also mean that we devote time for critical reflection and planning for innovation.
As Mahatma Ghandi said: “Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you live forever.”
1. Michael KD, Huelsman TJ, Crowley SL. Interventions for child and adolescent depression: Do professional therapists produce better results? J Child Fam Stud. 2005;14(2):223–236.
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