Our models of organized learning could benefit from the disruption we’re seeing across society…if we allow it.
The conceit of traditional learning models is that past experience informs present understanding to guide current and future thought and actions. This is so taken for granted that it’s hardly challenged; it is the essence of ‘received wisdom’ and the foundation for which modern education is built upon.
The assumptions built into this model are many and, while not all are false (after all, if we couldn’t learn anything from the past we’d be constantly flailing around with every new encounter we had), some critical ones are.
Those failing assumptions are about interactions and networks and this is at the heart of social learning — which is where most of our learning about process, complexity, and our organizational systems come into play.
Learning in Complexity
Social learning is what we do when we encounter other people and their opinions, knowledge, experience, and actions and match them with ours. When it comes to working with other humans our facts only matter as much as they do to others. To illustrate, consider what ‘pandemic’ means and you can point to the textbook definition and then compare that with the understanding of a healthcare worker, a small business owner, an international student stuck in a foreign country, a person living in a supported care home…and then imagine what this term meant 6 months ago, 6 weeks ago, or 6 hours ago.
What will it mean 6 hours, days, weeks or months from now?
Every one of those individuals knows what a pandemic is from different points of view, which is how we come to understand something in a complex system. Understanding a system depends on where you sit in it.
It also depends on when you are sitting in that system. In highly complex situations, the timing and interaction effects change the nature of the relationships within that system and thus where we find ourselves. What this means is what we know and what we learn will be different from time to time and what that all means will change with it.
Evaluation as Learning
Evaluation is about understanding what is happening, to whom, and to what effect because of something (a program, service, event, or product). If we are to learn about what things mean and what impact they are having to inform learning our methods and strategies must be attuned to the systems we’re working in.
Prior to the rapidly changing, unprecedented level of global change brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic many evaluation models were content to focus on more traditional ways of working. You might undertake an evaluability assessment, design an evaluation framework and plan, develop some data gathering tools, and implement the evaluation over many weeks, months or years. The result might be some insights that inform recommendations that go into a report or presentation, which may lead to some changes (or not) and maybe even learning.
If this model might have been considered ineffective before (alas, for many it was not), it is obsolete now. We cannot learn in any meaningful way about the present situation by drawing on past experience other than to provide some form of reference point.
We cannot apply the lessons learned today to tomorrow because the river that we are standing in now is not the one we will stand in going forward. We need new, faster, more agile models of evaluation if we are to truly learn anything from what’s happening.
Evaluative Thinking: 2020
Evaluative thinking is about critical inquiry that involves looking at assumptions, evidence, perspective-taking, and reflection through data, sensemaking, and decision-making. It is the way we think about what we do and how we approach problems tied to what we do, how we do it, and what comes from it.
That’s a mouthful.
What’s more so is that complex times require that we undertake evaluative thinking using a lens that accounts for complexity. This means accelerated, time- and context-sensitive methods, tools, and approaches to evaluation, decision-making, and design together. It is about the shift from detached inquiry to engaged scholarship and developmental design (not just developmental evaluation).
It’s been said many times that we can’t let a crisis go to waste. There is a risk will have gone through all we have so far (and will go through in the months to come) with nothing to show for it but lost lives, incomes, livelihoods, and millions of hours of media consumption if we don’t change our thinking and models. We need evaluative thinking for 2020 to create learning for 2020.
This means tying what we inquire about to what we see, do, and design and make commitments to real learning — reflection, dialogue, engagement, and praxis — supported by evaluation data focused on the now in a timely manner. Otherwise, we’ll wind up with a retrospective set of ‘lessons’ that will apply to a world that no longer exists.
We owe it to ourselves not to do that; we’ve suffered enough to not make something of this. It is time to learn.