The (inconvenient) realities of learning by doing: lessons from rural and urban India

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Imagine a school in rural India with over 400 students sharing one inoperable and filthy toilet. These conditions have more effect on education than one might expect. In fact, lack of access to toilets and basic sanitation is one of the major reasons girls in India drop out of school.  As part of their Global Citizen Leader (GCL) experience, a team of Indian business students left the confines of their serene and comfortable campus to build toilets for a local school.  GCL is an innovation and leadership program with a bit of a twist: business students, working in teams, apply design thinking processes to address societal challenges faced in urban and rural India. Students traveled to places and talked to people they had never been exposed to before.  I recently went on assignment to conduct an impact evaluation of the inaugural year of the program in two very distinct locations in India – the bustling metropolis of Mumbai and the quiet mountain village of Lonavala.

One of the primary themes from the program was “learning from experience.” The students realized that to accelerate their learning and growth, they had to put themselves in new, challenging and sometimes awkward situations.

Classroom-based activities certainly helped students learn the principles of teamwork, design thinking, and challenges facing India. However, it was the work they did outside of classroom that drove these lessons home the most.  For example, one student described “knowing” about sanitation issues being a problem before the program, but not fully understanding until she was in the homes of the people most negatively impacted by those conditions—and about to eat a meal that had been prepared in an unsanitary kitchen.  Listening to students describe all they had to learn in these new contexts to be successful, I noticed parallels with my own work as an evaluator.

Often the work of program evaluators requires us to assess programs in a wide range of settings. In the early stages of my career, I worked in very different contexts–exploring the worlds of convicted sex workers on the west side of Chicago, while learning about the daily lives of reformed gang members on the south side of the city.  Even within the very specific realm of evaluating leadership development programs, I have had to learn all that I can about the Oil and Gas industry one day and issues facing the youth of rural North Carolina the next.  At times it is overwhelming to feel like you are starting from scratch in terms of how much you know.  And at times, I’ve definitely fumbled. And working within a new context for the first time is just one example of the ways that we are pushed to learn.

In the past year, I’ve tried to accelerate my own growth and learning in the following ways:

  1. Collaborating more (and with different people): I’ve collaborated with others outside of my organization who do similar work.  I’ve learned from their approaches and styles and hope they’ve learned from me as well.
  2. Trying new approaches:  I’ve developed and prototyped new tools and methods for measuring the impact of leadership development.  It is substantially more work than using tried-and-true methods, but it’s meeting the needs of our clients more effectively, and I’m learning more along the way.
  3. Journeying somewhere new: I’ve traveled near and far–from Kansas City to Calgary to Mumbai, and learned something at each stop that will provide meaningful contributions to the next project.

As I’ve stepped into each new situation, I’ve tried to adopt a mindset of openness and curiosity.  It’s a continuous effort to be more intentional about extracting the lessons from each new experience.  I have to remind myself to take the time to reflect on these experiences to get the most learning.  This constant focus takes work and practice.

Despite the unease, confusion and at times flat out anxiety about stepping out of my comfort zone, the feeling I’ve connected with most lately has been gratitude.  What an amazing professional life I’m leading!  As a program evaluator, my challenge is the steep learning curve as I move swiftly from one client and one project to the next. But the constant need to learn new things is also accelerating my personal and professional growth and development.  And seeing these business students leave their classrooms to quite literally get their hands dirty in service of others, and in service of their own development, has been just the reminder I need to keep courageously pushing myself in new directions.

What have you done that has accelerated your growth and development the most?

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One Response to The (inconvenient) realities of learning by doing: lessons from rural and urban India

  1. Thank you for this lovely post,

    As an advocate of the 70:20:10 approach, I talk a lot about making informal learning intentional. Your example demonstrates how guided experiences can be integrated into formal development. Rather than leaving them to chance, the experiences are guided and supported (not managed) to achieve positive outcomes. Part of the benefit of the approach demonstrated in the example is the difference between ‘knowing’ and ‘understanding’; that only an experience can truly provide.

    I also appreciate you sharing your own insight into reflection, another key element of the ’70′ and the active challenge of ‘extracting’ learning from work.

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