Come for the action, stay for the soul: How to design effective learning programmes for social change

From innovation labs to systems change courses – many providers are trying to ‘teach’ social change. But what makes a programme achieve genuine impact? Our columnist, who previously managed the social innovation scheme Year Here, teams up with the ex-boss of the Finance Innovation Lab to share eight mantras programme designers should follow.

From MBAs to innovation labs, agencies to courses, the pathways to develop social leadership, learn about system change, build useful interventions or grow skills in community organising are numerous. But what makes these programmes effective?

A good person to help answer this is Anna Fielding. She has been designing learning programmes for social justice and systems change since 2005, and she now works independently with organisations including the Economic Change Unit and Cohere Partners. She was formerly CEO at The Finance Innovation Lab, which incubates the people, ideas and movements building a financial system that serves people and planet. It does this by working with innovators developing new business models, campaigners calling for change in the rules of the game, and mainstream professionals who want to change finance from the inside.

I bring insights from my previous role as the managing director at Year Here, a platform for entrepreneurial people to build smart solutions to entrenched social problems. It’s immersive, action-oriented and grounded in the lived experience of Londoners in care homes, hostels and youth services. Participants build creative, scalable responses to social problems, supported by industry mentoring and a rigorous social innovation curriculum.

Anna and I shared our reflections and lessons from managing these two programmes for social change. She cast the inherent tension of this design challenge brilliantly when she described leadership as “holding multiple possible futures whilst trying to create stability”.

 

1. Provocative and ‘spicy’ content

Those who want to tackle social inequality and economic injustice don’t have to agree on the mechanisms through which this is achieved. Content and ideas that provoke debate among participants encourage critical thinking and empathy, and avoid the tribalism that can so often lead to exclusion and inertia. This tribalism manifests itself through fear of upsetting your ‘tribe’ and an inability to see that an approach is imperfect, limiting the opportunity to grow, learn and become more effective.

Ideas that provoke debate help avoid tribalism that can so often lead to exclusion and inertia

Echo chambers encourage the narrow thinking that social change makers are trying to overcome, so actively seeking unusual or overlooked perspectives leads to a thriving cohort of divergent thinkers. Celebrating the complexity of topics ranging from how the move to a cashless society might impact those on lower incomes; the ethics of government-designed digital health services; philanthropic giving and colonialism, to name a few, brings much-needed nuance to narratives that have become dangerously oversimplified.

 

2. Experts provide star power, which activates knowledge in the room

Paulo Friere’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed proposes that knowledge drawn out from people is far more impactful than that which is fed to them. Well-designed input can spark this process, and excellent facilitation will kindle the fire. Smart programme teams won’t overlook the varied and diverse experience among the cohort. Designing ways for participants to share, collaborate, curate content and learn from each other, as well as from the speakers, is more likely to create the conditions for social change, both through the quality and relevance of that learning, but also through the process itself: the act of hearing and valuing other perspectives and speaking with courage builds power and agency.

In parallel, a faculty of specialists and subject matter experts supporting the content brings credibility, inspiration and gravitas. Briefing external speakers and panellists thoroughly ensures the programme has flow – a central organising concept that learning can be built around.

 

3. Uncover insights from both lived and learned experience

Inviting the stories of people who are affected by social and economic injustice – from financial exclusion to health inequality, homelessness to poor mental well-being – alongside recognising the lived and learned experience of those in the room is vital. Both need careful design and the development of an inclusive culture that promotes an intersectional approach to identity and inequality, while challenging bias.

It’s important to recognise that being inclusive in the room will not correct for structural inequality outside of the room, so people’s different needs must be designed into the whole programme, including assumptions about what progress might mean for different groups.

 

4. Learn by doing

Successful social change programmes balance concepts and ideas with practical, immersive, hands-on experience. Importantly, programmes that do this well are structured to weave theory and action along in harmony.

 

 

The act of testing service improvements and experimenting with new approaches in situ – from placements in frontline care settings to data-driven investigations improving financial health – enables rapid learning. Adjusting to the failure that comes with innovation and working hand-in-hand with those who experience social and economic injustice, alongside those delivering the services to tackle it, is the only way to gain the insight necessary for action. Doing this both within and on the edges of the systems that perpetuate these inequalities, generates understanding that turbocharges learning and builds a community rich in practical wisdom – a radical alternative to traditional courses.

 

5. Outstanding facilitation enables courageous participation

Effective social change programmes make systems change real through the culture they model and the ways of being they facilitate.

This culture, enabled by generous and skillful facilitation that develops a culture of psychological safety, accompanied by robust pastoral support, enables participants to share bravely and express vulnerability. Signposting these sessions clearly prepares them for the possible discomfort that comes with this learning process.

An effective programme also honours the power of the pause; creating a culture that builds in time and tools for reflective practice that enables personal transformation.

An effective programme creates a culture that builds in time for reflective practice that enables personal transformation

 

6. The space – even online – shapes the day

Physical space can make a huge difference to the mindset required for learning. Unique venues that align with the mission, values and culture of the programme bring authenticity. From community centres to creative hubs, women’s theatres to urban farms, not only does hiring sustainable spaces ensure that programme spend is supporting local communities, these environments encourage inventive thinking. Small but vital design touches, from how chairs are set up (in circles encourages an inclusive, non-hierarchical dynamic), to meaningful stories about the history or social impact of a venue can set the tone and vision for a session.

Many programmes are learning how to do this virtually with the shift to online delivery. Creating an inclusive atmosphere, encouraging full participation and being responsive to the individual needs and circumstances of learners is a challenge. It means recognising that verbal and visual cues and instructions have to do a lot more work because physical cues are absent. It requires setting up the ‘space’ as carefully as if it were physical (Miro or Jamboard serve as flipcharts; small group work requires ‘Zoom breakout rooms’ before coming back to the ‘centre’ to share perspectives). And it means adequate screen-free time for rests and breaks.

 

7. Continuous improvement isn’t improving all at once

Striking the balance between responding to feedback and implementing changes, while constantly delivering, is one of the greatest challenges.

Gathering feedback – formally via surveys, and informally by creating a culture that is open to constructive criticism – is, arguably, one of the most important components of effective programme design. Ensuring that all stakeholders, from learners to the programme team, have an opportunity to provide frequent feedback is essential. This means a forum that promotes healthy discussion and then, critically, developing a sensible strategy to implement changes in the short, medium and long-term that doesn’t disrupt curriculum flow and that is achievable.

Secondly, responsible programme design, especially in the realm of social innovation and systems change, recognises that the sands are constantly shifting: new theories, ideas, case studies and models are being developed all the time. There’s no such thing as best practice, only good practice that may or may not work in the new context.

New theories, ideas, case studies and models are being developed all the time. There’s no such thing as best practice, only good practice that may or may not work in the new context

 

8. Catalyse an active alumni network

The culture and sense of fellowship doesn't end when the programme concludes. The framework to connect alumni might be set up by the programme team – Slack or WhatsApp, regular meetups – but the true value comes from self-organising alumni who continue to  collaborate and support each other and the programme. Tangible outcomes, whether through job creation, alumni coming back to support programme delivery, or engaging as co-founders on new social businesses, demonstrate the value of building trust and cooperation. Forging an organic community that convenes and connects away from the structures of the programme is a powerful recipe for collective action.

 

Ultimately, one of our overarching reflections about designing effective learning programmes for social change was that we hadn’t really been designing programmes, but building movements. In our experience, this went beyond course content, session structure or expert speakers (although of course getting these things right is fundamental). It was more about creating the conditions for change outside and beyond the programme. Great programmes will create immense value for participants; movements enable participants to create immense value in the world.

 

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