The Importance of Lifelong Learning

One of the great privileges of my work is the ability to strengthen lifelong learning within myself, and to share the knowledge that I have with others. As you know, we deliver a lot of training at OrgCode, and when we have the chance to revisit communities after training - often months or even years later - we can see if what was learned translated into action. Sometimes we have multi-year engagements with organizations or communities and we can see growth incrementally over time. And then there is the conference circuit - especially state conferences - where I will complete my 9th in just the past few months later this week. All of this comes down to the importance of lifelong learning. Why do we need it? What should it look like?

Lifelong learning enhances motivation to improve job performance. In our line of work, the difference between improved job performance can be the difference between life and death when it comes to very vulnerable people. The more people voluntarily expand their knowledge and practice, the more committed they are to see better outcomes.

Lifelong learning helps with our immunity to group think and the propensity to equate experience with expertise. Where group think is concerned, we quickly settle into habits and a strong desire to put convergent thinking ahead of divergent thinking. We need to expand our thinking to find new solutions to seemingly impossible problems rather than reducing to one possible answer or thinking we must have trade-offs in all instances. Lifelong learning helps us expand our thinking to "both/and" rather than "either/or". Similarly, when we have been in the field for a great length of time we start to think that experience leads to one best answer as opposed to opening ourselves up to alternative answers and responses to the issues and problems at hand.

Lifelong learning allows us to better read new information and respond to stimuli in ways that open us up to complex problem solving. In responding to new information, a lifelong learner is less apt to reduce the understanding of the information to just one mode of thought or reasoning. Staying abreast of the main currents of thought and practice in various disciplines allows the lifelong learner to use abductive approaches to problem solving rather than deductive or inductive logic in all situations. Take, for example, those communities responding to new street drugs in a way they have not before (once upon a time it was crack cocaine, now it is likely spice, k2, fentanyl or opioids). The lifelong learner addresses this from an approach of looking at the entire system of care and its response through abductive logic, where another person may just see the crisis and the necessity to equip staff with immediate life saving techniques. 

What does this all mean for communities pulling together training or planning conferences?

Yes, you will continue to need a number of core competency trainings; the 101 classes if you will. People will still need foundations in Housing First, Rapid ReHousing, Motivational Interviewing, Trauma-Informed Care, etc. And hopefully those will continue to be delivered by a range of competent individuals that have stayed abreast of new research, development, and practice. However, you need to go beyond this.

One of the findings in research on staff retention and staff commitment to vision and mission, is that those staff that feel invested in and challenged to expand skills are more likely to stay and be happy. For those reasons, you need to move beyond the 101 caliber of training and education opportunities to making the 201, 301, 401 and even more advanced training and engagement opportunities available. For example, maybe you need a facilitated discussion with Rapid ReHousing practitioners about ethics in practice when there are damages to the unit while trying to maintain positive landlord relations for other program participants. Or maybe you need to dig deeper into the difference between person-directed care and person-centred care. Or maybe you need to explore 10 case studies where Assertive Engagement was practiced in outreach and the implications for community partner relations when one or more other entity did not see the same harms requiring engagement in this manner. Or maybe you need to move beyond quality data capture in HMIS to using that data to improve practice as part of a reporting cycle. The list can go on and on.

Conference organizers and those thinking about a community's training needs are in a fantastic position to support and promote lifelong learning. But it is time in our development as an industry to move from the basics to the intermediate and advanced subject matter to keep lifelong learners engaged and challenged. If we don't, some of the most talented practitioners we have will jump ship to the place where they will feel more nurtured and challenged.

About Iain De Jong

Leader. Edutainer. Coach. Consultant. Professor. Researcher. Blogger. Do-gooder. Potty mouth. Positive disruptor. Relentless advocate for social justice. Comedian. Dad. Minimalist. Recovering musician. Canadian citizen. International jetsetter. Living life in jeans and a t-shirt. Trying really hard to end homelessness in developed countries around the world, expand harm reduction practices, make housing happen, and reform the justice system. Driven by change, fuelled by passion. Winner of a shit ton of prestigious awards, none of which matter unless change happens in how we think about vulnerability, marginality, and inclusion.

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