Social learning, governance and practice change
"Sustainability, is better seen as a measure of the relationship between the community as learners and their environments, rather than an externally designed goal to be achieved" (Sriskandarajah et al, 1991).
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 collective learning. This is a form of governance, in the sense that governance relates to how society manages to allocate resources and coordinate or control activity in society or the economy (Wikipedia). It is also adaptive management or 'learning-by-doing'.
There is no one definition of social learning, but the many descriptions of it emphasise the importance of dialogues (negotiation) between groups - to better understand different points of view, and develop processes for collective action and reflection over time. Social learning and empowerment are based on each other. Empowerment is the process of enhancing the capacity of individuals or groups to make choices and to transform those choices into desired actions and outcomes. Achieving such outcomes is not a one-off process that can be externally planned and executed like a fielday or workshop, but it is a social process that are woven from activity strands including systems thinking, network building, dialogue, knowledge management, and planning and evaluation. Information on the different strands that support social learning can be accessed through the 'social learning' index on left. Planning and evaluation, because of the role they play in tieing together all other strands and activities is expanded into their own topic area in the navigation index. The social capacity, networks and trust which facilitate this co-operation for mutual benefit are referred to as 'social capital'.
Some papers set out below provide insights into the wider process of social learning and its links with practice change.
- Eyes Wide Open: Learning as Strategy Under Conditions of Complexity and Uncertainty This 2013 report suggests that organizational strategy can often be hampered by a failure to recognize and engage with the complexity and uncertainty in the work environment. The report is written by Patricia Patrizi, Elizabeth Thompson, Julia Coffman, and Tanya Beer. It specifically talks about Foundations, but much of the material could be relevant for organizations thinking about their own strategic management. It urges managers to alter their mindset, questions and processes to foster a more committed approach to strategy and adaptation. In short, it argues for learning as strategy. The report draws on literature from systems theory, business strategy, and philanthropic practice.
- Building a strategic learning and evaluation system for your organization The aim of this 2013 report by Hallie Preskill and Katelyn Mack acknowledges a need for a more strategic approach to evaluation. In this guide, they provide a framework and set of practices that can help organizations be more systematic, coordinated, and intentional about what to evaluate, when, why, with whom, and with what resources. When fully implemented, these elements work together to ensure that learning and evaluation activities reflect and feed into an organization's latest thinking.
- Social learning in practice: A review of lessons, impacts and tools for climate change The aim of this 2013 report by Blane Harvey and colleagues is to provide a detailed review of documented social learning processes for climate change and natural resource management as described in peer-reviewed literature. Particular focus is on identifying (1) lessons and principles, (2) tools and approaches, (3) evaluation of social learning, as well as (4) concrete examples of impacts that social learning has contributed to. The authors suggest that understanding social learning is important if we wish to respond effectively to increasingly complex and “wicked” problems such as climate change; to break down barriers between producers and users of research, and increase the capacity of organisations to learn.
- What is social learning? In this recent writing Mark Reed and colleagues attempts to clear a path through a literature that has become increasingly obscured by confusion between social learning and other concepts, between social learning processes and outcomes, and between individual and social learning. They point out that social learning is often mistakenly conflated with other concepts such as participation and pro-environmental behaviour. They argue that to be considered “social learning”, a process must: (1) demonstrate that a change in understanding has taken place in the individuals involved; (2) demonstrate that this change goes beyond the individual and becomes situated within wider social units or communities of practice; and (3) occur through social interactions and processes between actors within a social network. They point out that a clearer picture of what is meant by social learning could enhance our ability to critically evaluate outcomes and better understand the processes through which social learning occurs. In this way, it may be possible to better facilitate the desired outcomes of social learning processes.
- Shifting to 21st century thinking The term '21st century learning' is a kind of shorthand for what needs to be different to help us make the change to living in the "knowledge age". This website provides ideas, tools, and resources for helping people make the shift from 20th century to 21st century ways of thinking about learning. The site runs a number of linked blogs as discussion spaces, and aim to host conversations around contemporary education challenges, and to provide some analytical tools (articles, thinking objects) that help in this context. This innovative on-line forum has been set up by people within the New Zealand Council for Educational Research - an independent group of researchers and thinkers.
- Assessing and learning for social change: A discussion paper Between May 2005 and November 2006, a small group of development professionals discussed the opportunities and challenges for assessing and learning about social change in ways that provide valuable insights and strengthen the change process. This group was made up of individuals whose position in relation to the topic represented important voices to be heard: activists, researchers, evaluators, facilitators, international and local NGO staff. One of the products from this thinking was this synthesis paper written by Irene Guijt. A second output was a literature review: Critical readings on assessing and learning for social change: A review
- M&E as learning: Rethinking the dominant paradigm This chapter offers the building blocks of an alternative M&E paradigm that aligns more closely with practice and the realities of how people create knowledge, make sense of their situations and adapt to change. Such a paradigm focuses on individual, group and organisational learning, a perspective which has been absent in conventional approaches to M&E. This material is written by Jim Woodhill as a summary of his book chapter "M&E as learning: Rethinking the dominant paradigm" in Jan de Graaff, John Cameron, Samran Sombatpanit, Christian Pieri and Jim Woodhill eds. Monitoring and Evaluation of Soil Conservation and Watershed Development Projects. World Association of Soil and Water Conservation. Science Publishers, New Hampshire, USA
- SLIM (Social Learning for the Integrated Management and sustainable use of water at catchment scale) SLIM was a multi-country research project funded by the European Commission (1998–2002. Their research is about how social learning approaches can help progress more integrated management and sustainable use of water at catchment scales. SLIM research is likely to be of interest to policy-makers and practitioners involved in the management of water and also other natural resources. In particular readers may be interested in the SLIM research outcomes and their final policy briefs.
- Learning together to manage together This handbook has developed out of the HarmoniCOP - Hamonising collaborative planning project. The aim of the HarmoniCOP project (2002 -2005) was to increase the understanding of participatory river basin management planning (RBMP) in Europe. One of the project's main objectives was to generate practical information about participation processes in river basin management.
- The importance of social learning in restoring the multifunctionality of rivers and floodplains This 2006 Ecology and Society paper by Claudia Pahl-Wostl discusses the role of social learning in the transition toward the adaptive management of floodplains and rivers that is required to restore and maintain multifunctional riverine landscapes.
- Learning more effectively from experience This paper by Ioan Fazey and colleagues reviews some of the research from cognitive psychology and phenomenography to present a way of thinking about learning to assist individuals to make better use of their personal experiences to develop understanding of environmental systems. The broader implications of individual learning are also discussed in relation to organizational learning, the role of experiential knowledge for conservation, and for achieving greater awareness of the need for ecologically sustainable activity.
- Social learning and adaptation to climate change This paper by Mark Pelling and Chris High ponts out that adaptive capacity needs to be seen alongside contingency planning as the two sides of proactive risk management, so that crisis management can prepare for the unimagined as well as planning for the unexpected. It is argued in this paper that building adaptive capacity in organisations can be enhanced by recognising and working with shadow systems. These are made of personal relationships and held together by cultural norms that cut across formal organisational structures and official rules of conduct. They highlight the need for tools to support social capital and social learning. Finally they highlight the lack of individuals who can operate at the boundaries of communities of practice and facilitate communication and learning. Strategically the deepest divides are between social and natural scientists and between scientists and policy-makers.
- Applying Adaptive Collaborative Management for Social Learning This contribution by Chiranjeewee Khadka and Harald Vacik promotes the application of an adaptive collaborative management (ACM) approach for social learning in the context of Nepal's community forestry program. We highlight the principles of the ACM process, the problems, potentials and limitations of the approach especially to demonstrate social and collaborative learning for sustainable community forest management. Conclusions and policy suggestions are made as contribution for the development of a common understanding in which an ACM approach can be practiced to transform a knowledge management organization towards a learning environment.
- Social learning as a framework for building capacity to work on complex environmental management problems This on-line article by Margaret Kilvington provides a concise review of the growing body of literature on social learning. It notes that social learning is emerging as a useful framework to support collective decision making and action.It highlights how social learning is supported by a number of different elements. These elements can be broken down into three clusters: (1) learning and thinking; (2) group participation and interaction; and (3) social and institutional.
- Using participatory and learning-based approaches for environmental management to help achieve constructive behaviour change This report from Will Allen, Margaret Kilvington, and Chrys Horn looks at how agencies can influence people's behaviour to improve environmental management. It highlights new approaches that work with multi-stakeholder groups and teams, in particular those which improve motivation, information flows, and collaborative learning. The report covers four main areas: i) a review of contemporary approaches to environmental policy making; ii) a review of frameworks for supporting behaviour change; iii) providing an outline of the key concepts for managing participation in practice; and iv) a description of techniques for building group capacity for environmental change.
- Learning for social change: Exploring concepts, methods and practice This report emerged from the 2006 Facilitating learning for social change workshop. The Facilitating Learning for Social Change Workshop involved a diverse group of activists, researchers and organisational leaders from around the world, who looked at how those of us engaged in social change processes can develop our capacities in ways that enable us to be more reflective, innovative and adaptive. The report aims to show how we need to share learning and build knowledge collectively, in order to enrich society everywhere, for the benefit of all. It covers the workshop background and process and goes on to look at key outcomes of the event as well as how to move forward from such an initiative. The report was edited by Peter Taylor, Andrew Deak, Jethro Pettit, and Isabel Vogel from IDS, University of Sussex.
- Strengthening social change through organizational learning and evaluation This paper by Andrew Mott summarises the outcomes from the 2003 Gray Rocks conference on Strengthening Social Change Through Assessment and Learning. The gathering was sponsored by four organizations in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom, and involved participants from Asia, Africa and Latin America as well as North America and Europe. Well worth reading, and provides some good synthesis of the wealth of experience present.
- Obtaining behaviour change not just raising awareness This paper by Jodi Smith looks at how government agencies can develop effective education programs to help society move towards sustainable practices. She points out that the sustainability education techniques required for obtaining behaviour change are different to those used to raise awareness. However, a review of government education programs conducted in the same study revealed that few educators are currently using behaviour change techniques. This paper goes on to provide some principles to help agencies improve the effectiveness of sustainability education programs in obtaining behaviour change.
- Getting technical environmental information into watershed decision making" This paper from Will Allen and Margaret Kilvington looks at the practicalities of supporting learning through integrated and interdisciplinary research initiatives. It highlights how different disciplines can work collectively in a participatory and adaptive manner. To achieve this it is suggested that interdisciplinary science teams need to broaden their membership to include specialists with integrative social skills.
- Learning for development: A literature review This paper by Katherine Pasteur acknowledges that organisational learning is increasingly being viewed as key to improving development performance and impact. It briefly summarise literature on knowledge, learning and the learning organisation from both the corporate and the development sectors. It then helps develop an understanding of learning as reflection and reflexivity. The paper provides a review of a number of key theories which help to inform an improved understanding of learning as reflection and reflexivity. Finally it explores some of the organisational implications for institutionalising this type of learning.
- Social learning for collaborative natural resource management This paper by Tania Schusler, Daniel Decker and Max Pfeffer contributes to understanding about the potential and limitations of social learning for collaborative natural resource management. Participants in a deliberative planning process involving a state agency and local communities developed common purpose and collaborative relationships, two requisites of comanagement. Eight process characteristics fostered social learning: open communication, diverse participation, unrestrained thinking, constructive conflict, democratic structure, multiple sources of knowledge, extended engagement, and facilitation. Social learning is necessary but not sufficient for collaborative management. Other requisites for comanagement, including capacity, appropriate processes, appropriate structures, and supportive policies, are necessary to sustain joint action.