Social learning and competence

Imagine that you are in high school, preparing for a test in mathematics or physics or history. You take the test and do very poorly. Every answer wrong. Would that preparation of yours still count as “learning”?

Seems ludicrous. Surely, if learning is to have some meaning, it must be in relation to the development of proficiency or competence or effectiveness.

So simple? Maybe. How about if we acknowledge that notions of proficiency and competence and effectiveness are socially constructed and, especially in socio-political situations, often contested.

“You probably know that the earth is round and that it is in orbit around the sun,” writes learning theorist Etienne Wenger in the 2000 paper, “Communities of Practice and Social Learning Systems.”

But how do you know this? What does it take? Obviously, it takes a brain in a living body, but it also takes a very complex social, cultural, and historical system, which has accumulated learning over time. … In this sense, knowing is an act of participation in complex ‘social learning systems’. …

In a social learning system, competence is historically and socially defined. How to be a physicist or how to understand the position of the earth in the universe is something that scientific communities have established over time. Knowing, therefore, is a matter of displaying competences defined in social communities. The picture is more complex and dynamic than that, however. Our experience of life and the social standards of competence of our communities are not necessarily, or even usually, congruent. We each experience knowing in our own ways. Socially defined competence is always in interplay with our experience. It is in this interplay that learning takes place.

Wenger describes three scales: the reality of the astronomical situation, the historically and socially defined competence, and our personal experiences. In terms of the earth’s orbit, it’s safe to assume that contemporary scientific competence approximates the reality, but in other areas of astronomy there are still unknowns: dark matter and black holes and so on. And many of us have little personal experience to draw upon.

When we examine situations closer to home, complexities multiply. Consider river basin management, a frequent topic in the literature on social learning. In a climate-changing world, any river’s future water abundance is uncertain. Competence is not the sole province of scientists; expertise is diffuse. Experiences vary widely. And the topic itself is value laden. The process of adaptive management prescribes treating management actions as experiments. If a diverse group of participants can deliberate and reflect on these experiments, perhaps a process of social learning will take place, with each person learning in the interplay between individual experience and an evolving social competence. And perhaps, over time, these experiments and this learning will enable increasingly effective management actions, with regard to deliberated goals.

That’s my current thinking on social leaning in an environmental context, following my reading of Wenger. Here are two other recent approaches, both from the resilience literature.

In a thoughtful 2010 Ecology and Society paper, “What is Social Learning?,” Mark Reed and ten coauthors propose:

[S]ocial learning may be defined as a change in understanding that goes beyond the individual to become situated within wider social units or communities of practice through social interactions between actors within social networks.

And in an insightful 2011 book, Collaborative Resilience: Moving Through Crisis to Opportunity, Ryan Bullock, Derek Armitage, and Bruce Mitchell contribute a chapter that proposes:

[Social learning is defined as] the iterative action, reflection, and deliberation of individuals and groups engaged in the sharing of experiences and ideas to collaboratively resolve complex challenges.

The “change in understanding” described by Mark Reed and coauthors posits no relationship to social competence, whereas the “iterative action, reflection, and deliberation” of Ryan Bullock and coauthors does imply such a relationship, and thus seems closer to my own sense of social learning. With a tricky concept like learning, language development functions as an experiment in itself.

Nonetheless, my concerns about defining learning without some relationship to competence were realized when Mark Reed’s paper was cited in a 2011 Nature Climate Change article on carbon capture and storage (CCS), “Learning lessons on carbon storage” (sub. req.) by David Reiner:

Social learning involves a change in understanding not just by an individual, but by wider social ‘units’ such as communities or particular sections of society, and it occurs through social interactions and processes such as media reporting [Reed et al. 2010]. It can involve learning about technical facts — such as how CCS works or its safety record — but the transfer of knowledge is not restricted to direct experience and involves a much wider audience than technical learning. The way in which it occurs is highly context-specific. In the case of CCS plants, it will depend on factors such as the plant’s location, the economic and social characteristics of the community around it, and the political context in which it is operating. Consequently, social learning will require extensive stakeholder engagement, through processes such as public consultations, surveys or education programmes, all of which require significant investments of both time and money.

Now, the process of carbon capture and storage remains controversial, as evidenced for example in this 2011 Economist debate. So I would think that declarations of learning are premature, as learning does seem to imply a relationship to competence, and we are hopeful that competence will approximate effectiveness. In effect, the author’s citation of Reed et al. allows re-framing of what would often be called simply knowledge transfer, or even marketing.

In this context, it’s also worth considering the types of public participation described in the IAP2 Spectrum of Public Participation.

IAP2 Spectrum of Participation

I’ve been revisiting these topics in thinking about my talk at this week’s Open Planning Tools Symposium on “Describing and assessing potential benefits 
of participatory spatial planning.”

Mark Reed and I discussed social learning in the comment threads to two blog posts that followed the 2010 release of his paper: one at Resilience Science and one at People and Place (link removed, as P&P is gone).

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