What I’ve learnt about Human Learning Systems

Dyfrig Williams
Jan 16 · 5 min read

In 2019 I wrote a couple of posts on Human Learning Systems — one on the perils of New Public Management, and another on changing how we hold people to account. It was brilliant to get my head properly into Human Learning Systems at a masterclass in Newcastle. The day was choc full of quotable lines. Here are just a few…

It’s also worth checking out this webinar by Toby Lowe on Youtube

“Outcomes make us measure, manage and hold people to account in the wrong way”

Toby Lowe spoke about how outcomes are made by whole systems, not individual projects. We cannot know the effects of individual work streams. We’re better off looking for emergent properties in a complex system.

Outcomes give peverse incentives and encourage people to game the system. It’s this gaming that makes these figures impossible to use for improvement, because they don’t reflect what’s actually happening. This also makes them rubbish for accountability. Emergent learning is more effective because what counts as “good” is constantly changing — public service is bespoke by default.

“The cavalry aren’t coming”

This complexity fits perfectly with what Brendan Hill would say about over-specialism. He talked about gaps in the current delivery model, for instance that we have less GPs than we need. Could generalised roles plug these gaps? And would they in fact help us to deal with these issues more effectively?

“Disadvantage is a complex problem. We know this instinctively”

Toby shared Lankelly Chase’s work on System Behaviours, which is very useful in identifying and understanding what good core behaviours look like. He also shared the Institute for Government’s work on System Stewardship, which complements the Lankelly Chase work and suggests that we need to move away from a top down approach into 360 degree accountability.

Cathy Stancer spoke honestly about Lankelly Chase’s realisation that they had no control over their mission, despite the freedom and resouces that they have as a funding body. They’re now thinking about how they can work effectively amidst complexity, including how they can create the conditions for positive change to emerge. They’re using principles to support a healthy system, so that they can leave the solid but unproductive ground, and move into a messier space.

“Public services are broken, but public servants aren’t”

Mark Smith’s quote fits with Deming’s doozie (“Bad systems, not bad people”). Mark also said that “We don’t have a skills problem, we have a design and leadership problem.” He used an example where an older lady hadn’t engaged with services, so had been left alone. In this case, non-engagement became a punishable offence. But by being generous with their time and efforts they were able to build trust through their actions (each helpful act helped). Mark spoke about a change of approach, where organisations would pull people to us, instead of pushing them away.

“Measures should help you to learn and improve, but learning and improvement shouldn’t just come from measures”

I also went to Mark’s session on measures. If measures are derived from purpose then they can be helpful. But if purpose is derived from the measure, then we are led into dysfunctional work. This diagram helpfully explains this, which I nicked from a post I wrote for Good Practice WAO.

Measures and method should be derived from purpose

Mark had loads of sage advice — he warned us against using measures and numbers interchangeably, and to think about how we might use quantitative data. He also spoke about how the absence of good measures can create a vacuum where bad ones step in. I loved the idea of holding a “Give up and Replace” exercise as a way of improving measures.

“Changing your approach feels like rebuilding a ship whilst sailing it”

Gary Wallace and John Hamblin spoke about how their work at the Plymouth Alliance had changed, despite continuing to feed existing measures to government. These measures are now used as learning measures, not accountability measures. Instead, they’re using appreciative inquiry and qualitative research from interviews to build empathy between staff and the people acessing services. They said that “the current service creates indebtedness, which has a corrosive effect on a person’s self-esteem.” Instead, they looked to create a narrative to mobilise action.

What’s the role of evidence if there isn’t one way of doing things?

I had to attend this workshop, considering Research in Practice’s work is based on an Evidence-Informed Practice model! It works by bringing research together with practice knowledge and lived experience, and is therefore in a good position to take account of complexity.

One of the issues that we spoke about is how evidence can be shared, and how we generate the time and space for this to happen. Learning is seen as a luxury in the current system — “If you’re being measured against ‘the doing,’ it becomes even harder to carve out time for learning.”

We decided that people need to experience change and why it is necessary. We spoke about the role of Action Learning and Action Research, and I couldn’t help but think about the role of normative learning, which allows people to take ownership of the change, learning and understanding within the system. I love this quote from one participant in the Gateshead place inquiry — “I think rather than seeking to create ‘learning spaces,’ we should create ‘action spaces’ for frontline people to make concrete plans about things they can actually do differently.”

It’s the doing that I’m really excited about. I’m thinking about ways to test these hypotheses and how we can put things into practice. I’m passionate about learning, and I’ve done a fair bit of work around systems thinking too. And mostly, I’m interested to see how this can benefit people. I’m really excited about deliving further into Human Learning Systems in 2020.

Dyfrig Williams

Written by

Cymraeg! Music fan. Cyclist. Scarlet. Work for @researchip @ripfa . Views mine / Barn fi.

Doing better things

Learning how public services can do better things

More on Systems Thinking from Doing better things

More on Systems Thinking from Doing better things

What does autonomy support look like?

More on Government from Doing better things

More on Systems Thinking from Doing better things

More on Systems Thinking from Doing better things

Why learning should be part of doing

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade