Transformational Learning: Rewind and Fast Forward

Madagascar Mikolo project team participated in SBCC VLDP 3. Photo Credit: Mikolo team

Over the next few months, we will be exploring learning as part of a new blog series on LeaderNet. What have we learned about learning over the last 10 years? What types of learning do we encounter most often? Below is the first part of the series, on transformational learning.

Transformational learning – the kind of learning that in a moment shakes fundamental beliefs and assumptions resulting in new ways of seeing each other and behaving accordingly.

Those of us in the training and facilitation professions likely aspire to get people exposed to the kind of learning experience that fundamentally changes the way they see the world. Usually, when that happens, a series of emotional and cognitive processes are set in motion, eventually producing a change in behavior.

Let’s take an example: a young new doctor is now in charge of a clinic far from the place where he studied or grew up. He believes that his main role is to treat sick patients. However, he learned from his professors that, as a doctor in charge, he also needs to direct all the other people working in his clinic. He has been led to believe that the doctor determines the quality of healthcare. He is a bit anxious about his transition from school to work but also excited to put his book learning into practice at his first post.

Now let’s assume there is, at this same clinic, a nurse who is a veteran in her profession. She has worked at the clinic for more than a decade. She believes that she knows what is best for people since she grew up in the community and knows it well. She also believes that people trust her because of her familiarity with the culture and language and because she is a woman. She has run the clinic during its many leadership transitions and considers herself a pretty good manager because the clinic ran just fine without a doctor at the helm.

Both have been learning all their life – though neither one of them may think of learning in that way. They probably would associate learning with school learning, with education. The nurse’s education stopped a long time ago – the doctor’s stopped only recently. These two professionals are on a collision course from the start.

Here we have two people who look at their job through two different lenses: the doctor with his assumptions regarding control, possibly superiority of his profession, and, because of that, a reluctance to show others that he doesn’t know some things. And there is the nurse, with her assumptions about who is best placed to know the patients and thus superior role of the (female) nurse in knowing the clinic’s mostly female clientele. What could prevent their collision? What kind of learning could do that?

Let’s rewind the tape of their professional development and see what could happen when both can put their need to win, or to be right, on hold. This creates an openness to learning that changes everything.

The nurse has had the good fortune of being invited from time to time to continue her professional development. The doctor is a graduate of a program that included more than a transfer of strictly medical information. Let’s assume they were both really lucky and have been involved in some classes or courses together. They have learned about management and leadership, about effective communication, about delegation, about working in teams, about negotiation and other topics that they recognize from their daily life but had never much thought about.

Now back to the clinic. When first irritations arise, because of the different perspectives each have on health care delivery, on what patients want, on what a clinic should look like, on asking for help, they know they have to have a conversation. Through these conversations, they try to understand where the sometimes strong opinions come from. The doctor has to understand, and recognize, what the nurse knows. He needs to listen without judgment and try to ‘stand under’ the reality of the nurse. If he can do that it will transform him. The nurse has to do the same, and recognize that the doctor has up to date knowledge on new techniques, new medicines, new technologies that she may not understand, or approaches she may disagree with at first. But if she listens without judgment, and tries to ‘stand under’ the reality of the doctor, she will be transformed.

If they approach each other with empathy and curiosity, to understand what they each hope the clinic to be, they will be able to deal with the small irritations and misunderstandings that are bound to happen and keep them from becoming major conflicts. That clinic will better serve its patients and its communities. The doctor and the nurse will be able to problem solve, be creative in handling things they have no control over and keep a positive outlook on what is possible. Their new eyes can now discover possibilities they could not see before.

That is the thing about transformational learning. It doesn’t have to be big and dramatic, or requiring an external person to intervene. It’s simply a conversation where both parties make an effort to understand each other, not convince each other that their way of seeing things is right.

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