Social learning – what it looks like

Social learning - 123RF- - 41266812
Social learning emphasizes the importance of taking time to pause and engage in constructive dialogue. [Copyright: rawpixel / 123RF Stock Photo]
Social learning is an approach to working on complex environmental problems, particularly those with high degrees of uncertainty, lots of interested parties and disagreement around causes, effects and even desired outcomes. There is no one definition of social learning, but the many descriptions of it emphasize the importance of dialogue between groups.  These negotiations help people to better understand different points of view, and develop processes for collective action and reflection over time. This post provides a brief introduction to the concept – more information and links to a wealth of online material about it can be found directly from the LfS social learning page. There are also a number of links through this post that will take you directly to pages that explore different aspects of social learning.

Just to begin, social learning is not what many people confuse it as – learning by people ‘out there’ about the important things we ‘in here’ think they should know! That is information dissemination, advice …. or even indoctrination. At times we may feel it necessary to directly tell people ‘how it is’ – but this more linear approach to communication should not be confused with social learning.

The concept of social (or collaborative) learning refers to learning processes among a group of people who seek to improve a common situation and take action collectively. This understanding effectively extends experiential learning into social learning. By broadening their perspectives and taking collective action – people can become empowered. Empowerment, in this sense, can be seen as enhancing the capacity of individuals or groups to make choices, and to transform those choices into desired actions and outcomes. Achieving such outcomes requires a long-term social process that evolves over time and is woven from a number of different activity strands. These strands can be thought of in different ways; e.g. this site highlights five key strands that underpin social learning:  i) systems thinking; ii) network building; iii) dialogue; iv) knowledge management; and v) reflective practice. Information on the way that these different strands that support social learning can be accessed through the ‘social learning’ index above.

Social Learning, as an approach to complex problem solving, has emerged in recent years alongside other approaches such as adaptive management and systems thinking. In fact it includes the core essentials of both of these. In a nutshell it is about creating situations where people can learn collectively to improve a situation. The aim of adaptive management is to enable groups and organizations to adapt their practices and learn in a systematic way, often referred to as ‘learning by doing’. The kind of thinking required is essentially systems thinking. This is about having an appreciation of the characteristics of systems, i.e., that each element will affect the operation of the whole, parts of the system are interdependent etc. The focus of systems thinking is therefore on interaction. Furthermore, systems thinking requires a shift of mind, a willingness to look at problems from different perspectives. It looks at underlying systemic structures; and encourages people to look beyond discrete events at underlying patterns of behavior and underpinning mental models. The aim of system thinking based inquiry is to seek leverage, seeing where actions and changes in structures can lead to significant and enduring improvements.

The point is that social learning would not be ‘social’ if it was not about people and their interactions. Because we are dealing with complex issues that arise from settings with many stakeholders with differing views, responsibilities, and knowledge about the system (including science, management agencies and people making decisions on-the-ground), social learning has to be about how to bring people together. Particularly it is about helping people work collaboratively – bridging disciplines, knowledge systems and cultures.  By keeping these concepts in mind we can aim to manage more interactions within participatory and learning-based contexts to help those involved to engage in social learning and develop a shared understanding around goals, actions and indicators.

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An independent systems scientist, action research practitioner and evaluator, with 30 years of experience in sustainable development and natural resource management.

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