23 learning circlers graduate

Toronto Learning Circle has completed a full rotation for 2016!

Hi, I’m Maggie – the Toronto Learning Circle Coach.

From November to May, 23 frontline, mid-level and senior level leaders from across Toronto’s social sector spent 12 hours a month trying out a Grounded Change approach. That’s an approach that starts on-the-ground with people experiencing a pain point in order to re-design practices & policies that prompt change. Participation was totally voluntary – meaning these 23 individuals volunteered to put themselves out of their comfort zones. Each of them shared their experience – the ups and downs – on May 12th. Ten project teams bravely offered their learning to about 100 guests from the social service, government and community outreach sectors at the Berkeley Field House in Toronto.

What did Learning Circlers do?

Learning Circlers got their hands dirty. They were expected to ask critical questions, collect ethnographic data and rapidly prototype, InWithForward style. That’s a style that’s all about making new interactions and getting feedback right away. Learning Circlers partnered up and named pain points for groups of people in their immediate contexts (e.g too many people with depression are distressed on the wait list). They committed to testing out their hunches by recruiting the usual & unusual suspects, observing & listening to people’s lived experiences, refining their assumed pain points, and finally building early prototypes.

Sarah and I led each teaching session and prepped them with theory, strategy, and reference points from InWithForward’s portfolio of failures and successes. But it wasn’t just all serious learning. We tried to play too – by changing up the roles, props, settings and scripts in our minty green workspace every other week. We used interactive games, ate cupcakes and ice cream, made segmentations out of sour and sweet candy, read stories, mocked up research tools, and created opportunities for 1-1 coaching.

What are the Learning Circlers taking away?

Collecting data with images, not just words. “Visual prompting can get conversations going in a fresh way” Joanne Knutson and Chris Persaud, Habitat Services

Finding a new network. “We made really positive connections with our fellow learning circle members, including the Middle Years Strategy team, which was really relevant for our work.”  Hui Geng and Madison Van West

Understanding the ‘real’ problem. “We had to confront assumptions about where the pain lies, and whose pain it really is.” Munira Abid-Dhall and Umema Sharafali

What am I taking personally away?

I was very lucky to be the designer for this six month long process and to work closely with Sarah in producing materials for teaching IWF’s unique method. The ethnographic approach that IWF uses is fresh and exciting for me, having once been a theatre designer. I have never used props, scripts, roles and settings in a research situation like that. The significance of having “something to point at”  to enrich a conversation, or writing a new script to reframe a relationship appeals to me on a professional level. I can tell that the Learning Circlers were delighted by the props and environment that we worked to create for each session and I was surprised at how much that the playfulness lightened up the discussion and led to positive learning outcomes.

I have come to understand many of our LC’ers sectors much better now, and what some of the stumbling blocks are for creating change from within. The Learning Circle processes challenged them, and as I would work with them through the steps of our Grounded Change, I was challenged too. We have lots of our own internal process stories, and it was only in preparation for our May 12th Demo Day did I realize how many little success stories we have from the LC’ers too. I look forward to seeing how this experience for Learning Circlers manifests in their lives and their work!

Now, I look forward to my next opportunity with IWF later this summer to spend more time with the methods in 1-1 coaching sessions for the Mini Bid

Want to read more lessons learned?

Download our short publication! It’s a 10-minute read packed with reflections.

Interested in taking part in a future learning circle? Get in touch with us!  


Thanks for the fond memories, Learning Circlers, Metcalf Foundation and West Neighbourhood House!


Check out the photo gallery from the event / photographer: Kevin Konnyu