Social Learning Capability

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.’ (

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.

A complex landscape

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.

Vertical and horizontal accountability

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.’ (

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 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)

Social Artistry… A new idea?

Social artistry in the context of educational change was the subject of Nancy White’s presentation for changemooc this week.

I haven’t come across the term before – but everything I have heard this week and read suggests that the ideas are not necessarily new – just expressed differently to fit our changing context in relation to learning in a digital age.

So what is it? It’s interesting that when we can’t explain or define something, we end up with falling back on the argument that defining something can often destroy what you were trying to capture. This argument was put forward earlier in this Mooc in relation to defining Moocs – and was put forward again in the Friday online session this week. Half of me understands the dangers of pinning something down with a definition, especially too early in people’s understanding, but the other half says we need some common understanding or terms to be able to discuss it at all.

This is what I picked up from another rushed week.

A social artist is a person who creates a social space for learning – and is not the same as a social reporter.  A social artist invites you to engage – listens, empathises, values, validates, amplifies and most of all asks the questions that will create the social space needed for learning.  A social artist connects people and encourages participation, which in turn leads to reciprocity, reification of ideas and a developing shared history.

Jean Houston writes (in 2004) an interesting article about social artistry and Fleming Funch as long ago as 1995 summarises the key skills of a social artist having attended a talk by Jean Houston.

In 2008 David Wilcox talked to Bev Trayner and Josien Kapma about social reporting as opposed to social artistry and blogged about Etienne Wenger’s reference to social artists

In September of this year Etienne and Nancy were discussing the same ideas in their presentation at the Share Fair in Rome  – where the importance of social artists being able to work in both the vertical and horizontal systems of accountability in organizations was also discussed – i.e. with the hierarchy and with peers. This is significant for a social artist’s ability to influence change.

And then – this week Nancy talked with Giulia Forsythe, Zach Davis and Tim Owens in DTLT Today  as well as in changeMooc about these ideas.

The question came up – is this any different to what the best teaching or the best facilitating has always been? I am struggling to find a significant difference. There might be some differences in terms of the technologies we now use for connecting people and the scale (size) of the networks in which ‘social artists’ work, but my feeling is that the skills mentioned above – listening, connecting, questioning, empathising and so on are what the best teachers have always done (see for example, the work of Lisa Lane ) and the skills that Fleming Funch lists on his post are the skills of a good learner. So maybe a quality of a ‘social artist’ is also to be an effective learner.

I think Nancy’s right – focussing on the words ‘social artist’ does not help. It’s the process we need to be talking about and how this might be changing in our changing educational environments.

14-11-11 Postscript

I have just come across this blogpost by Jupidu – Are we Social Artists? – which is great not only for the thoughtful reflection on the question, but also reminding me that Etienne Wenger has written an essay on social artistry – which I know I have somewhere in my computer files. It obviously did not resonate at the time, but maybe it will now.