Janet Grauberg (an organisational learning consultant working in children’s services) explains why Action Learning is an ideal way to embed evidence-informed practice.
Most days, I don’t have time to read all the interesting bulletins that land in my inbox. But occasionally a headline cuts through. One such came from the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) last December: New EEF trial results: ‘light-touch’ approaches to research unlikely to impact pupil outcomes.
Trials involving thousands of schools had demonstrated that sending teachers evidence-based resources had no impact on their pupils’ outcomes, and invitations to one-off seminars also had little effect.
The article resonated with the conclusions of my own research into how innovation spreads in children’s services. Reviewing various literature suggests that while traditional dissemination activities such as conferences and bulletins are useful for raising awareness, something else is required if you want people to change their behaviour and adopt a new way of working. Activities which encourage the spread of innovation, ie, lead to adoption, adaptation and implementation of new practice in different settings, are likely to have four characteristics (what I call the “4S” model):
- Social engagement – connecting face-to-face to uncover tacit as well as explicit knowledge
- Situated engagement – enough information to be able to understand the context of the innovating organisation, and to reflect on the context of the recipient organisation
- Sustained engagement – over time to build trust, and to enable reflection on action
- Start with the question of the learner – led by those who want to adopt, and their motivation for change. (See the Alliance’s report ‘Using Evidence: What Works?’ for a discussion of the critical role of motivation in evidence uptake.)
While I like my “4S” model, I’m an activist, not an academic, which means that the next question is always “what shall we do?”. So I’ve identified a number of organisational learning approaches which have these characteristics. These include managed moves, ongoing shadowing arrangements, joint practice development, communities of practice, journal clubs, and Action Learning (see below).
The EEF is now funding trials along these lines, including testing the use of “journal clubs”, which have been widespread in medicine since the 19th century, and drawing on a project led by York University in which consultant researchers engaged with schools on issues that the schools were interested in addressing – rather than sending them information about the “latest research”.
My own work draws on the principles of Action Learning to encourage evidence-informed practice. Action Learning is one of the most well-known collaborative learning approaches, heavily used in the English NHS, but also common in industry and community development.
The fundamental principle of Action Learning is summarized as L = P+ Q; where L is learning, P is programmed knowledge (your professional knowledge and experience), and Q is questioning insight. Most Action Learning in the UK comprises 6-8 peers from a workplace or sector meeting regularly for six months or a year, usually with a facilitator. Participants take it in turns to present a work-related issue for about 5-10 minutes, and the others in the group ask open questions to enable the presenter to reflect. At the end, the presenter reviews the conversation and summarises the actions they intend to take.
The key features of this approach are that it is:
- Voluntary – Action Learning is more effective when participants are motivated to engage
- Structured – providing a framework for reflection on action, which leads to learning
- Social, dialogic and dynamic – the learning happens when peers help the presenter to see different perspectives on a problem
- Strengths based – it assumes that a group of peers can support a colleague using their existing skills and experience
- Promoting individual ownership of problems – reflecting a belief that solutions are more likely to be adopted if individuals come to them themselves
- Wholly contextual – reflecting the interplay between the individual, and their working environment.
Adapting Action Learning principles to support the uptake of evidence-informed practice involves modifying the approach slightly. It means:
- Introducing additional “Programmed Knowledge” in the form of information about the new way of working that is to be spread. This could be a journal article (such as used in a journal club), a visit to a new service, or a new model of practice which has demonstrated positive outcomes.
- Focusing the work of the Learning Set on how the participants are applying the learning about the new way of working, the progress they are making and the challenges they’re facing.
- Arranging the frequency of the meetings to allow participants to begin to apply the learning in their own setting. This is likely to involve talking to colleagues and looking for opportunities within their organisation to make changes, which suggests meeting less frequently and over a longer time period than in a classical set.
- Being ready to aggregate and anonymise the learning of the group in order to provide insight about the system and the implications for other organisations seeking to apply the programmed knowledge in their own places.
I’m currently using this approach with a small group of public sector organisations looking to improve an aspect of their children’s health services, and I’m about to start working with a Local Authority looking to spread an approach that has delivered good outcomes in its early years services more widely across their children’s services department.
It is early days, but so far it appears that adding in some “Programmed Knowledge” to the “Questioning Insight” of the more commonly used Action Learning approach combines the benefits of promoting innovative or evidence-based practice, with the social, situated, sustained and learner-led practice of an Action Learning Set.
Janet Grauberg is a freelance organisational learning consultant working in children’s services. This article draws on her research for an MSc in Management Consultancy and Organisational Change at Birkbeck, University of London, and her subsequent experience of working with clients in the public and voluntary sector.
For more information on the background to the “4S” model, or on practice in spreading innovation and effective practice, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Views expressed are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of the Alliance for Useful Evidence. Remember you can join us (it’s free and open to all) and find out more about the how we champion the use of evidence in social policy and practice.