Learning Circles

Professional Development on the Prairies

This summer will mark four years for me in Saskatoon, and while there are many things I love about this city1, there are a few small challenges. One specifically related to my work is the relative isolation: the nearest city of comparable size is the provincial capital of Regina, which is a two hour drive away: for larger centres, it’s five hours to Edmonton, seven to Calgary, and eight to Winnipeg. There have been many times where I’ve learned about interesting professional development opportunities in those places or further afield: unfortunately, the time and cost associated with travel can be huge barriers to attending. Although technology has helped fill the gap somewhat, such as through webinars, those methods also have their downsides. Interaction with other participants and the presenters tends to be minimal or non-existent, and it’s all too easy to skip a webinar or attempt to multi-task during it (hint: that strategy doesn’t work, at least not for me!).

Yesterday, I learned about an interesting professional development model that could provide the best of both worlds. Shelley Borys and Natalie Kishchuk presented a webinar hosted by the Canadian Evaluation Society on the concept of learning circles. In their use of this model, a small group of participants (5-7 typically) would meet regularly through one-hour teleconferences: through a cycle of six such sessions, they would discuss different evaluation topics and methods, chosen based on the interest of the group members. Each session would have one of the members act as leader who would be responsible for facilitating the discussion and also selecting the materials and resources for everyone to review in advance. Although the group used teleconference as the means for conversation, online tools such as Dropbox and a shared spreadsheet helped disseminate resources and select discussion topics, respectively.

Evaluate Thyself

Beyond finding this idea interesting, there’s another reason why I’m sharing this example. As you’d expect from a group of evaluators, they evaluated how well this method worked as an educational tool through a brief survey of participants. The outcomes were positive, though with an unexpected result when they delved a bit deeper into the findings. As one would reasonably assume, participants brought different levels of knowledge on different topics: one person may have a high learning need for, say, developmental evaluation, but would only need a refresher on empowerment approaches. However, some participants would initially rate their knowledge on a certain topic as low, but after participating in the discussion would realize they knew more on the subject than they thought. In these cases, dubbed “Comforted” learners by the evaluators, participants would gain confidence in the knowledge that they already possessed (usually from their own personal experience), and also gain support and validation in their skills from the other group members.

These and other findings, such as the importance of balancing similarity and diversity among the group members, highlights the importance of looking beyond surface-level question such as “Did the program work?” or “Were participants satisfied?”. The knowledge gained from examining the reasons for success and underlying processes could help identify who would most benefit from the program: for example, the finding around Comforted learners could indicate that such circles could support early- to mid-career evaluators who have developed a skill base but may be uncertain in their own knowledge. Alternatively, if a group doesn’t work out, the evaluation findings could help determine why: perhaps the composition was too uniform and thus lacked diversity of knowledge and opinion, or the trust among group members wasn’t sufficient to allow people to admit uncertainty or lack of knowledge. Rather than throw out the learning circles model with the bath water, changes could be made to improve the odds of success for the future.

Let’s Start!

Based on what was shared in the webinar, I’m really excited about the prospect of being involved in a similar group. I already belong to a small online group of Canadian evaluators, and I think this approach could be a promising one to introduce some regular discussion. A learning circle approach held in-person could potentially be fruitful here in Saskatoon, though perhaps on a broader topic such as community-based research. If you’re interested in working with me to start up a learning circle in either (or both) directions, or would like to share your experiences with this type of mutual learning, feel free to share in the comment section below, drop me a line through the Contact page or find me on Twitter.

  1. Especially now that we’re fully into spring and patio season is just around the corner! 

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