What is collective social learning for transformational change?

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What is social learning?

Social learning is the glue that binds us together

Social learning is part of our everyday life. It is the pathway through which we learn to live in a shared world, a world that will inevitably be different from that of our parents and different again for our children. We live in an era of continuous rapid social and environmental change. Simple changes in social behaviours, such as an increase in everyday use of childcare centres, or the ready take-up of mobile phones, are just symptoms of core changes in work patterns and family units, which, in turn, change our interaction with both our social and our physical environments.

Personally and professionally, we are all, by definition, involved in social learning. It has made us who we are, and allows us to fit into the society in which we were reared.

Social learning can impede change

Social learning inevitably goes beyond that of each individual, to shape the whole of society. The effectiveness of a society’s capacity to change is marked by the willingness of its members to go beyond their traditional social practices. However, rather than being welcomed, change can be resisted. The pull of the traditional ways of defining individual goals, professional practices and organisational cultures can be stronger than the push of the need to change.

As a result, social learning can be a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it is the glue that holds society together, a cultural inheritance that is passed down through the generations, and gives the security of knowing that things will go on as they always have. On the other hand, traditional social learning can act as a brake on change, since it is more concerned with maintaining the old than introducing the new. The interaction between the traditionalists and the innovators shows, therefore, a significant tension. In times of transformational change, the tensions can escalate into outright conflict. Examples include the current political unrest sweeping the planet and the impasse in responses to climate change.

Why do we need a form of social learning that embraces change?

The impact of human activities on the planet is so great that changes are necessary for a viable human future. Financial crises flow, one after another, with no end in sight. Advances in technology appear to offer the answers, and then the answers cause further disruption. Communities need to support their members through the rapid pace of social change. Scientists, politicians, industry leaders and communities each offer solutions, but they are competing ones.

How can we move forward to welcome change within this chaos?

It may be difficult because we live in a society with strong divisions between ways of thinking about the world. The divisions between ages, gender, beliefs and values, places and income levels build strong walls of thought and language that serve to strongly reinforce the existing system. To bring change to one is to threaten the continuity of the others. The entry of women into the workforce, increasing economic inequality and extended life expectancy are only a few of the changes affecting Western social systems. Learning is needed to put windows into those walls.

Finally, we need to develop a form of social learning that embraces change.

Embracing social learning for transformational change


Step One: Accepting a form of social learning that embraces change

We need to recognise the need for a social learning that celebrates rather than impedes change – a redirected social learning.

Step Two: Complex issues need to be addressed by a comprehensive understanding of the issues

We need to accept that major change necessarily generates complex social issues. These complex issues require a quite different approach from that of addressing the simple problems of maintaining business as usual.

As H.L. Mencken, the American wit, said, ‘For every complex problem there is a solution which is simple, clean and wrong.’

A simple problem can be solved through applying the simple logic of cause and effect; a complex problem asks for a far more comprehensive understanding of the issues.

Some examples?

  • A troubled community may need to embrace marginalised groups and to develop new mutual support systems to cope with change.
  • Halting environmental degradation may mean changing industry practices and developing a comprehensive environmental management system involving all interests.
  • For new technology to provide more than a stop-gap solution, it will require complementary changes throughout a society.

In each of the above examples, the comprehensive changes will require mutual learning and understanding by all sectors of the society.

Step Three: Using the collective learning cycle to understand the issues in a more complex way

Collective learning involves asking four questions of the complex issue:

Question 1: What should be?

The first stage of the collective learning cycle involves feelings and the sharing of ideals.

The question asks for the ideals of each participant in the change enterprise.

The answer reveals the contributors’ social context:

  • Individuals will answer with personal goals.
  • Community members will answer with local visions for the future.
  • Specialists will answer with the goals for their specialised interest.
  • Organisational representatives will answer with their strategic directions.
  • Creative thinkers will expand the currently accepted limits.

While each individual person will hold all those ideals, western social conditioning will usually lead them to offer only one type of answer. Starting in this way allows for the full range of ideals to be put on the table, and for each interest group to hear and respect the ideals of others.

Question 2: What is?

The second stage of the collective learning cycle involves watching and describing the facts. A fact is a validated understanding. At this stage, all the interests contribute the facts that their group considers support and impede the desired change.

This will entail all five different perspectives on just what are the facts:

  • Individuals will contribute the facts derived from their own experience.
  • Communities will contribute the facts from remembered shared events.
  • Specialists will contribute from a particular disciplinary framework.
  • Organisations will contribute from their business plan.
  • Artists and holists will contribute from their imagination.

It is important to be aware of, and compensate for, a power hierarchy that, unfortunately, exists among the interest groups. There is always a tendency for facts from specialist knowledge to be valued more than the strategic understanding of organisations, and both to be valued more than facts contributed by communities, individuals or creative thinkers. Collective learning brings together the validated understanding of each interest group.

Question 3: What could be?

The third stage of the learning cycle involves thinking and coming up with fresh ideas for change. The ideas further the ideals they have heard in Step 1 and the facts they have shared in Step 2.

This means bringing the ideas of all the interests together in a synergy: that is, the contributions working together to create something better than any could contribute alone. Therefore, it is essential at this stage of the collective learning cycle that each interest group make its own contribution to the whole

The process accepts that bringing about whole-of-community change will need all the interests joined as a mutual brainstorm, and that the more diverse the interests, the better. Each contributor from any interest will be asked to draw on the full seven ways of understanding which underlies all human thinking regardless of their social learning. They are personal, physical, social, ethical, aesthetic, sympathetic and reflective.

Question 4: What can be?

The fourth and final stage of the collective learning cycle is where ideas are brought into practice through collaborative action.

This involves collaborative action. It can be a challenge for the different interests involved in the change, such as the:

  • Key individuals
  • Affected community
  • Expert advisors
  • Influential organisations
  • Creative thinkers.

Therefore, this final stage will need to draw on the many forms of collaboration being developed among the interests themselves:

  • Individual cooperation
  • Community self-determination
  • Transdisciplinary inquiry
  • Multi-focal organisations
  • Applied design.

The importance of reflection

The collective learning cycle depends on the ability of all the contributing groups to reflect on both their own and the others’ learning. Each learning stage includes an avenue for reflection, and there is time allotted to reflect between each of the learning stages. The outcome of this is more like a collage in which all the contributions are valued, rather than a predetermined jigsaw puzzle in which the pieces are made to fit.

Following a definite order

In developing collective learning for transformational change, it is essential to follow the four stages in a definite order.

Starting with the first question, ‘What should be?’ is essential, as it ensures the collective learning is driven by a desire for change and a vision of what that change might be.

The next question, ‘What is?’, establishes the range of facts that allow for the opportunities and blocks to change in light of the ideals, rather than being fixed in the present problems.

During these first and second stages, the interest groups contribute from their own positions and, in this way, enlarge their understanding of each other.

For the third question, ‘What could be?, they come together to build on this understanding, creating what David Bohm calls ‘learning from difference, not more of the same’.

For the final question, ‘What can be?’, it is essential that collaboration is built on all the learning that went before, rather than reverting to the old divisions.

Applicability to different cultures

The learning styles and stages that make the collective learning cycle are primarily based in Western culture. However, the process is experiential, meaning that it is based on experience or observations. Since all human adult learning is experiential, the cycle has proved to be effective for Indigenous Australian communities, and communities in Indonesia, Malaysia and Hong Kong. However, great care needs to be taken to ensure that non-Western people redesign the collective learning cycle in their own terms.

Are you interested in finding out more about how collective social learning leads to transformational change?

Are you interested in how collective transformational change can lead to a just and sustainable future?

Further reading:

Collective Learning for Transformational ChangeIn Collective Learning for Transformational Change: A guide to collaborative action, Valerie A. Brown and Judith A. Lambert provide both a theoretical and practical exploration of transformative learning.







Transformational Change Book CoverIn The Human Capacity for Transformational Change, Valerie A. Brown and John A. Harris explore how to harness the power of a collective mind to achieve desired transformational change towards a just and sustainable future.