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. He is particularly interested in the development of planning, monitoring and evaluation tools that are outcome focused, and contribute towards efforts that foster social learning, sustainable development and adaptive management.

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Social learning

Social learning emphasizes the importance of dialog between groups – (c) Can Stock Photo / Curioso_Travel_Photo

“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. 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. A brief introductory post to the concept –  Social learning: what it looks like – can be found in the blog section of the LfS site.

Social learning is not a one-off process that can be externally planned and executed like a field day or workshop, but is better thought of as a  process that evolves over time and is woven from different activity strands. There is no one right way of thinking of these, but this site highlights five key strands that are often acknowledged as central to social learning. These are:  i) systems thinking; ii) network building; iii) dialogue; iv) knowledge management; and v) reflective practice. Information on the different strands that support social learning can be accessed through the ‘social learning’ index above. Planning and evaluation comprise an important component of reflective practice, and are expanded into their own topic area in the menu bar above. In turn, this co-operation and collaboration for mutual benefit is oiled by the presence of social capacity, networks and trust. Some papers set out below provide insights into the wider process of social learning and its links with practice change.


Stakeholder engagement in the study and management of invasive alien species
Ross Shackleton et al. (2018) Journal of Environmental Management
Research on stakeholder engagement in invasion science has increased over the last decade, helping to improve scientific knowledge and contributing towards policy formulation and co-implementation of management. However, many challenges remain and engagement could be made more effective.  To make stakeholder involvement more useful, we encourage more integrative and collaborative engagement to (1) improve co-design, co-creation and co-implementation of research and management actions; (2) promote social learning and provide feedback to stakeholders; (3) enhance collaboration and partnerships beyond the natural sciences and academia (interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary collaboration); and (4) discuss some practical and policy suggestions for improving stakeholder engagement in invasion science research and management. This will help facilitate different stakeholders to work better together, allowing problems associated with biological invasions to be tackled more holistically and successfully.


Social Learning – a basis for practice in environmental management.  Environmental agencies are increasingly being asked to formulate local, regional and national responses to environmental problems that are highly complex, made up of multiple factors, contested or unknown science, and conflicting demands. This chapter by Margaret Kilvington and Will Allen highlights how social learning is emerging as a useful framework for understanding the human relationship, knowledge generation, and decision-making challenges posed by complex environmental problems.


Social learning and climate change adaptation: evidence for international development practice. This 2015 paper by Jonathan Ensor and Blane Harvey looks across literature to draw out lessons for international development practice. They identify three cross-cutting themes: i) the importance of developing a shared view among those initiating learning processes of how change might happen and of how social learning fits within it, ii) linking this locus of desired change to the tools employed; the centrality of skilled facilitation and in particular how practitioners may shift toward being participants in the collective learning process; and iii) the need to attend to social difference, recognizing the complexity of social relations and the potential for less powerful actors to be co-opted in shared decision making.


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 2010 paper 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.


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 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.


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.


Other key pages that expand on the five strands of social learning are systems thinking, network building, dialogue, knowledge management, and reflective practice. Information on these  can be accessed through the ‘social learning’ index above. Planning and evaluation comprise an important component of reflective practice, and are expanded into their own topic area in the menu bar above. Concepts such as innovation systems and adaptive management are also social learning-based..

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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. He is particularly interested in the development of planning, monitoring and evaluation tools that are outcome focused, and contribute towards efforts that foster social learning, sustainable development and adaptive management.