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Action learning demystified

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From the 27th February to the 1st March, I was attending the Pan Africa CLTS workshop in Accra Ghana. The workshop was sponsored by Plan Netherlands and was facilitated by Prof. Robert Chambers and Petra Bongartz of IDS. 8 countries namely, Ghana, Niger, Sierra Leone, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Malawi and Zambia participated in the workshop. The workshop was generally well facilitated and provided an excellent opportunity for the countries to learn from each others experiences in their CLTS work.

A number of issues were discussed at the workshop such as Scaling up CLTS, Sanitation Marketing, Role of Natural Leaders in the spread of CLTS, Action Learning etc. All these topics are very important to the work we do. However, the one that really touched my heart was action learning. Prof. Chambers really demystified the subject to a point that we all came to appreciate that action learning is actually a day to day activity that we engage in without consciously labelling it action learning.

My assumptions about action learning
As the discussion progressed, I realized that I had subconsciously believed that action learning is a very complicated venture that requires an expert to undertake. That before one embarks on it, one should first of all identify an “earth shaking” topic for investigation or learning. That it is not about ordinary mundane things we do every day in our work. That it is something that would require huge financial resources, trained personnel, several weeks or even months to execute, literature reviews to be done and so on. The sheer amount of work that I associated with action learning is enough to put one off, more so when you manage very busy schedules. Our good Professor helped me to overcome these misconceptions, and it soon dawned on me that I actually do action learning almost on a daily basis.

Forms of action learning
I learned that action learning is about learning from our activities and daily experiences. This can take the form of participating in a workshop where people are sharing their experiences about an issue, it could be from our personal observations of a given issue, it could be from holding conversations with a person informed about a given subject of interest, it could be from doing a journal where one is recording daily happenings. Action learning could still take the form of watching a television documentary on a topical issue, reading a feature article in a newspaper, or even doing a google search in the internet. In ordinary life there are many instances when we have had action learning. For example when you sit down with your grand parent and s/he tells you about their childhood, adolescent experiences; one is able to pick some contextual differences and similarities that exist between their time and your time. Or if you just have a conversation with a breast feeding mother, one can learn a lot what motivates them to breastfeed and perceptions they may have about the practice. Or, if you have a discussion with a farmer about why they prefer to plant a certain type of crop and not the other. What if you just walk into a bar and observed what is going on? There is so much one can learn from all these experiences.

CLTS and action learning
If applied to the Community Led Total Sanitation (CLTS) context, there are many times I have been involved in action learning without knowing. For example, when I meet community members who have started digging their latrines and ask them what has inspired them to construct their latrines. This is action learning. I am learning about what can motivate a person to construct a latrine. Or when some other community members are reluctant to construct their latrines and I discuss it with them. This is action learning, in which I am able to gather information on some of the constraining factors with regard to latrine construction.

There are many examples in which CLTS practitioners do action learning. Have you ever found yourself discussing with the community why they would prefer one type of sanitation option and not the other? Have you ever discussed with community different options of overcoming termites? Ways of managing the bad odour that comes from pit latrines? Appropriate times for doing the CLTS triggering? Have you ever discussed with government and other sanitation actors on what their role can be in supporting CLTS? Have you ever experimented with a new idea or innovation? If you have done any of the above, then you have been doing action learning. The trouble is that most of the things we learn are never documented and shared. We take for granted many of the insights we gather from our discussions with colleagues, friends and partners. This may perhaps happen during a formal meeting or an informal meeting where you are having coffee or beer together. We probably think that what we learn from these meetings is not important enough to be documented. Yet many times they are.

This then brings me to the question, how can action learning be documented and shared? There are many ways on how one can document their action learning. The following are just some of the examples that one may want to pick from:

Photo essay
Human beings are normally attracted to good stories, and a good way of telling a story is by is doing photo essay. This is a method in which photos are arranged in a progressive way that tell how events and situations have changed over time. Some time back I was admiring my album, and then I decided to arrange my photos from when I was a toddler to just a few months ago. I was able to discern the transformation that I have gone through over the years. By so doing, I was actually doing a photo essay of myself. This is a simple but yet powerful way of telling the story of an activity you are involved in.

This is presenting a short account of a fascinating incident that you can use to back up, or illustrate some point. You do this by mentioning specific examples that you are familiar with reinforce an issue that you are trying to explain.

Case study
This is a way of analysing an event or phenomenon with a view to understanding the dynamics or factors influencing it. I have often struggled with finding an appropriate case study to write about. Normally when I get an inspiration to write on issue, shortly afterwards my mind dismisses it as unworthy of writing about. I then tell myself, “why waste your time on an issue that is so common place and ordinary. Who will want to read about that?” thereafter I just kill the idea of writing about it. This has happened to me many times. In a sense I have believed that a case study should be about something that is really exceptional and extraordinary! But now I realize that a case study can be as simple as writing a story of why village A achieved ODF much quicker or slower than other villages in the region.

Other ways of documentation include doing blogs, telling stories and video documentary.

Philip V. Otieno, Plan Kenya

Date: 13 March 2012