What’s really new about social learning?


In the recent annual science meeting of the CGIAR research program on climate change, agriculture and food security (CCAFS), the theme for the event was ‘social learning’. Upon hearing what social learning referred to, a lot of the workshop participants were wondering what was really new about social learning. For reasons that are too long to explain – and it’s not the purpose of this post – we didn’t really take the time to zoom in on the differences.

So here’s an attempt at making distinctions between social learning and related initiatives and schools of thought in previous experiences. Because there are a lot of previous trails leading to the social learning bush: Participatory action research (PAR), participatory rural appraisal (PRA), participatory plant breeding (PPB), multi-stakeholder processes (MSPs), participatory impact pathway analysis (PIPA) can all legitimately subscribe to a long tradition of social learning. A very rich tradition of participatory work that has been explored extensively by a consultant to take stock specifically of CGIAR experiences in this domain. Yet there is are differences between all that (excellent) work and what might be called contemporary social learning work:

Social learning is...

Social learning is…

Social learning is instrumental, respectful of various perspectives, conversational, a long term commitment, adaptive, reflective, trust-based, visionary, open-minded, context-specific, participatory, dynamic, improvising, flexible, action-oriented, it’s about learning, it’s social and most importantly it is transformative.

It is not just participatory, because participatory approaches could actually just involve specific groups for specific activities but not really keep these groups front and centre involved from the get-go and throughout the initiative.

It is not just action (even though the transformation feeds off the action) because it is about generating new insights for more effective action, learning in effect, but not just any learning.

It is not just learning because it involves more than one party and happens mostly through sustained social interactions. It is a rich kind of learning, the kind that comes with disputing  views, telling each other our truths and complacencies, muddling through hopes and disappointments and finding common ground and mutual respect from the respect that is earned in challenging situations, whether as partners or opponents.

It is thus potentially more than action research, although it’s very similar in the sense that it starts with assumptions and verifies these assumptions along the way, thanks to feedback mechanisms. But social learning puts the emphasis on the social nature of learning and action throughout the process, whereas in action learning there is a risk that the learning itself is limited to the research process itself.

It is not just about bringing diverse views to the mix, even though this is an important step forward. A forum brings together lots of different stakeholders, but it doesn’t necessarily transform them. Social learning happens through sustained interactions that lead to that transformation.

It is not just tossing a few token conceptual ingredients in the stir-fry of jargon-coated fancy fluff. It’s about careful attention to a structured process of opening a space for collective reflection that goes beyond any one entity or group that is part of it. 

Social learning is not controlled, it is operating as a complex adaptive system, it is bound to be richer, deeper and more transformative the longer it takes and the wider it goes (as it harnesses more and deeper perspectives). For that reason, it’s not necessarily easy to instil because it takes a vision; it takes capacities (not least to facilitate such processes – something which incidentally will be partly covered by the December 2013 issue of the knowledge management for development journal about ‘facilitating multi-stakeholder processes’); it takes resources to bring about the critical mass of insights in the quantity and the quality of the actors involved; it also takes patience, determination and the belief that chaos might lead to insights and that an apparent mess can hide an uncanny order; it takes time to build the relations and to let the feedback loops provide their beneficial effect; and it takes balls to decide to go for it or to stop it in the face of justified adversity.

And social learning helps us tackle complex issues and and work around wicked problems like ‘climate change’:

It’s not the easiest way, but it’s surely a useful way to address distant goals. Remember:

If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together (Xhosa proverb)

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