Open Thinkering


Tag: social learning

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: The people of the PFMS heuristic

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 DALL-E 3 created abstract image, conceptualizing the PFMS heuristic in a collaborative learning context, is now available. It visually represents the integration and interaction of the four elements of the PFMS heuristic: Practitioners, Framework of Ideas, Methods, and Situations of Concern, within a vibrant and dynamic setting.

As I’ve explained in a previous post, the PFMS heuristic is at the core of the TB872 module I’m currently studying:

Practitioners (P) Which other practitioners do you work with?
Framework of ideas (F) What ideas are informing your practice? Do you have a shared set of ideas or are you all working with different ideas? Are there particular ideas you have heard about that you would like to explore further?
Methods (M) What methods and tools are you using?
Situations of concern (S) Do you have a shared situation of concern? If so, what is it?

The next activity on my list is to fill in what seems like a straightforward 2×2 table, based on the work of De Laat and Simons (2002). The idea, I think, is to introduce the idea of social learning to those who are perhaps only really conceptualise the kind of individual learning done on traditional university undergraduate courses.

IndividualIndividual learningIndividual learning processes with collective outcomes
CollectiveLearning in social interactionCollective learning

Taking both the PFMS model and the table together, it’s clear that in my day-to-day work through the co-op of which I’m a founding member, I engage in all four of the kinds of learning:

  • Individual learning: all knowledge and belief is contextual and theory-laden, so much of what I learn is based on my own personal experience, observation, and internal reflection. For example, I might learn what to say or not say to a colleague in a given situation. Or I might find out about something from a client who works in a slightly different way to me.
  • Individual learning processes with collective outcomes: although learning often occurs at an individual level, the knowledge or skills we acquire can contribute to a larger group’s collective goal. For example, we can pool the expertise we have as a cooperative, and the experience for clients is greater than if they engaged us as individual consultants. In this quadrant, there’s a symbiotic relationship between personal development and collective advancement.
  • Learning in social interaction: I’d say about half of my working week is spent ‘co-working’ with members and collaborators of the co-op. As such, learning happens through these interactions by sharing, discussing, and negotiating knowledge. This happens within Communities of Practice (CoP) we’re part of but WAO itself is a CoP, and a place for learning and development as well as for doing business.
  • Collective learning: although individual people learn, so do groups, communities and organisations. This goes beyond the simple aggregation of individual learning experience to include the creation of new knowledge through collective effort. To achieve this, there needs to be shared goals, co-creation of knowledge, and mutual engagement. In my working week, this happens most often through networks of co-ops we’re part of (e.g. and CoPs (e.g. ORE).

I’ve been working on the Open Recognition Toolkit this week, and during our working group call we discussed the Plane of Recognition we’re using on this page. Although, like De Laat and Simons’ grid, it involves quadrants, what’s really happening is a continuum. In the former case it’s from traditional, formal recognition to non-traditional, non-formal recognition. In the latter, it’s a continuum of learning that mvoes from the individual to the collective, emphasising the connections between personal knowledge acquisition and social, collaboration knowledge creation.

So, in my Situation (S), the Practitioners (P) I’m working with are primarily Laura, and then on few with John and Anne. In the past there have been other members and collaborators involved, too. The Framework of Ideas (F) that we implement has been negotiated over time, but was helped by us all working together for a few years at the Mozilla Foundation. At our monthly co-op days, we reflect on different aspects of our work together, for example creating pages such as Spirit of WAO which allow us to say together things like:

We believe in:

  • Placing ourselves and our work in historical and social contexts so that we can make thoughtful decisions about our behaviours and mindsets.
  • Seeing ourselves as part of nature not the rulers of it and acknowledging that there is a climate emergency. We are conscious of the lost lessons and spirit of the indigenous and strive for climate justice.
  • Sharing resources to help combat prejudice wherever we see it (including, but not limited to: racism, sexism, ageism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, and hostility relating to education or socio-economic status).

In terms of our methods (M) we try and make these as explicit as possible. So we’re currently using software tools such as Trello, Google Docs, and Whimsical. But we’ve got a Learn with WAO site where we share tools and approaches, which include the templates we use with clients on a range of activities. These are all Creative Commons licensed, as we walk the talk of openness.

In considering the Situations (S) of concern, our work at the co-op often revolves around diverse and sometimes complex projects. Each project brings its own set of challenges and opportunities for learning. Returning to my earlier example of the Open Recognition Toolkit, there were some new things we had to learn about using MediaWiki, even though it’s a tool we’ve used before. Likewise, there was a time when I had to send a somewhat awkward, but necessary, email, to a contributor who was engaging in a way that wasn’t entirely pro-social. As such, the project has required not individual learning but also collective effort to bring together different expertise and perspectives.

A really interesting aspect of thinking through my practice using the PFMS heuristic is how it enables a fluid transition between individual and collective learning processes. For example, I often find that my own, individual, learning about Open Source technologies contributes significantly to the collective knowledge base of the group.

Social learning is essentially learning in practice. It’s not just about exchanging information, but full-bandwidth collaborative experience that inform and shape both our understanding and approaches to work. For example, I’ve seen many instances when people have taken things that they’ve seen us used (and which we learned from others), and then use them in their own practice. Sometimes they even verbalise it: “Oh, I’m going to steal that!”. This encourages a culture of continuous learning and adaptation, which is important in any kind of work environment.

I’m part of the Member Learning group of, and in a meeting this week I was trying to explain the value of regular community calls. I was trying to get across the point that the kind of learning we want to foster in the network is not a series of transactional experiences, but rather building a constituency of people who are learning and growing together. It’s not something confined to formal training sessions or workshops. Instead, it’s embedded in our interactions, projects, and shared culture.

As I get further into the TB872 module, I am increasingly appreciative of the way that WAO works internally, with clients, and with other cooperatives. We’ve essentially set up a learning organisation. What’s useful to me is that the PFMS heuristic provides a really valuable lens through which to view and understand these processes, and I’m glad I’m forcing myself to blog all of this so that I can come back to it later!

Image: DALL-E 3 (it reminds me somewhat of a Doom painting you might find on the wall of a medieval church!)