Complexity: Can we change how we learn?

On my way to work last week I listened to NPR’s TED Radio Hour on Rethinking School. Sal Khan’s discussion on the Khan Academy was fascinating. He’s “flipped the classroom” so that students can watch the lectures at home on YouTube and they can undertake the practical homework together collectively in the classroom. You can see him talk about this at about 6 minutes into this video.

This taps into some interesting concepts that I’ve started to think about in relation to how Research in Practice and Research in Practice for Adults can deliver the best possible learning experience. The obvious take away is around how we make effective use of technology. My colleague Leo is way ahead of me, and has a cool setup for streaming webinars and converting these to audio recordings, and I’ve met Stuart (our Web Systems Co-ordinator) to talk about what our digital future means for our learning events. Ami has also got me thinking about accreditation and how blended learning might work in that context.

When I watched Sal discuss the Khan Academy, another thing that struck me was how he’s looked to move education away from a one size fits all model into something far more personalised and adaptable. By “flipping the classroom”, he’s enabled students to have an interactive learning experience that’s very different from what people have traditionally taken part in.

Moving away from one-size fits all

In my first week, I met with our Director Dez Holmes to talk about what I can bring to the Learning Co-ordinator role. One of the things that we ended up discussing was the complex environment that public services are delivered in and what that means for effective learning.

In manufacturing, the environment is easily predictable and cause and effect is linear. But things are a bit different for public services. People’s lives are complicated and messy, so their situations are unlikely to neatly fit into the boxes that we’ve developed for them within our organisations.

More often than not, public services are set up with the organisations’ needs in mind (more on this in my latest post for the Wales Audit Office’s Good Practice Exchange, where I looked at why co-production still isn’t commonplace in Welsh public services). We focus on what’s easy for us in terms of provision, which means that one size fits all approaches are favoured, as they’re simpler ways of planning and delivering services. But applying this approach is fraught with difficulty because services aren’t delivered in controlled environments.

Which begs the question, why is PRINCE2 so popular in the public sector, given that it stands for PRojects IN Controlled Environments?

So how can we work differently?

Some of the constraints that we worked to at the Wales Audit Office were actually helpful in this regard. Because we audited policy, we couldn’t be involved in developing policy. We couldn’t say “this is what you should do”. But the Auditor General did repeatedly say that organisations should have a look at the practice we shared and think about how they might adapt it to suit their needs. This fits perfectly into the environment in which public services operate. The Good Practice Exchange developed their methodology from Jean Hartley’s review of the Beacon Councils programme and discussions with Professor Dave Snowden. He developed The Cynefin Framework, which helps people to make decisions based on the environments that they’re working in.

The Cynefin Framework

At the end of last week, Dez shared a great paper with me on Mobilising knowledge in complex health systems: a call to action. Here’s what I took from the paper:

“Reviews of large-scale organisational change highlight the role of culture in facilitating and mediating improvements consistent with a complexity view of knowledge-to-action”

This is a really helpful point about the role of culture, as long as culture isn’t seen as a big intractable, complex problem in and of itself. In every organisation I’ve worked in, culture can be identified by honestly answering the question “What is the behaviour that we reward and punish?” (which I’ve stolen from this fantastic post by Jocelyn Goldfein).

“System change initiatives do not stop at organisational boundaries. Beyond one organisation may be higher-level authorities such as governments — both the public service and elected officials — as well as extra-organisational stakeholder groups on which success depends, but with which there may be no formal reporting relationship.”

It’s hard to disagree with this. All we can do is work with the levers that we have to make change happen and show leaders the consequences of their decisions. For change to happen though, leaders need to be prepared to be self-aware and open to new learning. I learnt a lot from Cllr Barry Parsons about how he’s daring to be vulnerable in order to learn more about what an effective and efficient council looks like. Research in Practice and Research in Practice for Adults are preparing for next year’s programme of work at the moment, and it’s great to be part of discussions where the organisation’s management are so open to new ways of working and learning.

“In a complex system, however, it is not possible to predetermine what steps will bring about positive and long-lasting change. Complex problems are similar to complex systems. The components within the problem are in synergistic multiple interaction with each other and cannot be solved in a step-by-step linear manner. Multiple interactions mean that outcomes are not easily predictable but are emergent.”

We need to move away from thinking about learning as an outcome in and of itself, which seems all too common in public services. How often has a learning need been identified in an appraisal, which then results in someone attending a training course? We need to provide space in our learning activities for people to be able to think about they can apply the learning that’s being shared in their circumstances. I’ve read some good posts this week on productivity and adding value (Paul Taylor’s on the difference between being busy and being productive and Thomas Oppong’s post for The Mission on low value work), and I think we can apply the same thinking to our learning activities — if we look at our work with a clear sense of purpose of what we’re trying to achieve, we can ensure that what we do really adds value.

A promising shift in health system thinking that supports emergence is away from pilot projects and towards prototypes (Riley et al, 2015). Well-designed pilot projects serve important functions, including testing of innovations before widespread implementation, and making a case for organisational investments. However, in complex systems, it is not likely that a pilot can offer much in the way of guidance for the next implementation: the determinants of success shift with every new context; it is the interaction between the intervention and its context that determines outcome (Pawson, 2013).

It’s easy to use test and pilots to identify new ways of working and apply the results of that work wholesale because it’s already been tested in a complex environment. I think that the Cynefin framework can be really helpful here — if we apply the framework to the learning as well as the initial activity, then we are in a better position to help positive change to take place.

“In many ways the command and control nature of organisational structures — in place to enact such accountability — runs counter to how successful knowledge-to-action would work best in practice….. People may have job descriptions that limit their responsibilities, or suffer punitive measures for not following rules.”

I’ve already blogged about how I was hoping to lead the events team in a different way, and I think that post is linked to this in that we need to be sure that we don’t divide knowledge from work. Are staff empowered to apply what they’ve learnt in the contexts that they work in? Or are we still applying the principles of Taylorism, where knowledge rests with management and people work as cogs in a machine? This Economist article is a bit scary but should be thought provoking for anyone who’s looking to apply command and control methodology in a digital context. I can now add “working practices” to the list of reasons I hate Amazon (this follows “tax avoidance” and “disregard of privacy”).

“While Mode 1 research will and should continue, there is a need to rethink the current division of research and practice or policy.”

This is where I think Research in Practice and Research in Practice for Adults can really add value. When I blogged for the Wales Audit Office’s Good Practice Exchange on my future work, I wrote about how much I liked our triangulation model.

I love how we bring research, practice and people’s experience together as it doesn’t shy away from complexity, it recognises that learning can’t be applied in a linear, cause and effect way. The Research Unit for Research Utilisation has done some really useful work on this, so in the next few weeks I plan to do some more reading of their work.

As Dez said to me, people are messy — we work in complex environments, not in lab-based tests. We’ll be working hard to ensure that we live up to our name, and that research and knowledge can be applied appropriately in social care, no matter how complex the circumstance.