Monday 29 December 2008

The learning contract

In a recent conversation with Charles Shamas, humanitarian law expert with a background in cognitive sciences, we discussed connections between “law” and cognitive development. We believe that the success of a development programme depends to a great extent on cognitive development processes, i.e. the acquisition of new perceptions and knowledge systems, i.e. learning, among the actors involved. In a nutshell: if you want to gain fresh insights and skills, or support others in their learning processes, you must leave the safe territory of familiar knowledge so as to accommodate new, previously unknown mental objects. “Old” certainties may be shattered by new discoveries. “Can you live with ambiguity?” is a key question for job interviews in development NGOs. People deal differently with change. Individual life histories shape people’s ability to accommodate, to welcome the sense of destabilisation that comes with cognitive change. Situational factors play a role, too: experimentation feels less risky in a friendly, stable environment than in an oppressive or very unpredictable one.

And this is where the contract comes in. In an ideal learning situation, the learner and the mentor conclude an implicit contract, under which they both commit resources –most importantly, their time and efforts- to the learning process. The community of learning thus created forms a safe environment, where ambiguity and discomfort can be tolerated or even welcomed as corollaries to the learning process. A simple illustration: imagine the discomfort of slipping on dog’s droppings (a real risk in Berlin) and falling painfully on your back. You’ll be angry, upset, worried about possible injury and quite distracted from your original plans. In different circumstances, when I decided to take up snowboarding, I spent entire afternoons carrying the board up a slope, sliding a few metres, falling on my back, getting up, falling again, trying again, and falling once more… I fell twenty times per hour and was covered with bruises at the end of the day. But I hardly noticed any discomfort, because I had passed an implicit learning contract with myself (and an absent friend who would take me to real mountains a month later), under which falling on my back was a perfectly normal, acceptable risk in the pursuit of the new, more dynamic surfer’s equilibrium. Under a learning contract, the learner trusts the mentor to support her efforts and to learn with her; the mentor trusts the learner to expend effort in pursuit of her task.

In development, we pass contracts, too. Explicitly, such contracts focus on amounts of money disbursed by a donor and results to be delivered by a grantee. Implicitly, they are about sharing efforts in a development endeavour and bestowing trust upon each other, so as to create a safe environment for accommodation, for setting aside old certainties so as to welcome new knowledge without getting distracted or discouraged by difficulties. Arguably, this aspect of the development partnership deserves to be recognised and cultivated.

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