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Social learning

Social learning develops the actors' ability to improvise; it requires investment in relationships and trust building, respect for difference and appreciation of other ways of seeing the world.

The need for a learning approach

In this section it is argued that we need to explore new approaches to deal with the uncertainty and the ‘unbounded’ nature of the climate change and because, as with all issues affecting decisions about allocation of scarce resources, there are multiple views to be accounted for and inequalities of power amongst the actors involved.

The complexity of climate change produces numerous uncertainties in the scientific data, the impacts and the consequences of the choices we make to ameliorate these impacts. In this section I look at how management of processes of adaptation can be achieved most effectively given these uncertainties and explore approaches to understanding how to make adaptive management as effective as possible.

Unbounded (or divergent) problems were described by Chapman (2002) as problems where:

  • There is no clear argument about what exactly the problem is
  • There is uncertainty and ambiguity as to how improvements might be made
  • The problem has no limits in terms of the time and resources it could absorb.

Chapman argues that these problems require a different approach to planning and implementing solutions that recognises (rather than ignores) disagreement and uncertainty between different groups affected. It needs to be recognised that there are different perspectives on the problem definition as well as what a successful solution might be like. This requires a process of dialogue where the actors involved can listen to and understand the perspectives of others. Complexity theory postulates that new solutions emerge out of uncertainty. Building on this, Eyben (2005), comments, ‘organised efforts [to direct change] more than partially confront the impossibility of ever understanding the totality of a system that is in constant flux. Composed of innumerable elements, continuously shaped and reformed through interaction upon each other, the system is constantly creating new elements that may in turn affect (loop back) and change those already in existence. Thus we cannot predict all the effects that any of our actions may have on the wider system, or indeed on ourselves as initiators of the action’.

Government and policy processes, have traditionally made decisions using theory based more on certainty, rationality and predictability that is unlikely to be achievable in the context of climate change adaptation. There has been a desire to state what kind of knowledge is acceptable as an indicator of success or change although, given the lack of certainty in outcome, there is a need to be open to the possibility of paradox or ambiguity. Without certainty, recommendations have to be made tentatively which is less attractive for people having to make decisions about strategy especially those that require significant financial commitment. Although, in some situations, focussing on improving results can lead to an enhanced performance it can also act to block learning in an unpredictable world (Eyben, (2005).

In order to enable a process of emergence there is a need for the actors involved to develop the ability to improvise rather than control processes; this requires investment in relationships and trust building, respect for difference and appreciation that there are many ways of seeing the world, over focus on outputs and results. This requires attention to the historical context of the problem and the meaning the different actors give to the problem, as well as the power relations between the actors involved and their history of interaction (Ostrom et al, 2002). Different actors may have very different moral perspectives, and power relations may hinder communication, agreement on purpose and equal access to information.

In taking an emergent, learning approach we challenge the dominant worldview that outcomes need to be predicted and that we are judged solely on our ability to achieve these outcomes. If we are open to learning we are open to things not turning out as we thought and we assume a position of humility (not infallibility).

Eyben (2005) observes that organisations make a difference not only through formal interventions related to their objectives but also through the relationships and influence that they have on others. Understanding the historical context of these relationships is important in examining power relations and thus possibilities for change and the development of more honest relationships.

What is Social Learning?

A few references for material on organisations and learning in the field of environment and development:

Learning for Development: A Literature Review: Organisational learning, in which leaders and managers give priority to learning as integral to practice, is increasingly recognized as critical to improved performance. ActionAid, DFID and Sida collaborated with the Participation Group at the Institute of Development Studies to explore understandings of learning and to document innovative approaches.

Institutional Learning and Change: an initiative within the CGIAR that fosters learning from experience and use of the lessons learned to improve the design and implementation of agricultural research and development programs.

Action Aid’s Critical Webs of Power and Change: A resource pack for planning, reflection and learning in people-centred advocacy

Social Learning and Climate Change: some relevant material

References in text

Adger, W.N. (2003), Social Capital, collective action and adaptation to climate change, Economic Geography, 79 (4) pp387-404.

Agyris, C. and Schön, D. (1974) Theory in Practice. Increasing professional effectiveness, San Francisco, Jossey-Bass. This was their original paper on double loop learning and the distinction between ‘espoused theory’ and ‘theory in practice’ also quoted widely e.g. Brockbank and McGill (see later).

Andrews, J., Garrison, D.R., Magnusson, K. (1996). The teaching and learning transaction in higher education: a study of excellent professors and their students. Teaching in Higher Education, 1 (1), 81-103

Bateson, G (2000), Steps to an ecology of mind, The University of Chicgo Press, London.

Belay, S, Haro, I and Irwin, B (2005) It works! Speaking for ourselves: a development dialogue tool. In Tools for influencing power and policy, PLA notes 53, December 2005

Belenky, M.F., Clinchy, B.M., Goldberger, N.R. and Tarule, J.M. (1997), Women’s ways of knowing: the development of self, voice, and mind. Basic Books.

Boyd, G. (2005), Organisational mechanisms that best serve the poor. IIED Edinburgh, UK. Available at

Brockbank, A. and McGill, I. (2000), Facilitating Reflective Learning in Higher Education, The Society for Research into Higher Education.

Brockhurst, Anne and McGill, Ian, (1998) Facilitating Reflective Learning in Higher Education, Open University. (p 45).

Chapman, J. (2002), System Failure: Why Governments Must Learn to Think Differently, London, Demos. Cranton, P. (1994) Understanding and promoting transformative learning: a guide for educators of adults. San Francisco, Jossey-Bass.

Eyben, R., (2005), Donors’ Learning Difficulties: Results, Relationships and Responsibilities, IDS Bulletin, Vol 36, No 3, September 2005, Institute of Development Studies.

Griffin, D,, Shaw, P and Stacey, R (1999), Knowing and acting in conditions of uncertainty: a complexity perspective, Systemic Practice and Action Research, 12 (3), 295-309.

Haas, P.M. (2004) ‘When does power listen to truth? A constructivist approach to the policy process’ Journal of European Public Policy, Volume 11, No. 4, April 2004.

Hamel, G (1997), The Search for Strategy, quoted in Brown, J and Isaacs, D. (2005), The World Café: shaping our futures through conversations that matter, Berret-Koehler

Hirschman, A. O. (1970) “The Search for Paradigms as a Hindrance to Understanding,” World Politics, vol. 22, no. 3, pp. 329-343.

Kolb. D. A. and Fry, R. (1975) ‘Toward an applied theory of experiential learning;, in C. Cooper (ed.) Theories of Group Process, London: John Wiley.

Macqueen, D., Figueiredo, L., Merry, F and Porro, N. (2005) Stronger by association: small and medium forest enterprise in the Brazilian Amazon, in Tools for influencing power and policy, PLA notes 53, December 2005

Meizirow, J. (2000) Learning to think like an adult. Core concepts of transformation theory. In J Mezirow & Associates (Eds) Learning as transformation. Critical perspectives on a theory in progress. San Francisco: Josey-Bass

Napper, R. and Newton, T. (2000), Tactics – concepts for all trainers, teachers and tutors and insight into collaborative learning strategies, TA Resources

Newton, T. (2006) Script, psychological life plans and the learning cycle, Transactional Analysis Journal, Vol 36, No 3, July 2006.

Ojha, H.R., Paudel, K, Pokharel, B., McDougall, C. (2004) Social Learning at Work: A case study of community forestry in Nepal, Forest Action.

Ostrom, E., Clark, G, Shivkuman, S and Anderson, K (2002), Aid, incentives and sustainability: and institutional analysis of development cooperation, SIDA Studies in Evaluation 02/01:1, Stockholm, Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency.

Rowley, J.Q. & Lonsdale, K. (2007) PLA notes (not yet published) Verification and analysis in PLA work. IIED, London Tools for influencing power and policy, PLA notes 53, December 2005

Saljo, R (1979) “Learning in the Learner’s Perspective: 1: some commonplace misconceptions” Reports from the Institute of Education, University of Gothenburg, 76. Quoted in Percy, R. pers comm..

Schon, D. (1983) The reflective practitioner: How professionals think in action. Aldershot: Ashgate Arena

Wals, E.J. (2007) (Editor) Social Learning towards a sustainable world; principles process and praxis, Wageningen Academic Publishers, The Netherlands.

Related Pages

What is Social Learning?

Adaptive Management and Learning Processes

Social Learning in Organisations

Learning and Power

ADAM Digital Compendium

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