Open Thinkering


Tag: Chris Blackmore

TB872: Social learning systems and communities of practice

Note: this is a post reflecting on one of the modules of my MSc in Systems Thinking in Practice. You can see all of the related posts in this category

As the module TB872 moves to Part 3, the core text moves to Social learning Systems and Communities of Practice, edited by Chris Blackmore. The introduction begins with several quotations, including one from Etienne Wenger, whose work around communities of practice and value flows I’ve come across many times before:

What if we assumed that learning is as much a part of our human nature as eating and sleeping, that it is both life-sustaining and inevitable? And what if, in addition, we assumed that learning is a fundamentally social phenomenon, reflecting our own deeply social nature as human beings capable of knowing?

Wenger (1998), quoted in Blackmore (2010, p.xi)

I’m not so familiar with the work of Richard Bawden, although the quotation included from him certainly resonates:

The advantage of a systemic perspective […] is the appreciation that actions are invariably also interactions. Thus what any one individual might actively do in the world, can, and frequently does have an influence on other human beings as well as on the ‘rest of nature’, directly or indirectly. And this has ethical implications.

Bawden (2000), quoted in Blackmore (2010, p.xi)

As Blackmore notes, “taking ethics into account means [addressing] not just what could be done but what should be done” (Blackmore, 2010, p.xiv). This fits with my view of the world, as I don’t think there is a human action that can be taken in a way that is free of some kind of ethical stance, even if implicit.

Although I wouldn’t be able to do any better given my sad monolingualism and lack of understanding of cultures other than those in which I have been immersed, it’s a bit sad to see this book largely structured around the work of white, western men. I might change my mind as I get into the book, but I would have thought that there would be a particularly rich literature to draw on around social learning outside of the western sphere.

As with earlier parts of this module, we are being encouraged not to read this book in order. So after reading the introduction, my next stop is Chapter 12, which is the last chapter and written by editor Chris Blackmore.

Part 3 moves from thinking about oneself as a systems thinking practitioner into considering other practitioners within a system.

Systemic change usually applies to change of a perceived system, or sub-system, as a whole rather than to its constituent parts. Making improvements to health and social care services, for example, might not be possible just through dedicated professionals doing their own jobs better.

Blackmore (2010b) in Blackmore (2010a, p.201)*

She goes on to quote Russel Ackoff that “it is better to do the right thing wrong than to do the wrong thing right” which probably sums up my career working in and around formal education. I have seen initiative after initiative focus on the wrong things, be it ‘discipline’ or ‘getting back to basics’ (where ‘basics’ is usually some wrong-headed Tory notion). I am looking forward to getting into the work of Donald Schön and Geoffrey Vickers, as Blackmore’s overviews of their work in social learning seem to chime with my intuitions.

It’s interesting to note that Blackmore considers Etienne Wenger to be “propos[ing] a social theory of learning rather than a social learning theory” as “learning [is] a social and historical process” (Blackmore, 2010b, p.205). I need to think about this a bit more.

Taking into account the authors covered in the book, Blackmore maps a ‘landscape of praxis’ with reference to 14 themes:

  1. Institutions, organisations, and institutionalising
  2. Ethics, values, and morality
  3. Communication
  4. Facilitation
  5. Managing interpersonal relationships and building trust
  6. Communities and networks
  7. Levels and scale
  8. Boundaries and barriers
  9. Conceptual frameworks and tools
  10. Knowledge and knowing
  11. Transformations
  12. Time lag and dynamics of praxis
  13. Design for learning
  14. Stability, sustainability, and overall purpose

She proceeds to discuss each of these in turn in a way that I will not comment on directly, but rather pull out points of interest. One of these concerns what ethics means in relation to learning:

From a philosophical perspective, ethics can focus on ‘being good’; ‘doing the right thing’, what ‘ought to be’ and on how we ‘should’ live and treat others. But these focuses are not necessarily the main focuses of learning. For instance, it is possible to learn how to be bad and to do the wrong thing. It is important to recognise that a community that serves its members’ interests does not automatically have to have an ethical brief. However, many practices do include an ethical dimension so working with others to improve those practices will involve engaging with ethics.

Blackmore (2010b) in Blackmore (2010a, p.209)*

This idea of communities being involved in learning, but that being orthogonal to its ethical dimension is fascinating to me. I’ve noticed how much of the fragmentation of the social media landscape has led to rearrangement along ethical lines, for example. Given that social learning happens through social networks of all types, including social media, this is an important dimension to consider.

There is an emotional lens to all of this, too. Caring about community is seen as an ethically positive and civically-minded thing to do; the kind of thing that engages a responsible citizen (ibid., p.211). What’s interesting in a ‘post-truth’ world is that we’ve discovered that it is not facts that change people’s minds but emotion. Given the worldview-reinforcing capacity of community engagement, social learning is not necessarily always a force for good in the world.

In fact, as Linda Polin is quoted as saying, “learning is viewed as a kind of enculturation of the individual into a system of practice” (ibid., p.213). Beliefs are the way that we make sense of the world around us, with these coalescing into worldviews that provide a filter to the sense we try and make of the world (ibid.).

One of the goals of a learning system is transformation, which can be thought of in terms of “discourse, practices, systems for collaborative working, worldviews, nature, traditional society, and roles” (ibid., p.215). Something for me to come back and consider is: if someone wanted to perpetuate the ‘status quo’ could then design a learning system to do this? My assumption and feeling is that they could, as they would have to take into account a changing dynamic even to preserve a semblance of something being the ‘same’.

Overall, I think I’m going to enjoy the readings in this book, partly because it’s firmly in my field of interest and expertise, but also because they’re self-contained. One of the things I found difficult about the previous core text was dotting around something that had internal references.

* I have no idea how to cite a chapter written by editor in an edited collection. Suggestions welcome!


  • Blackmore, C. (ed.) (2010a). Social learning systems and communities of practice. London: Springer. Available at:
  • Blackmore, C. (2010b). Managing Systemic Change: Future Roles for Social Learning Systems and Communities of Practice? In: Blackmore, C. (ed.) (2010) Social learning systems and communities of practice. London: Springer. Available at: