Action Learning with ‘PAX for Peace’
Earlier this year I completed an extremely interesting assignment with the Dutch organisation PAX for Peace. PAX approached INTRAC to ask for help with devising and piloting an action learning programme. INTRAC asked me if I would be interested to work with PAX on this and I jumped at the chance. In January 2017 I began working with PAX’s Policy Adviser for Learning, Jitske Hoogenboom to design the programme.
Our idea was to establish two ‘sets’ – each focusing on different topics. One set would explore issues around ‘Community Based Security and Citizens’ Rights’ and the other on ‘Evidence Based Advocacy’. Jitske chose these topics because they were ‘live’ and important for the organisation and we hoped they would generate interest for potential participants. Over a few weeks of Skype discussions we devised a structure for the two action learning sets – each comprising eight people. We agreed that the main vehicle for action learning would be self-selected ‘learning questions’.
After a shared introductory workshop, each set met for a full day on four occasions between April and November 2017. Both groups got together for an evaluation workshop in January 2018. The sets were designed to examine learning at three levels – individual, collective and organisational – and used learning questions as a way of helping participants clearly articulate their practice challenge, focus reflection and make the learning relevant at all levels. We also used ‘rich pictures’ as a way of helping participants describe the context of their question and more quickly engage with each others’ challenges.
The action learning sets provided a new perspective on learning to most participants. About half of the participants considered it a very relevant learning experience and participated in the full process. They also became advocates of reflective learning within PAX. Among the others, some considered it an experience that, whilst relevant to others, was not for them. Others told us that they had not devoted sufficient time to fully benefit from the process.
One challenge that some participants experienced was how to address the ‘action’ part of action learning between set meetings. To try to help with this problem we set up a limited-access WordPress blog that we called a ‘Sharespace’ for all the participants in both learning sets. The ‘Sharespace’ provided participants with a platform to share progress on individual and collective learning questions, share resources and maintain a sense of belonging when other work pressures made it difficult to sustain energy levels. We decided to make regular posting on the Sharespace a requirement of successful completion of the programme. We found that writing reinforced the learning and the Sharespace thereby added a powerful extra element to the action learning programme. We believe the Sharespace was a very successful innovation – though not for everyone – and is an idea I intend to suggest in future action learning programmes.
Even though we made some variations in the set-up of meetings, mostly we maintained a strict discipline: giving advice was not allowed, nor was interrupting or sliding into an argument. Participants were expected to really listen to each other and ask questions that were intended to help the presenter with their learning question. This was hard for everyone, especially at the start. Although this disciplined approach to action learning was challenging and some participants dropped out, it provided a valued reflective space and a way of listening to each other that participants who ‘stayed the course’ described as liberating and very safe.