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Learning visits: seeing with your own eyes

Reading case studies can be a very useful way of improving our own work in the community. But imagine being able to interact with a case study and ask questions!

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Rosa Mariano, an active Life Team member from Zambezia Province, greets her neighbours. Photo: Rebecca J Vander Meulen

From: Lifelong learning – Footsteps 90

Articles on learning from others and stories and advice from around the world

Reading case studies can be a very useful way of improving our own work in the community. We can learn about innovation, copy successful models and adapt them to our context as well as being inspired by others’ successes. But imagine being able to interact with a case study and ask questions! Many organisations are taking up the idea of ‘learning visits’ and choosing to travel in order to gain learning which will enrich their own work at home. ‘Learning visits’ can be international or in your own neighbourhood – the principles are the same. Below we have gathered a selection of types of visit with case studies from around the world.

National visits

Who? Organisations that work on similar issues in the same country visit each other to share knowledge.

Learning happens in the cabbage patch, as Chadian Tearfund partners visit a demonstration plot. Photo Liu Liu / Tearfund

Learning happens in the cabbage patch, as Chadian Tearfund partners visit a demonstration plot. Photo Liu Liu/Tearfund

Case study: In May 2011, Tearfund partners from across Chad received training on environmental sustainability where they learnt the importance of care for God’s creation and how to improve food production using natural methods such as agroforestry and composting. Eight months later, a follow-up visit was organised by the trainer for five partners from the north to see how the learning from the workshop had been put into practice by two partner organisations in the south. The group visited villages and fields to find out how learning from the workshop is passed on and applied to the farmers. Discussing practical details with the southern partners gave the northern partners insight and advice which enabled them to improve their own work.

Individual visits

Who? Entrepreneurial individuals who have developed expertise in a field and who are willing to help others to apply this knowledge in a new context.

Case study: Joel Tembo, a member of Tearfund’s Inspired Individuals programme, recognised a social need and developed a business solution to the growing problem of waste disposal in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo. He established a waste and services company whilst mobilising the church and community to engage with environmental issues. He visited Sierra Leone to share his knowledge and experience with local organisations and churches who were interested in waste management. Those in Sierra Leone were inspired by Joel’s work, but what surprised both sides was how much Joel felt he learnt from the experience himself. ‘Before I went to the field, I didn’t see the link between environmental sustainability and development work on the ground. When I saw what was happening in the villages, I was very impressed’, he commented.

Peer to peer evaluation visits

Organisations that are willing to evaluate a peer organisation and be evaluated themselves in return.

Case study: Three organisations, two in India and one in Bangladesh, wanted to improve the quality of their Disaster Risk Reduction projects and decided to use evaluation as an opportunity to learn from one another. Not wanting to employ an expensive outside consultant, they decided to try a peer evaluation model. To ensure that the evaluation was consistent, a set of questions were developed in advance and used in each evaluation. An evaluation team, containing members from all the participating organisations, spent two weeks visiting the project sites of each organisation in turn. By the end of the process, all three organisations had been evaluated and had had the opportunity to evaluate others, sharing learning and building relationships for the future.

‘Jump-start’ visits

Who? An organisation that wants to start working on a new issue visits an organisation which already has experience in this field.

A visiting group from Myanmar hear how villagers in Bangladesh prepare for disasters. Liu Liu / Tearfund

A visiting group from Myanmar hear how villagers in Bangladesh prepare for disasters. Liu Liu/Tearfund

Case study: Following Cyclone Nargis, a group from Myanmar wanted to help communities to be better prepared for disasters. Bangladesh has frequent floods, and an organisation there with experience in Disaster Risk Reduction offered to host a visit. The Myanmar group visited villages which had developed early warning systems, search and rescue drills and education programmes for local schools. They had even written folk songs and created dances to spread messages about preparing for disasters. Because the two groups worked in similar geographical contexts, the group from Myanmar were able to return home and start Disaster Risk Reduction projects in their own organisations.

With thanks to Liu Liu, Disaster Management and Environmental Sustainability Officer, and Andrew Bulmer, former Church and Development Adviser, Tearfund.

Planning your own learning visit 

Before you go

  • ‘Learning visits’ will require careful budgeting and planning. A local visit will be lower cost than an international trip. If travel and accommodation are required, research the best options well in advance to reduce costs. 
  • Select the participants carefully, choosing those who will gain the most and be able to share and use their learning when they return.
  • Match the projects and locations thought­fully. The group from Myanmar gained more from their visit to Bangladesh because their environment and disaster types were similar (See ‘Jump-start’ visits above).
  • Be clear about the purpose of your visit. What does the visiting group want to get out of their time?
  • Communicate clearly with the hosts about your expectations. Agree together what you can learn from each other.
  • Where possible, become informed about the area and the type of work before you visit. You will get more out of your time if you can ask good questions.
  • Pray! Ask God to prepare you and your hosts for the visit. Ask others at home to support you by praying whilst you are away.

On the visit

  • Allow enough time for each project site. Plan more time than you need in case there are unexpected challenges or opportunities.
  • Make sure that you are able to talk with those doing work on the ground as well as project leaders and officials. Often the best insights will come from discussion with project staff.
  • Ask about the early stages of their work. You may see a mature project now but it is likely that a lot of lessons were learnt at the start. Finding out what went wrong, as well as about successes, is very important.
  • Assign a member of your group to write down key names, facts, recommended resources and contact details. It is easy to forget these if you don’t keep a record. You could also use a camera or a video recorder if one is available.

After the visit

  • After each day of visiting, take the time to discuss with others what you have learnt and what new questions you have. What impressed you? What surprised you?
  • Think about how you can apply these lessons to your own work. What might you change?
  • Decide who you are going to share this new learning with and communicate it to them. When we are blessed, we should pass it on!
  • Before the visiting team departs, it is good to ask everyone to write a list of things they would like to carry out when they return home. If individuals are sole representatives of an organisation, they can choose to share this with their colleagues.
  • Keep in touch with your hosts, as well as others from your visiting group. You can continue to encourage one another and share your experiences of developing your project with your new found learning.

If you have experience of undertaking a learning visit, why not share it with other readers by e-mailing a short letter to [email protected]

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