Podcast Episode 101: What is a Learning-Centered Approach?
On our inaugural episode of Shift the Power, we explore the revolutionary “learning-centered approach” to education and training with Val Uccellani and Phil Silva. We also discuss how principles of safety and respect are brought to bear in education, and how a learning-centered approach can “shift the power” for teachers and for learners.
Theme music: ‘Pretty Face’ by Una Walkenhorst. You can hear more of Una’s music at her website!
Read transcripts for the episode below.
Meg (1s): Hello and welcome to Shift the Power: A Learning Centered Podcast, where we talk about the revolutionary power of a learning-centered approach. Through this podcast, we hope to inspire creative thinking and provide practical tools and techniques to deepen learning through dialogue. We’re your hosts, Meg Logue and Peter Noteboom. We are thrilled to welcome you today to the very first episode of Shift the Power: A Learning Centered Podcast. And in our inaugural episode, we’re going to dig into what a learning-centered approach actually is.
Meg (43s): We’re joined today by two guests, our colleagues at Global Learning Partners Valerie Uccellani, and Phillip Silva. They are going to share stories and their knowledge of a Learning Centered Approach with us. And we are so thrilled to have them here today. Welcome Val and Philip. Hello. Hi, thanks for having us. So to start us off, I wonder if each of you might just introduce yourselves and describe briefly in your own words, what a learning-centered approach means to you.
Valerie (1m 12s): So this is Valerie Uccellani and I’ve been a co-owner of Global Learning Partners for many years. I’m also a member of the three women leadership team for the company and a co-chair with Peter Noteboom of our board of directors. I was involved in Global Learning Partners work really from its earliest days, had the opportunity to learn directly on Jane Vella’s sofa with her, and still I am a close friend and continue to be mentored by her whenever I get the chance. The last thing I’d love to mention, just in terms of Global Learning Partners journey over the years.
Valerie (1m 53s): I was involved in our early decision, it was somewhat of an experiment at the time to establish a consulting branch for the business that would go beyond teaching what we know to actually using what we know in the worlds of our clients. So our goal at that time was to really begin to support, I’d say the practical integration of a learning centered approach into organizations and initiatives across sectors across the globe. And that’s what I’ve been doing for decades. And I, I love it. I think when I think about a Learning Centered Approach in one sentence, what it means to me is an approach that unites what the teacher has to offer with what the learners have to offer so that everyone benefits.
Phillip (2m 44s): And I’m Phillip Silva, I am on what’s called the core consulting team with global learning partners. And I like to say that I’ve been in the organization’s orbit for the better part of a decade I’m having taken what was then called learning to listen, learning to teach the foundational dialogue education course of about 10 years ago, in order to better design an adult learning program for a public garden in New York city. I really enjoy doing this work. And to talk about a Learning Centered Approach, we’re constantly learning as we’re learning about learning. And I think for me, the phrase in my work, which often has to do not just with teaching people, how to learn, but also teaching organizations how to learn.
Phillip (3m 28s): It means staying humble and staying curious and staying open to surprise, not just in a classroom setting, but in a day-to-day work setting as well. That’s really what a learning centered approach means to me. Peter (3m 40s): You know, we’re so fortunate to have both of you with us and to share your experiences and perspectives on, on a Learning Centered Approach. I wonder if you could help us help bring it to life a little more, Valerie, I’ve only ever known you as someone who is a practitioner of a Learning Centered Approach, you’ve always championed the learners perspective and putting that primary in the work that you do, but can you tell us a story, when did that light bulb first go on? What was your first realization that, Oh, this is what a Learning Centered Approach is?
Valerie (4m 18s): Hmm. You know, I’d love to actually start with a discovery. I think of what, what a Learning approach isn’t I think maybe for many of us, we have to see and feel what can happen when we don’t use a learning centered approach in order to really fully appreciate and understand the power of it. So if you don’t mind, I’ll, I’ll bring you back to a memory that always comes up for me still decades later in these kinds of conversations and the place I’ll bring you is a beautiful part of Northeastern Brazil, where I was fortunate enough to spend quite a bit of time both before and after I did my masters many moons ago, I recall one day that was transformative for me as I, because I, I had accompanied a, a community health worker on foot, quite a distance to a home of a mom whose child had been born not long before.
Valerie (5m 20s): And we were there to simply do what was I thought going to be a perfunctory check in. And when we arrived, I tracked the conversation between mom and health worker enough to understand that sadly, the child wasn’t there. In fact, the child had died suddenly. And I grew to understand as the mother described it, that the child had not been well. And she had given it the packet of a oral rehydration solution, which at that time was really seen as a life-giving healing formula for babies. But in the quick teaching, apparently that had happened in the clinic.
Valerie (6m 2s): The mom had misunderstood that she needed to mix the packet with a large leader of water and give it to the baby slowly over time. And instead she put it into the small, the one small baby bottle that she had and gave it to the baby in a short span of time and the child suffered dehydration and, and died. And I remember the long, it seemed like an eternal walk away from the house back to the clinic where I felt just newfound sense of responsibility as an educator, that ours is not to tell, but to teach in dialogue and I’ve held onto that to today.
Phillip (6m 45s): Val, I really appreciate you sort of sharing the, the opposite of a Learning Centered Approach, you know, I think we can all reflect even on our own educational upbringing in kindergarten through 12th grade in the United States or its equivalent elsewhere. Many of us have experienced firsthand what a teacher Centered Approach or a content Centered Approach is like, and we carry that forward with us in life. And unless we have a moment to see the opposite modeled for us, that’s what we think teaching and learning is. You know, I think about in high school, I was sort of a pain in the neck to some teachers in high school.
Phillip (7m 26s): And I remember we got a, a new teacher in my senior year who came in to teach our Western civilization class. And her pedagogy was to outline the chapter that we had read in the textbook the night before and transcribe her outline notes onto the chalkboard for the entirety of the two hour class, while we copied down what was on the Blackboard. And this felt particularly insulting to us because we had in this cohort had gone through the four years of high school together. And in our freshman year, we had this wonderfully dynamic history teacher that we assumed who are going to have for this class and our senior year sort of like a bookend experience.
Phillip (8m 8s): And this individual went on to a, a different teaching position at a different place. And we got this, this other person is a replacement with her, a very different pedagogy. And I blurted out one day because I couldn’t contain myself, “this is like learning history on the back of a baseball card”. And I somehow didn’t end up in the principal’s office. I’m not sure what act of grace kept that from happening, but that, for me, I I’ll never forget that moment because it was indicative of all this pent up frustration about what traditional education wasn’t doing for me. And at that point, I had an inkling that there was something else out there.
Phillip (8m 49s): I was lucky enough to go through a very, very progressive and freewheeling kind of college and took a lot of a progressive education studies courses while I was there and got exposed to some really great theory from the types of folks that inform the Learning Centered Approach that we practice. But it was just theory for a very, very long time until I got that first opportunity to work with Global Learning Partners and learn a dialog centered approach and learning centered approach and figure out how to put that theory into practice. And it really, I came back to work after that first workshop, that first day, I didn’t have to go back to the office, but I went back to the office and my coworkers all said, what happened?
Phillip (9m 32s): You look different. And they were right. I was changed. And it’s, it’s never been the same sense because it was such a radical affirmation of both the theory that I had learned 10 years prior as an undergraduate, but also an affirmation that I was onto something when I was in that high school classroom and knowing that it just was not right.
Meg (9m 57s): You knew just from that experience with your previous history teacher, that they are obviously different styles of teaching, different pedagogies, as you said, and to have that intuition, just trusting your gut, that there was something else out there kind of led you to be more open-minded about this approach when it came your way. Val, I wonder if I could tease out a little bit more, you described this experience that you had, which was so absolutely profound. The, what happens when we don’t use a learning centered approach, but where was it that you first discovered a learning Centered Approach?
Valerie (10m 34s): Some years after that Brazil experience, I found myself working for an international consulting firm and flying to, and fro different countries in Latin America and doing the best I could, the best I knew how looking back at how to bring a, what we knew about public health, women’s health, children’s health, to communities and organizations and ministries of health, governmental programs around Latin America. And I had the good fortune of being given the assignment by my supervisor to call someone named Dr. Jane Vella, and just have a conversation with her about how she might be able to help us.
Valerie (11m 19s): And I will never forget sitting around this fancy conference table in Washington, DC when a Jane came and sat with us and would that, you know, look on her face of being utterly respectful and, and yet trying to help us see that pretty much everything we were doing was all wrong. And so I started working very closely with Jane on these projects, these public health, nutrition, family planning projects in Latin America, just getting her delicate, but profound input on how we were approaching the work.
Valerie (12m 1s): And that began years for me of experimentation, I guess I’ll say with shifting my perspective, but what would this look like if we really put the Learning at the Center? What would this look like if we discovered as much as we could with the resources and time available about the learners in their reality, so that what we had to teach really integrated into their day-to-day lives and work, what would this look like if instead of deciding on content and activities from the start, we really set those aside and said, let me just immerse myself a little bit more in what these learners want and need, and then compliment what they know and do with what we may have access to in terms of knowledge, skills, and resources.
Valerie (12m 59s): And so that, that was a lovely journey for me. And I’m forever grateful that, that I got to work with Jane so early on.
Peter (13m 8s): Not only are, are you grateful, but we are also grateful to have been with you on the journey of learning so many things resonate for me and your storytelling. You know, you’ve, you’ve shared with us a few things from the beginning of your journey, Valerie. I wonder now, as a, as a mature, a learning, designer and facilitator and someone who mentors, many, many of us, what would you say now are your starting points for action? When you’re approaching a project or a client or new work to do, what are the one or two principles that best inform your work now as a learning center practitioner?
Valerie (13m 47s): You know, what’s so interesting that you used the word action in that question, Peter, because I don’t think I would have named action as a principal. It doesn’t tend to be one of the core principles we teach about it in our introductory courses or our introductory conversations with clients. But, you know, I think action has become a principle for me. It often is the starting point for the work. It often is the beginning of the inquiry that I have as a designer and facilitator its what, what are the actions that are most going to contribute to a better situation? What are the actions that learners could take that are really going to bring them from wherever they are to the next place they want to go and then build out from those actions. So there’s no, there’s no place for content and teaching unless it’s in support of an action that people can take.
Valerie (14m 49s): And sometimes it’s what, it’s what might seem like a small thing from the outside, but it’s substantive for the learners. It’s got to be something that’s challenging and yet doable and directly related to the situation at hand.
Peter (15m 6s): Hmm. That’s so good and resonates again, so well for me, what about you Phillip? But when you are now starting a project or working with a group of people to facilitate change or transformation of Learning, when you think about a Learning Centered Approach, what are the one or two principles that really you take first out of your toolbox and, and start to work with?
Phillip (15m 30s): Well, now I want a steal Val’s response. I love that idea. That action is a central principle. I’m going to riff on for a minute and then I’ll give my own original idea. A lot of the work that I do is also in this sort of action research framework, the idea that any work that we might do, any action that we might take is in itself also a research opportunity. We do something, we see what worked and what didn’t work. We adopt the stuff that worked. We got rid of the stuff that didn’t work and we try again over and over and over and that bringing a certain level of reflectivity and attention and mindfulness to that process allows us to learn better in action.
Phillip (16m 12s): And that’s some folks I work with get tripped up on that because they hear the word research and they think of people in white lab coats, you know, doing very abstract knowledge creation, but in fact research can happen in the day to day and it really should be tied to action. And so that leads me to my sort of core principle, which is the idea of immediacy. And I think that’s probably is some of the other side of the same coin is action for me. If something isn’t going to be immediately relevant and applicable to the learners or to the folks that I’m working with and a looser sort of learning situation, then I try my best to work with my team members to take a step back and really ask what is it that needs to happen here?
Phillip (17m 2s): What is the most important for the people who are going to be in the room? Because of course, if we’re just throwing out content for the sake of throwing out content and then we can tell ourselves as something has happened there. But really the only thing that’s happened is the throwing out of content, true learning hasn’t happened, true transfer hasn’t happened. And that’s been a difficult conversation in many circumstances. Again, it goes back to what I said earlier, I think because of the way that we’ve been taught to think about teaching and learning that just covering content to sufficient and immediacy takes a backseat. So that’s been really important for me.
Meg (17m 42s): We’ve talked a little bit about some of the principles that, that you are centering in your work, but I wonder if we could touch on the methodologies and the way that you structure Learning in this Learning Centered Approach what do you think the key differences are there? So the difference between, like you said, Philip, your teacher simply writing out content on the board. What would be some, some ways that if you could go back and teach that class, how would you apply a learning centered approach and really structure and deliver that content?
Phillip (18m 17s): That’s a great question, Meg. The first thing that pops to mind for me is let’s just focus on a particular example. This was a course on great ideas in the history of Western Europe. And the first dialogue focusing question I could think of would be to keep turning back and saying, how does this apply to you right now? How do these abstract concepts coming from philosophers over a millennia? What do they have to do with you? What does this have to do with you right now? You 17 year olds sitting there. And what does that mean for your life in this moment? And what might it mean for your life going forward and for what you see going on around you?
Phillip (18m 58s): That first question I think would breathe life into what had otherwise been a recitation of facts.
Valerie (19m 5s): If I could just kind of scope out from that example. And it’s a beautiful one and just use what Philip just said to offer just a very concrete way to operationalize a Learning Centered Approach. And I think it is that the question Philip just posed is a very intentional question that invites dialogue. It invites dialogue within the learner and it invites dialogue among the learners. It invites dialogue between the learner and the teacher or teachers and finding those questions and exploring that dialogue is really at the heart of a learning centered approach.
Valerie (19m 49s): I think that is something I’ve now seen over the years is that, that dialogue has to start early in order for us to be really good designers and facilitators. It’s not enough to just say, okay, once this workshop begins or once the staff training starts, what are the right questions I want to pose instead, it’s saying, what do I want to discover beforehand about my learners and their situation in order to kind of erase the mystery of their reality for me, and in order to get them thinking early on about how this content or this opportunity for learning that we’re going to have together might best serve them.
Valerie (20m 34s): And I think, you know, that mystery, it’s funny, even this morning with one of the clients, GLP is working with now, I found myself listening to the client, struggle with all of that. She doesn’t know about learners and what might be relevant for them. And she is literally, literally sweating over this design that she is creating. And I remember the years when I used to do that too, because it didn’t occur to me that I could actually ask them, that I don’t make need to make all those assumptions myself. I don’t need to draw all of those lines myself. So I think Meg, I would say that a really important element to operationalize a learning centered approach is the dialogue, the discovery that’s boring of the right question.
Phillip (21m 24s): Thanks for sharpening the point on that. Val, I want to observe that it’s a, there’s this beautiful dance between intentional, careful premeditated design in a Learning Centered Approach that then creates space for surprise and mystery and wonder, and the unexpected in the moment and without the pairing of the two, you almost get neither.
Meg (21m 52s): I wonder If you could, if you could expand on that a little bit more, Philip you’re giving us just a tease and I want to know more about what you mean by that.
Phillip (22m 4s): Yeah. I meant what I said, that’s it? No, Val help me out. I, you know, yeah, go ahead, Val, help me out.
Valerie (22m 13s): Well, it’s not helping you out really. It’s just, it’s just what came up for me as I was listening. And the other dancers out there listening might relate to, to, to the analogy I’m going to use, but implementing this approach effectively is a lot like being on the dance floor. There is a choreography to it. There is a structure to it. You need to have that structure. You need to have that choreography. You need to know kind of where you are and where you’re going in order to relax into it. And yet there’s lots of room for innovation, for personal style, for the unexpected, for the flare.
Meg (22m 53s): Right. Thank you. Well, I appreciate the, the dancing metaphor because I think a lot of designers and facilitators I’m sure can, can really relate to that feeling of juggling or dancing. It’s it really is. It’s a type of process where there, you have your structures that you can work within. There’s a lot of room to play as well. That brings to mind. One of Jane’s axioms. Joy is the measure and what a joyful thing it is when we can, we can respect our learners by putting great thought and intention into the learning design ahead of time and be responsive to what happens when we’re in the room or where, you know, On on the line and we’re getting real time feedback that we can, we can still Shift.
Meg (23m 45s): We can play, we can, you know, we can decide to dance this way instead of that. So that’s one of the beautiful things that I’ve certainly appreciated about a Learning Centered Approach too. And I think you, Phillip for highlighting that cause it’s, it’s so true. It’s so true.
Valerie (24m 2s): And it’s where your design and facilitation go hand in hand, right? Where that, that design is really where your creating a very thoughtful structure for things. And yet the skill of great facilitation is being able to work within that structure and respond to the moment.
Peter (24m 25s): You know, I think I’d like to pick up on that one, if I may, that also points to a kind of maturity, right? A way of being a way of being attentive. I think I heard you say, Phillip mindful, and as a, as you’ve developed as a learning center practitioner, can you tell us a bit of a personal story about how that’s changed you as a practitioner and not only as a practitioner, as a leader, but also as a person, what parts of your personality in of who you are, have changed as a result of many years of being a Learning Centered practitioner?
Phillip (25m 0s): That’s a great question, Peter. And I think it takes a certain amount of humbleness learned through a, an increasingly attentive practice of a learning centered Approach to, to answer because I admit that in my earlier years of trying to inflict a Learning Centered Approach on the people I was working with, I was so excited about the whole ism of the work that Jane Vella brings to the world and the dialogue education tradition that for me, if we were missing any piece than the whole could not hope to work.
Phillip (25m 46s): And so I was a bit of a fanatic about nailing every piece of it. And I’ve admittedly kicking and screaming had to come to a place of realizing that the work with a client around a learning centered approach itself requires a learning centered approach. And the understanding that unless the client has gone through a focused intentional multi-day workshop to see the whole Approach they’re going to need to come to it in bits and pieces, and it’s not going to happen right away. And that I need to be patient with that.
Peter (26m 26s): So how about you, Valerie? You know, we’ve shared so many stories and there is so much power in them. Both of you. Can you build on that a little bit from a personal perspective, how has being a Learning Centered practitioner changed you as a person?
Valerie (26m 41s): See, now the power of a good, you just got me? I just, I just felt that from my head to my toes, having to reflect on that question because it does change us. Well, I think on a more superficial level I’ll start, which is to say it’s grown my confidence. It has grown my confidence as a person out in the world, because there’s really not a situation, a challenge, a teaching that I’ve encountered anymore, that doesn’t lend itself or respond to the principles and practices of a learning centered Approach.
Valerie (27m 22s): So whether I’m facing teaching algebra to my 13 year old, who Phillip sees absolutely no relevance between that and her life, or whether I’m trying to organize a support effort for a friend whose partner just suddenly died two weeks ago, or whether I’m trying to create dialogue between right-leaning and left-leaning community members whose red and blue labels have kept them apart from each other for years now.
Valerie (28m 1s): What whatever, whatever the situation or the challenge. And those are just a few from over the last week of my life, it responds to a Learning Centered Approach, it responds to that pausing and saying, okay, what is happening here? What are the learners feeling? What is it they want? What is it they know? What is it they could learn that would really help them go where they want to go? And then how can I design for that and help facilitate it? It’s just grown my confidence, having those tools in my pocket, you know, on another level, Peter, I think it’s made me just a better person because I connect more with humanity now.
Valerie (28m 50s): I don’t see someone as so different from me. I kind of see everybody as a learner, we’re all somewhere right on our journey. We all have different things that we know, different skills and we’re all working on them all the time. So it takes away some of the intimidation I think that I used to feel when I’d meet a stranger and now I just meet them as another human being.
Peter (29m 19s): Thank you for demonstrating and showing for us again, why you’re such an incredible leader in this community. Meg (29m 26s): I wonder Val and Phillip, both of you have shared some of the impact that a Learning Centered Approach has had on, on you personally. And I wonder if you could share the experiences that you’ve heard from clients or colleagues that you are working through this approach with for the first time and how has that impacted them and their work in the world.
Valerie (29m 55s): So I’m going to jump in because I just referred to this launch that Meg has been a partner in that’s been so exciting its outside of the world of global learning partners, but I’ll speak to her because I have a feeling it’s something that all of our listeners might be able to relate to right now. And that is this effort to bring self identifying out of conservatives and liberals or progressives, right leaning, left leaning, red, blue, whatever, whatever language you want to use, together. And it has been a difficult process, but you know, the process we followed is very much the process that we teach and Follow with Global Learning Partners, you know, it began with a discovery process.
Valerie (30m 38s): We, we looked nationwide at who’s been successful in, in bringing people together across the political continuum and what, what have they done? And what’s worked. So we are not going to start from scratch. What’s worked out there. So it’s a very affirming kind of appreciative inquiry that happens at the beginning. And then we established relationships. You know, we established relationships with people who might see things like we see them and people who see things differently because that’s the only way we learn and grow and a good design or can not be coming just from their vantage point. A good designer has to have internalized to a certain extent, the various vantage points that are going to be represented out there.
Valerie (31m 26s): So, you know, we connected had conversations with some of the women in greater New Orleans who might be interested in participating in, in such an initiative. We explored what some of the real barriers are. And I mean, we all see these barriers every day, pick up the newspaper, watched the debates on TV, try to have a conversation with a neighbor who see things, see things differently. It’s hard. And so we have to also acknowledge what are some of the barriers to the actions, right? That people want to take. And then from there we designed, you know. We had the base of our pyramid if you’re going to refer to the eight steps of design, but whether or not you are not, you know, that tool it’s really saying, do I have a solid enough foundation and understanding of the learners, the situation and our aspiration together, what is it we’re trying to accomplish?
Valerie (32m 17s): And then we created an opportunity that was very carefully structured. We had an hour and a half in a virtual setting. We intentionally brought 10 right-leaning women, 10 left-leaning women together. We told them what to expect. We had a design that was transparent and we walked through that together. And yes, there were moments of dance, right? There were moments of, Oh, we better respond right here right now to some, some unexpected thing that emerged. But for the most part, we trusted that design and we collected feedback immediately at the end. So we knew exactly how, what we had just done together was, was landing for the learners in the moment.
Valerie (32m 59s): And last night we were able to take that, that very, very positive feedback. It was astoundingly positive and say, okay, what’s next? So not having to map out all of it, but to just take that first step, very thoughtfully.
Meg (33m 14s): You know, Val, I wonder if you could elaborate just a little bit on what the experiences you heard work. Cause I think for many of those women, that this might’ve been their first experience with a Learning Centered Approach and they might not have experienced it as that explicitly. But what was, what were some of the things that came up for you when you were reading the feedback that really stood out?
Valerie (33m 36s): Yeah. Yeah. It’s so interesting Meg, because some of the comments we were like the comments that we Phillip, Peter, you and I and our, our family at Global Learning Partners see all the time, right? Things like, “wow, that was different than anything I’ve ever experienced before. I didn’t even want to come. And I am so glad I did. I had no idea that we could actually engage in conversation around those kinds of topics and do so safely. And for me to feel like I belonged there”, these are the kinds of things we saw in the feedback and a desire.
Valerie (34m 19s): I think this is important, a desire to find out what’s next, you know, 18 out of the 20 women said things like, okay, “I want the next conversation to be”. And then they had ideas for what it would be, right? So there was an action already built in to what they want it to do next. And the last thing I’ll say is there was a growth and a learning that happened outside of the content that we were grappling with. And I think a good learning center design always does that. Right? So people commented that, wow, I really had, I really honed my listening skills this evening, or I grew in my confidence to be able to voice my opinion, whatever the content is.
Valerie (35m 7s): That’s what we’re always trying to grow in people, right? Their ability to listen well to each other and to voice their own perspectives, ideas and wonderings.
Meg (35m 20s): Thank you, Val. That’s such a powerful thing to do for learners to experience that they were empowered to shape the learning is, is fantastic. So Phillip, I wonder if you, if you have a story or that you’d like to share?
Phillip (35m 39s): ell, you know, one that comes to mind that I tell often relates to a project that I worked on about 10 years ago with a group that was setting out to understand the positive impact of community gardening in New York city. It was a large scale effort. It was funded for multiple years of research and field-based practice. And after some initial research, some literature research to try to understand scientific research that had been done into the benefits of urban agriculture. Some folks in the in city hall here in New York city said that’s all well and good, thank you so much for the science.
Phillip (36m 19s): But what we want to know is really what’s happening in the gardens and farms here in New York city. We wanted to precisely what the positive impact of these places are. I get a sense of whether or not these gardens are worth preserving whether or not it’s worth funneling public resources at those at those spaces. Because of course every public policy decision is a cost benefit analysis between whether we should spend money on one thing versus another. So there was this hope that we could somehow figure out how to get community gardeners, to collect standardized data about the impact of their work, everything from the number of pounds of food that they grew in a particular year to the pounds of compost that they created to the gallons of stormwater that they collected to even trickier things to measure like whether or not folks felt emotionally better as a result of spending time in a garden.
Phillip (37m 12s): So the, the construct that I was pulled into work on with a long longstanding colleague was this idea that we could somehow create a, a standard tool kit of data collection tools, and that we could go around to all of the 500 plus community gardens in New York city and say, hello, thank you very much for being a community gardener. Please use this tool to collect all these, all of this data. And when I, when I came in into the project, I was already skeptical that that was going to work in part because as new yorkers we’re skeptical people and, you know, we, we, we liked to guard our privacy. And so anybody who might want to know how many pounds of tomatoes I grew, who were you just have to ask, but also more importantly, because there was that immediacy lacking, right?The idea that that data might have some impact on changing public policy some number of years.
Phillip (37m 59s): Well, it just didn’t track for someone who might be walking home from work on a busy day, stop into their garden, pick a couple of tomatoes to go back home and cook with and go on about their day that adding that extra step of weighing it and writing it down on a log book or something, it just wasn’t, it just wasn’t going to track that said the funder wanted that model to a forward. And that’s what we were handed. And I learned that no matter how much my colleague and I advised against that, Approach we need to actually take it to the folks who are going to be expected to work it for it, to sort of all fall apart and for us to have to start from scratch then.
Phillip (38m 40s): So of course, we had our first meeting with a bunch of community gardeners and it’s precisely what we predicted someone sort of paused and turned around and said, I’m sorry, who wants to know? And that was great. It was the beginning of the end of that model. And it was, it opened up the opportunity for us to start saying what actually matters to these incredible people who are spending so much of their own personal time, creating open spaces for their neighbors and creating new food opportunities for their neighbors. What do they care about? And across the board, they all said, we just want to know that what we’re doing is actually getting to where we wanna go. We want to know that we’re growing as much food as we set out to grow for the locals, a food pantry, or we want to know that we’ve had a significant carbon offset from the compost that we produced.
Phillip (39m 31s): And we just don’t know right now, we don’t have the tools to figure that out. And that’s what the conversation became at that point. And so it was Learning in the sense of like when you read a, a scientific report and the conclusion says, “and we learned that dot dot dot”. It was Learning in that sense, it was Learning in the sense of discovery. And so we were able to then to create some Learning Centered workshops with basically pose the question back to the garden arts. And what is it that you would like to learn about what you do? And from there, they created their own tool kit for measuring the impacts of their work. And now that toolkit’s being used by more than 500 gardens around the world. And I think it’s a Testament to having started with what the gardeners cared about, not what the funders or the policy walks cared about, and then learning from there.
Meg (40m 18s): You know, a piece of that feel that is so profound really. I mean, it brings me right back to the title of our podcast, which is Shift the Power and this idea that a Learning Centered Approach is really able to shift the power dynamics in our, in our learning events, in our world, therefore, and kind of popularize that Power. So it’s not in the hands of the few, its in the hands of the many. And I wonder if you have any closing reflections on how a Learning Centered Approach is able to Shift the Power?
Phillip (40m 54s): That was the recalcitrance that we met up with in the story that I just shared. It really was about redistributing the power in that project from the funder and their worldview to the gardeners and their worldviews. And, and in that moment of realizing that as consultants, my colleague and I had no power to shift it, we had to sort of let it run its course and create space for those gardeners to reclaim their power. And then we could sort of find that a leverage point to help them a mass, that power back to reshape the project. It goes back to a lot of what we’ve talked about the past hour or so this idea that we’re creating space for mystery and surprise in design, we’re sort of designing a way our power as instructors or facilitators on purpose in, in a very intentional way.
Phillip (41m 48s): When we take a Learning Centered Approach.
Valerie (41m 51s): You know, if I may Phillip, I’m going to say that in the end, I, I imagine that the policy makers, the funders also benefited. That it really in the end didn’t feel to them like a loss of power because the data, they also ended up having available to them. Although it was driven more by the gardeners was in fact meeting their original goal of tracking the success of this work. Is that accurate?
Phillip (42m 23s): That’s absolutely accurate. And they were thrilled. And they actually tell this story more often than I do as a, as a learning opportunity for them and for the infertility, the organization that was mediating all of this really changed a lot of their practices, on future projects as a result of their experience. So not only did they get, not only did the policymakers get the data, but they had much more confidence that the data was accurate because the gardeners wanted to get it right, because it mattered to them rather than just filling in some spaces on a worksheet to get it done. So yeah, there, they got what they wanted and they, they appreciated that in the end.
Valerie (43m 2s): You know, Meg, I can slip in one more companion story to that. That speaks to your question about shifting the Power because Global Learning Partners was involved some years ago with a number of projects in Ethiopia. One of them was to really from scratch collaboratively, conceptualize, design, implement, and evaluate an effort to better protect women in the sex industry, from HIV and AIDS. And although the, the funders and the really original drivers of this initiative laid it out in that way, a relatively narrow goal, you know, it was focused on HIV and AIDS.
Valerie (43m 52s): They discovered as we did, as this project unfolded using a Learning Centered Approach, that there was so much more that these women wanted to learn about and do for themselves and for their families. And that the secondary skills I’ll say that we’ve talked about a bit during this podcast that we’re built of, you know, a greater confidence, greater ability to really voice themselves, greater ability to reach out for information and use that information to their benefit played out over the course of this project. And when the final evaluation was done, what surfaced was not only that the women had learned what they needed to learn, right- about HIV and AIDS and protection and from other sexually transmitted disease in the use of the clinic’s in the use of the condoms, but what they had gained compare to other women who were not involved in this initiative was a greater sense of hope.
Valerie (44m 56s): And when that came back in the evaluation report, the, the, this was external evaluators who, who, who, who came in to, to do that because we had been so deeply involved in the design and they looked at it and say, how did you do that? And it was our collaborators there who were at the helm or where the original funders and policymakers who were behind this, who themselves said that by shifting that power away from them and to the women and including the women in all aspects of this initiative, as it unfolded, had really been the source of that very profound learning and change.
Meg (45m 40s): Wow. I want to thank you both for sharing such a beautiful examples. It illustrates to me how powerful Learning Centered Approach can be. That’s why we do this work it’s because we want to shift that power back to the people who historically have, have not had it. And the examples that both of you shared, I think get right to the heart of that. And I, I also want to thank you for, for being our very first guests on Shift the Power it’s, it’s been an absolute pleasure to have you here sharing your, your stories, your experiences, and your knowledge, both Valerie and Phillip.
Meg (46m 23s): I thank you so much for, for joining us today.
Valerie (46m 28s): My pleasure.
Phillip (46m 29s): I learned so much. Thank you
Meg (46m 32s): As this is our very first episode. We’re going to start our tradition of closing out the episode with a question for our listeners, Val and Phillip have shared a lot of incredible information with us today. And so we’d love to give you the opportunity to consider how it can be relevant for you and your work. So here is your away for today. Given what you’ve learned throughout this episode, how could you see a Learning Centered Approach impacting your work in the world?
Meg (47m 17s): Thank you for tuning in to another episode of Shift the Power a Learning Centered podcast. This podcast is produced by Global Learning Partners and Greg Tilton with music by Una Walkenhorst. To find out more about global learning partners, whether it be our course offerings, consulting services, free resources or blogs, go to www.globallearningpartners.com, we invite you to sign up for our mailing list, subscribe to our podcast and find us on social media to continue the dialog. If you enjoy the show, please consider leaving us a review on Apple podcasts or your preferred podcast player.