Making it real: social learning in practice

Our review of the literature and in-depth interviews confirmed five top tips for success in putting social learning into practice, says Liz Carlile.

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Insight by 
Liz Carlile
09 December 2013
Social learning on climate change and food security issues can take place anywhere - in schools, farmers' organisations, groups or in workshops. Credit: F. Fiondella

Social learning on climate change and food security issues can take place anywhere - in schools, farmers' organisations, groups or in workshops. Copyright F. Fiondella

As researchers and practitioners working on development, we take great hope in seeing change borne from social learning and collective interaction. This is why a new Working Paper has reviewed lessons and tools linked to social learning, with the ambition to understand social learning processes better.

Real social learning, we have argued through our work on climate change and social learning with the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS), must “go beyond the individual” and become embedded in wider groups that encompass institutions, organisations, or communities of practice.

For big global issues like climate change and food security, issues that play out so differently and at all levels—from the individual and community level as well as on a global scale—social learning has a lot to offer as a way of bringing about transformational change. 

One of the biggest challenges we have is to persuade organisations and institutions that are central to global action on these issues to invest in different ways of working and funding projects in a way that ensures we really can learn together and learn faster. 

A gut instinct tells us that social learning, or learning together through sharing collective knowledge and experience, inherently makes sense but making that leap forward into practicing the principles of good social learning and overturning the more top-down models of information delivery needs more concrete evidence.

Our latest CCAFS working paper, Social learning in practice: A review of lessons, impacts and tools for climate change, reviews recent studies of social learning in practice to identify the lessons and tools that can encourage us to adopt social learning approaches more confidently, the impacts we can expect it to have, and the ways we might evaluate our success in using this approach. 

It also tells us something about how social learning has emerged and is being defined in the fields of climate change and natural resource management.

The paper helps us think about the attributes of a social learning process that can ensure success and by inference where we all-too-often fail. But we want to go further.

Lessons from social learning in practice

One of the most important—if not the most important—features of a powerful social learning engagement is process.

People underestimate the power of process and the legitimacy it gives to those who take part—it provides a framework of permission in which people’s views, contributions and learning counts for something and adds to the confidence in the learning they will take out.

CIRAD, agricultural research for development, work with Moroccan farmers and managing supply chains demonstrated that it was more important to enable farmers to engage on the issue as a group and to work together to find solutions rather than to transfer technology [found in Box 2 on page 20 of the paper].

Capacity building and trust are essential

Farmer field schools in Kenya show how individual wellbeing and agency are strengthened through engagement that fosters trust and works in groups to look at the how and why of various farming practices. Unclear, indeterminate processes can enhance power imbalances and water down trust, immediately undermining the potential for achieving change. 

For strong social learning in climate change to take place we need to bring together those who have formal science-based experience with those who have informal practitioner based experience—this mix of expertise, culture and framing needs the right kind of process to facilitate an equal exchange and a learning process that ensures there is learning at every level.   

Our review of this literature and further in-depth interviews confirmed five top tips for success:

  1. Social learning is not a communication exercise—top-down information exchange doesn’t work, everyone has to recognise the challenge. For this there needs to be a truly co-designed framing of the problem or solution to be found. Some interesting work with participatory future scenarios planning in East and West Africa is bringing private and public sector decision makers together to forge shared thinking about challenges ahead.
  2. Strong, face to face facilitators are needed to guide the process—not just for creating the opportunities for social learning but to help facilitate the co-design of approaches and the management of spaces in which learning takes place. The Kabaraole Research Centre’s work with communities on food security gained traction more quickly with strong facilitation (see Case 1 in Appendix 2).
  3. Learning processes must evolve together organically and need to evolve within their own environments and endogenous processes. Directed social learning spaces don’t work if they are top down or simply replicated from some other context or culture.
  4. Time is an essential ingredient to any successful learning process—WE KNOW THIS but we cannot seem to find the right support that guarantees that needed time; pressure for quick “results” undermines success at every turn.
  5. Last and definitely not least: if we want to secure longer lasting and continuous change, we need to institutionalise social learning—this will be the only way we can give confidence to the policy environment that social learning is a tried and tested methodology. CCAFS is working hard to explore how to integrate social learning methodologies into their strategic thinking.

Taking our work further

The Climate Change Social Learning and Communications Initiative (CCSL), along with others such as the IDRC’s CARIAA program, is supporting a process to build this evidence base. We recognise we need good documentation of what works and why, we need to understand the power relations in these processes and how big global problems are perceived by those facing more immediate daily local challenges.

We need to know more, and practice more, around good facilitation of co-designed processes and we need to find ways to convince a policy environment that more can be achieved.

To meet these needs, evidence will be collected over the next two years by identifying 10 to 12 projects that want to draw on social learning principles from the very start of their activity and that we can then monitor and learn from as we go.

We will be using what we have learnt here to determine how to gather and present that evidence, but in the meantime this Working paper gives some good pointers as to what we know already about the lessons, principles, top tools and approaches, and evaluation and impacts. A forthcoming article in Nature Climate Change, to be published in January 2014, will share more about how we plan to take our next steps.

Attention on the potential of social learning appears to be growing. For example, our initial working paper, which scoped out climate change communication and social learning opportunities, has been viewed more than 2000 times.

We very much hope that this one will help to deepen our collective understanding and interest in the issue. We are looking to grow this community of practice and hope that you can stimulate a debate on this with us or with your colleagues, so do get in touch! 

Download the working paper on Social Learning in Practice.

Liz Carlile is IIED's Director of Communications ([email protected]). This post was first published on the CCAFS blog.