In the Academic BEtreat that I recently attended online and which I have been blogging about for a few days now (#betreat12) Etienne and Beverly Wenger-Trayner, shared their most thinking around the idea of social learning capability. This is ongoing work. Etienne first wrote about it in 2009 – Essays on Social Learning Capability
My understanding of social learning capability from the discussions in the Academic BEtreat is that the ideas initially arose from a recognition that many communities of practice exist with little question of whether they are increasing the learning capability of the community.
In addition, as the affordances of Web 2.0 increase the possibilities of working across boundaries of communities of practice, the landscapes of practice of communities and across communities has become very complex. There is a need to look at the social learning capability of the whole system – to start thinking systematically.
‘Taking such a systemic view is especially critical at a time when global challenges are placing unprecedented demands on our ability to learn together. Developing social learning capability across sectors may be urgent, but it is still an elusive aspiration. We need a social discipline of learning.
Making sense of social learning capability is the great challenge of learning theory in the 21st century.’ (http://wenger-trayner.com/resources/social-learning-capability/)
Considering the work of communities of practice as a landscape of practice working within and across landscapes of practice brings with it many challenges, since very few people can see the whole landscape. We are always local, always on the hills of the landscape, always in the practice. But it will become increasingly necessary to work across landscapes of practice, as communities of practice cross borders and boundaries to work together.
One of the biggest challenges is in the tensions that exist between vertical and horizontal accountability in the system. This is an inherent geographical problem since we can only connect with a certain number of people. So accountability is on both dimensions, but the relationship between them is often dysfunctional. The horizontal has to be negotiated with the vertical and recent work by Etienne and Bev suggests that there is a need for transversality i.e. people, process, practices and objects that can increase the visibility of the horizontal into the vertical and vice versa.
The vertical is not demonised in this thinking. It serves a different function, and as shown in the diagram there is the horizontal in all levels of the vertical. Currency in the vertical is often measures/numbers because these travel easily from one practice to another and it is sometimes necessary to verticalise a discussion because it simplifies things and saves time on negotiation. A dysfunctional community, which is not increasing social learning capability, may need verticalisation. But in the horizontal, numbers and measures can ‘mess things up’ and the cost of verticalising accountability is in innovation.
Critical to transversality will be our ability to act as learning citizens and social artists.
‘Learning capability – or the ability to learn – is a paradoxical aspiration because learning by itself does not guarantee learning capability. Sometimes being successful at learning is precisely what prevents you from learning the next thing. When applied to social systems, learning capability depends on the learning capability of individuals, but in the context of the structure of the system in which they live. Networking, convening new social learning spaces, brokering across boundaries, acting as learning citizens and social artists – these are the kinds of interventions that have the potential to increase social learning capability at a systemic level.’
Social learning spaces….
‘……enable genuine interactions among participants, who can bring to the learning table both their experience of practice and their experience of themselves in that practice.’ (http://wenger-trayner.com/resources/social-learning-spaces/)
Learning citizens know how to engage in social learning spaces, know when to disengage from a learning space and move on, know how to work across boundaries and between spaces and know how to convene a community of practice.
Social artists know how to open learning spaces and invite learning citizenship. They are social yet intentional, collaborative yet wilful, idealistic yet pragmatic. (see http://wenger-trayner.com/all/social-artists/ and Wenger, E. (2009). Social learning capability Four essays on innovation and learning in social systems)
I have written about social artists before – Social Artistry – a new idea? , but I now realise that it makes more sense to think about social artistry in terms of networking rather than teaching.
But social learning capability is about more than just networking. A social theory of learning is about identity, meaning and practice. In this sense it differs from connectivism or networked learning. Learning citizenship, social artistry and increasing social learning capability have an ethical dimension and a different view of the landscape of practice.
(Images from Etienne and Beverly Wenger-Trayner)