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Creating a culture of collaborative learning: 3 lessons from the School Action Learning Exchange

Central to R4D’s mission is the belief that local change agents — rather than external organizations — are best placed to identify and respond to the challenges their communities face. We aspire to play a facilitative, supporting role alongside local change agents, drawing upon our experience collaborating with a diverse set of partner organizations across the globe.

One of the ways R4D works with its partner organizations to achieve strong, lasting outcomes is through the development and facilitation of collaborative learning networks. We work with communities dedicated to tackling pressing issues in health, education and nutrition — whether that’s improving literacy or financing vaccines — and help partners exchange information and experiences focused on implementation and policy-setting. We help create shared learning agendas defined by members of the community, which often include some combination of policymakers, practitioners, researchers or civil society members.

One such community is the School Action Learning Exchange (SALEX), which launched in 2022. SALEX — initiated and supported by the Jacobs Foundation — brings together local, regional and global networks that work with large numbers of schools or teachers and are interested in developing, sharing and promoting the uptake of evidence-driven strategies to improve learning outcomes.

As the SALEX design partner, R4D, working in close consultation with the Jacobs Foundation and the initial cadre of community members, helped create the vision statement, governance structure and initial implementation plan for this community. As part of that process, we sought to learn from other collaborative learning experiences by reviewing academic literature, analyzing the experiences of more than 20 other learning communities and interviewing representatives from several other networks. A series of lessons, which proved integral in the design of SALEX, emerged from that review. Below we highlight three of our most valuable takeaways.

Solicit a diversity of perspectives while retaining a common purpose

SALEX member organizations differ across geography, size and mission. They range from large networks of networks, such as Teach For All, which has more than 60 independent country organizations under its umbrella, to Instituto Gesto, whose work to strengthen public education networks and local policies is exclusive to Brazil. Members also bring different policy perspectives and ideologies, whether around the role of non-state education or how scarce education resources should be allocated.

To harness its diversity, the SALEX community developed a shared vision statement that all organizations not only agreed to but helped create and refine. Arriving there required considerable intentionality. R4D conducted a “listening tour” of all potential SALEX members to understand what value they would derive from a learning network. At a kickoff meeting, we led a design session to shape the emerging set of goals while promoting buy-in from member organizations. The result was a statement that focused on evidence generation, uptake and promotion of holistic outcomes. This vision was broad enough to generate consensus but specific enough to provide the community with real direction. It has served as a useful north star to shape the form and function of SALEX, including the development of four thematic sub-communities — all of which align with this vision.

Expect and help foster evolution

What a network looks like at its inception may not be what it looks like one or two years into its existence. New shared priorities may emerge, member composition can shift and operational or governance structures may not work as well as intended. Such changes are a positive sign — they indicate that members still see value and potential in the network.

The successful networks that we reviewed built in processes to reflect and adapt. For some, this involved commissioning independent evaluations. For others, steering group meetings catalyzed such changes. Though SALEX is still early in its existence, R4D has planned for change by creating a member leadership group to advise on the direction of our network, implementing regular surveys and hosting annual all-member events to take stock of progress and change course as needed.

As we collect data to make informed changes, we also strive to minimize the amount of effort needed by members (e.g. using brief, focused surveys). More importantly, we are looking beyond the external impact of our work to evaluate the strength of network connections and implementation — factors that will ultimately determine the durability and utility of SALEX.

Invest in a backbone organization

Our review of literature and key informant interviews highlight the potential catalytic impact of a “backbone” organization — or network coordinator — to provide support to the learning community. While the role of backbone organizations differed across networks, commonly seen functions included supporting the development of shared learning agendas, facilitating exchanges across community members, curating existing resources and shepherding the development of new ones. A backbone organization can also help reduce the level of effort required by member organizations by streamlining communications and serving as an intermediary between members, network supporters, and other partners. Furthermore, they not only enhance opportunities for learning but also contribute to expanding the community’s impact beyond its members.

One lesson of particular importance is having an independent backbone organization that is not beholden to any specific members and whose mandate includes ensuring that various voices are heard. As the backbone organization to SALEX, R4D’s role is not to make critical decisions about the direction and focus of the community but rather to develop and facilitate the processes that allow its members to make thoughtful and well-informed decisions.

Learning networks are more than nice-to-have supplements to individual efforts to acquire, apply and master new knowledge. Rather, they are the engines of collective progress — and as such they require investment and research commensurate with their importance. Our own landscaping of networks suggests that there is clear value in synthesizing and applying lessons from a growing number of learning communities.

Drawing from R4D’s experience designing and supporting multiple networks like SALEX, R4D launched two new resources: an online toolkit and an open-access e-course to support managers, facilitators and supporters of Collaborative Learning Networks.

For more information on SALEX, visit here. To learn more about R4D’s Collaborative Learning Networks, visit here.

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R4D is a globally recognized leader for designing initiatives that connect implementers, experts and funders across countries to build knowledge and get that knowledge into practice.