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 prescence 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.

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.

www_iconSocial 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.

www_iconWhat 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.

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 PDF icon

www_iconSLIM (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.

www_iconLearning together to manage together This handbook has developed out of the HarmoniCOP – Hamonising collaborative planning project. The aim of theHarmoniCOP 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.

www_iconThe 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.

www_iconLearning 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.

www_iconSocial 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.

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.

LfS-iconUsing 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.

www_iconStrengthening 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.

LfS-iconGetting 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..