Why health leaders who are critical thinkers choose rote learning for others-small

Why health leaders who are critical thinkers choose rote learning for others

Reda SadkiGlobal health

Many health leaders are highly analytical, adaptive learners who thrive on solving complex problems in dynamic, real-world contexts.

Their expertise is grounded in years of field experience, where they have honed their ability to rapidly generate insights, test ideas, and innovate solutions in collaboration with diverse stakeholders.

In January 2021, as countries were beginning to introduce new COVID-19 vaccines, Kate O’Brien, who leads WHO’s immunization efforts, connected global learning to local action:

“For COVID-19 vaccines […] there are just too many lessons that are being learned, especially according to different vaccine platforms, different communities of prioritization that need to be vaccinated. So [everyone]  has got to be able to scale, has got to be able to deal with complexity, has got to be able to do personal, local innovation to actually overcome the challenges.”

In an Insights Live session with the Geneva Learning Foundation in 2022, she made a compelling case that “the people who are working in the program at that most local level have to be able to adapt, to be agile, to innovate things that will work in that particular setting, with those leaders in the community, with those families.”

However, unlike Kate O’Brien, some senior leaders in global health disconnect their own learning practices and their assumptions about how others learn best.

When it comes to designing learning initiatives for their teams or organizations, these leaders may default to a more simplistic, behaviorist approach.

They may equate learning with the acquisition and application of specific skills or knowledge, and thus focus on creating structured, content-driven training programs.

The appeal of behaviorist platforms – with their promise of efficient, scalable delivery and easily measured outcomes – can be seductive in the resource-constrained, results-driven world of global health.

Furthermore, leaders may hold assumptions that health workers – especially those at the community level – do not require higher-order critical thinking skills, that they simply need a predetermined set of knowledge and procedures.

This view is fundamentally misguided.

A robust body of scientific evidence on learning culture and performance demonstrates that the most effective organizations are those that foster continuous learning, critical reflection, and adaptive problem-solving at all levels.

Health workers at the frontlines face complex, unpredictable challenges that demand situational judgment, creative thinking, and the ability to learn from experience.

Failing to cultivate these capacities not only underestimates the potential of these health workers, but it also constrains the performance and resilience of health systems as a whole.

The problem is that this approach fails to cultivate the very qualities that make these leaders effective learners and problem-solvers.

Behaviorist techniques, with their emphasis on passive information absorption and narrow, pre-defined outcomes, do not foster the critical thinking, creativity, and collaborative capacity needed to tackle complex health challenges.

They may produce short-term gains in narrow domains, but they cannot develop the adaptive expertise required for long-term impact in ever-shifting contexts.

To help health leaders recognize this disconnect, it is useful to engage them in reflective dialogue about their own learning processes.

By unpacking real-world examples of how they have solved thorny problems or generated novel insights, we can highlight the sophisticated cognitive strategies and collaborative dynamics at play.

We can show how they constantly question assumptions, synthesize diverse perspectives, and iterate solutions – all skills that are essential for navigating complexity, but are poorly served by rigid, content-focused training.

The goal is not to dismiss the need for foundational knowledge or skills, but rather to emphasize that in the face of evolving challenges, adaptive learning capacity is the real differentiator.

It is the ability to think critically, to imagine new possibilities, to learn from failure, and to co-create with others that drives meaningful change.

By tying this insight directly to leaders’ own experiences and values, we can inspire them to champion learning approaches that mirror the richness and dynamism of their personal growth journeys.

Ultimately, the most impactful health organizations will be those that not only equip people with essential skills, but that also nurture the underlying cognitive and collaborative capacities needed to continually learn, adapt, and innovate.

By recognizing and leveraging the powerful learning practices they themselves embody, health leaders can shape organizational cultures and strategies that truly empower people to navigate complexity and drive transformative change.

This shift requires letting go of the illusion of control and predictability that behaviorism offers, and instead embracing the messiness and uncertainty of real learning.

It means creating space for experimentation, reflection, and dialogue, and trusting in people’s inherent capacity to grow and create.

It is a challenging transition, but one that health leaders are uniquely positioned to lead – if they can bridge the gap between how they learn and how they seek to enable others’ learning.

Image: The Geneva Learning Foundation Collection © 2024