Open Thinkering


Tag: communities of practice

TB872: Overview of different traditions in social learning systems

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

Life is short, and so I have fed all of the blog posts I’ve written over the last couple of weeks into ChatGPT to generate the table below. I’ve linked to each individual post I wrote in the ‘Tradition’ column.

This ‘reading matrix’ was given as part of the course activities. I should, I suppose, have been filling it in as I went along.

A the WordPress theme I’m using is quite narrow, you’ll either have to pinch-to-zoom (mobile) or press CTRL and + (desktop) to increase the font size.

TraditionConceptsLessons about the nature of learningLessons about designing learning systemsOther useful pointsProblems & disagreements
Schön: situations as learning systemsDilemma of rigor or relevance

The stable state

Public learning

Ideas in good currency

Effective learning systems

Dynamically conservative social systems
Learning is about adapting to significant, complex issues in “the swamp” below the rigour of “high ground”.

Public learning is key in adapting to changes, especially in the loss of the ‘stable state’.
Learning systems must enable adaptability, reflexivity, and continuous learning.

They should foster an environment of questioning, experimentation, and application of new knowledge.
Schön’s work underlines the importance of intra-generational learning due to rapid technological and social changes.

Governments should act as learning systems to effectively address societal challenges.
The precise methods for maintaining rigor while addressing complex real-world problems can be contentious.

There might be disagreement on how to implement and balance the elements of effective learning systems.
Vickers: appreciation and appreciative systemsAppreciative systems

Readiness-to-do vs. readiness-to-value

Standards of value

Learning involves both observing and engaging as an agent, valuing and interpreting our experiences.

Learning is a complex activity that goes beyond action readiness to include ethical decisions and emotional responses.
Learning systems should be designed to accommodate changing values and standards, allowing for the representation and rehearsal of possible futures.Vickers emphasises the importance of personal experience in shaping our understanding and the creation of shared ‘appreciated worlds’.

Ethical considerations are expanding, suggesting a need for learning systems that are responsive to evolving ethical standards.
There may be challenges in reconciling the subjective nature of appreciative systems with the objective standards often sought in learning systems.

The concept of ‘harm’ and ethical standards are subjective and can lead to disagreements on what constitutes ethical behavior.
Bateson: willingness to learnDeutero-learning


Learning is an ongoing, lifelong process that should remain flexible and adaptable.

It involves the willingness to modify and integrate new values into existing ones.
Learning systems should facilitate the integration of new understandings and values, reflecting societal changes and diversity.Bateson emphasizes the interconnectedness of life and the importance of understanding complexity.

She advocates for reconceptualising rights and responsibilities beyond the individual to include communities and ecosystems.
The definition and scope of independence can be contentious, as Bateson suggests it is an illusion, which might conflict with some cultural values and ideologies.
Bawden: critical social learning systemsCognition, metacognition, and epistemic cognition

Holocentric, ecocentric, egocentric, technocentric perspectives


Critical Social Learning Systems (CSLS)
Learning is a transformative process at different cognitive levels: understanding the matter at hand, the methods of learning, and the limits to our understanding.

Learning should lead to a change in behaviour based on the knowledge acquired.

Living is a constant process of learning and adapting to change.
Learning communities should incorporate experiential learning, epistemic cognition, and a critical evaluation of worldviews.

Learning systems should be designed with awareness of their coherence, diversity, purpose, emotional ambience, and power dynamics.
Bawden emphasises the importance of adapting learning to complex, dynamic, and degrading environments.

The ‘map is not the territory’ highlights the distinction between conceptual models and real-world complexities.
The complexity of Bawden’s integrated CSLS diagram may present challenges in understanding and application.
Wenger-Trayner: communities of practiceCommunity of Practice (CoP)

Legitimate peripheral participation

Learning as a trajectory into a community of practice

World learning system
Learning is social and involves entire communities, not just transactions between a master and an apprentice.

Communities shape our perception and interpretation of experiences.
Learning systems must facilitate social, professional, and personal support through CoPs, particularly in a globalised context.

CoPs should have action-learning capacity, cross-boundary representation, and cross-level linkages.
The concept of ‘world design’ through strategic social learning systems is key.

Brokers play a crucial role in interweaving relationships within and between communities.

Trust and conflict resolution within CoPs are important and take time to develop.
CoPs are not a panacea for all world problems but should be part of a broader ecology of structures and systems.

There can be challenges in stewardship within CoPs, especially in addressing civic issues.
Non-Western traditions: UbuntuHumanity to others

“I am what I am because of who we all are”
Learning and identity are communal, not individual.

Acknowledges the importance of social relationships and community in learning.
Learning systems should foster a sense of belonging and collective responsibility.

Systems should encourage sharing and collaboration, reflecting the communal aspects of Ubuntu.
Ubuntu challenges individualistic and competitive approaches, promoting inclusivity and cooperation.The implementation of Ubuntu in diverse cultural contexts may lead to differing interpretations and applications.
Non-Western traditions: PratītyasamutpādaDependent origination

Interdependence of phenomena
Emphasises the interconnectedness of knowledge and existence.

Recognises that understanding is not linear but multidimensional.
Systems should be designed to reflect the complex interplay of multiple causes and effects.

Encourages holistic thinking and the use of tools like causal loop diagrams to visualise interconnections.
Offers a worldview that counters reductionist and segmented approaches.

Supports environmental and social activism by highlighting interconnectedness.
May challenge entrenched Western notions of causality and individualism, creating philosophical and practical tensions.

TB872: Wenger-Trayner 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

A kaleidoscopic image visualizing the fractal-like expansion of a community of practice from a central core to a broad network, depicted through symmetrical, repeating patterns that reflect the intricate growth and diversity within the community.

Étienne Wenger-Trayner is someone whose work I’ve come across on multiple occasions over the last 15 years. When I worked at Jisc, he was cited in meetings and reports and, these days, we use his concept of communities of practice in the co-op. For example, we ran some online Community Conversations sessions where we discussed his ideas around ‘value cycles’.

For this module, we’ve got the recording of the first part of a presentation he gave at the University of Brighton in 2013 entitled ‘Learning in landscapes of practice: recent developments in social learning theory’ (The Open University, 2021) and a chapter in the book Social Learning Systems and Communities of Practice (Blackmore, 2010).

I hadn’t realised that he coined the term ‘community of practice’ (CoP) to describe the social structures observed around traditional apprenticeships. Wenger-Trayner observed that learning is not simply a transaction between a master and an apprentice but involves the entire community.

Image entitled 'Studies of apprenticeship - legitimate peripheral participation'

The image shows different layers and a wiggly line journey from the outside to the inside.

Other text reads 'Learning as trajectory into a community of practice'
Screencap of slide from Wenger-Trayner’s presentation

During the presentation, he tells an anecdote about wine-tasting. A friend of his talked about a wine having a ‘purple nose’ which, because he was (and is) not a member of a wine-tasting community, he didn’t really understand. The same is true of other CoPs: they shape our perceiption and interpretation of experiences. What was just a ‘decent glass of wine’ is all of a sudden a much richer interaction if you have the language and understanding to appreciate it.

In her introduction to the section on CoPs, Chris Blackmore suggests why reference to them has “mushroomed” since Wenger-Trayner’s first book on the subject:

[D]ownsizing of companies in many parts of the western world and increased mobility of people from job to job has led to a need to find other ways to continue in professional relationships. The increased development and use of information and communication technologies, particularly the Internet, has generally made it easier for many to find out about and communicate with others beyond their own geographical areas. In responses to complexity, needs for different kinds of support have arisen – social, professional and personal. Business and industry imperatives have changed with increased globalisation with a range of new economic and ethical dilemmas to be addressed. Calls for sustainable development and concerns about climate change have presented new challenges in doing and learning with others, some of them undoubtedly addressed by CoPs praxis.

(Blackmore, 2010, p.103)

The chapter written by Wenger-Trayner with William M. Snyder (2004) addresses global challenges, suggesting that we require a “world learning system”. This, they suggest, should have the following “three basic specifications”:

  • Action-learning capacity to address problems while continuously reflecting on what approaches are working and why – and then using these insights to guide future actions.
  • Cross-boundary representation that includes participants from all sectors – private, public, and nonprofit – and from a sufficient range of demographic constituencies and professional disciplines to match the complexity of factors and stakeholders driving the problem.
  • Cross-level linkages that connect learning-system activities at local, national, and global levels – wherever civic problems and opportunities arise.
(Blackmore, 2010, p.108)

The chapter calls for an evolutionary approach to building a world learning system, and explains the role of communities of practice can have in creating a discipline of “world design” focused on strategic social learning systems. This involves a fractal approach, to make it possible to “significantly increase the scale of a community-based learning system without losing core elements of its success” (ibid., p.120).

One thing that CoPs struggle with, especially in the civic arena, is stewardship. Coalitions “do not take sustained responsibility for stewarding a civic domain or for bringing together the full array of stakeholder constituencies to identify and address short- and long-term priorities” (ibid., p.113). Instead, some individuals or organisations may participate “in multiple communities in ways that help interweave relationships in the broader community”. Consequently, “they become brokers of relationships between levels in equivalent types of communities” because “I trust people trusted by those I trust” (ibid., p.121).

Importantly, the authors point out that “the evolution of a learning system must… be paced at the time-scale of social relationships, not according to an externally imposed objective to achieve short-term results” (ibid.). Some of these social relationships will involve conflict, especially when the aim of the community is to try and solve previously-intractable problems. Dealing with conflict helps build trust, which again, takes time.

A community of practice approach, while useful, is not “a silver bullet for solving the problems of the world” but rather a way to align “community activities within a broader ecology of formal an informal structures – institutions, cultural groups, laws, and social networks” (ibid, p.123).


  • Blackmore, C. (ed.) (2010). Social learning systems and communities of practice. London: Springer. Available at:
  • The Open University. (2021). ‘3.3.5 Wenger-Trayner: communities of practice, TB872: Managing change with systems thinking in practice. Available at (Accessed 25 February 2024).

Image: DALL-E 3

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: