Key concepts related to Critical Social Learning System

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(Activity 3.17, 3.18, 3.19 based on Chapters 3 – 6 in Blackmore (ed, 2010))

Well, I suppose I better start with….

Critical learning system

Bawden (1999) applies a number of different theories to build up a conceptual model of a critical learning system which he claims has practical application in terms of design, maintenance, development and evaluation of learning communities (page 52).  He notes that this is an idealised and generalised model (page 54).

Before I look at the model, I just want to remind myself that Bawden’s description and the diagram he uses (page 53) are intended to draw attention to the interactions and tensions that take place in a system of interest with an overall purpose of critical learning.  By critical, Bawden means self-referential or “able to learn about their own learning” (page 43) but I also understand critical to be about political engagement and ethics (see my post on What does ‘critical’ mean?).

There are a number of dimensions in his explanation of the model:

1) The emergent property of a critical learning system is meaning.

2) The system is made up of two primary subsystems – experiential learning and inspirational learning.

The Experiential learning subsystem is familiar to me because it draws on the work of Kolb’s suggestion that “learning is the creation of knowledge through the transformation of experience” (page 45). However Bawden uses a slightly different set of verbs than those in Kolb’s original work to describe the transformations being made in the cycle.  In essence, you experience something and perceive what is happening when you do, then you work to understand those perceptions, you then use the understandings to plan and then you act which gives you new experiences to perceive.

The Inspirational learning subsystem focusses on learning from inner insights.  In essence, the learner withdraws from the conceptual world through meditating, then focusses in on insights which you then go on to accept before applying them back into the conceptual world.

3) With respect of the experiential learning subsystem, it is important to enable learning at three different levels which Bawden draws from the work of Kitchener:

– level 1 – learning itself

– level 2 – learning about learning (meta-learning)

– level 3 – learning about the worldviews being brought to contextualise what is being learned (epistemic learning)

Levels 2 and 3 seem to be to be crucial to making the system ‘self-referential’.

4) Worldviews

Bawden (1999) presents two useful frameworks for learning about Worldviews.

The first is about the cognitive basis to your Worldview (page 48/49). Firstly, your ontological position i.e. what you believe about the nature of nature (holism/reductionism).  Secondly, your epistemological position i.e. what you believe about the nature of knowledge (relativism/objectivism).  These two dimensions lead to a quadrant of four worldviews:

– technocentric – objectivism with reductionism

– ecocentric – objectivism with holism

– egocentric – relativism with reductionism

– halocentric – relativism with holism

This cognitive basis to your Worldview particularly impacts on experiential learning.

The second framework is a normative basis to your Worldview, which are “grounded in values frameworks” (page 49).  Bawden draws on O’Toole to identify two dimensions – libertarianism/egalitarianism and corporatism/communitarianism – which underpin different dreams of a good society.  The normative basis to your Worldview particular impacts on the inspirational learning subsystem.

In his later paper, Bawden (2009) provides an additional explanation of worldviews – comprising a set of personal presuppositions that interact together to shape perceptions (page 96):

– the nature of nature (or ontology)

– the nature and origins of the universe, or life itself and, especially, of the spiritual essence of mankind (cosmology)

– the nature of knowledge (or epistemology)

– the nature of human nature especially as it relates to motivations, dispositions and values, especially ethics and aesthetics (or axiology)

5) Emotions

which can be harnessed to help the learning process.

6) Power

that can impact on communication and learning.

Critical social learning system

There is a bit of a leap here.  The description of a critical learning system above is all about interactions of elements in an almost psychological sense with respect to learning.

However, in his later work Bawden uses ‘critical social learning system’ to refer to a group of people:

a CSLS is a group of people who have decided to collaborate in order to seek systemic improvements to some messy complex situation that together they regard as critically problematic. (page 94)

I was a little confused by that at first.  But what I am beginning to understand is that a fully-fledged CSLS must be where the group are collectively developing meaning through the processes/activities/interactions identified (brought forth) in the earlier critical learning system model.

Social learning

I am kind of struggling with this because I am so used to associating learning with an individual psychological process, it is kind of hard to think about it happening across a number of different people’s heads all at the same time.  But I think it would help if I shift my way of thinking about learning to that used by Schon – “a social system learns whenever it acquires new capacity for behaviour” (Schon, 1973, in Blackmore, 2010, 6).  So it is not particularly about what happens in the ‘heads’ of the individuals, rather the norms, rules, meanings etc which determine their collective behaviour.

So if society’s behaviour is shaped by its existing meanings – integrated into institutions and language – then new capacity for behaviour comes from these changing.  And it would help if we acted purposefully to change them rather than just letting them slowly evolve.

Or as Woodhill puts it:

social learning, then, I define as: processes by which society democratically adapts its core institutions to cope with social and ecological change in ways that will optimise the collective wellbeing of current and future generations (Woodhill, 2002, in Blackmore, 2010, page 63)

I also like this quote from Woodhill:

social learning is concerned with the ways in which different individuals, or groups […] within society engage with each other to understand, contest and influence the direction of social change (Woodhill, 2002, in Blackmore, 2010, page 63)

I guess there are various domains in which social learning can happen – Woodhill’s focus seems to be ‘society’.  Senge on the ‘organisation’.  Bawden on a ‘community’. And so on.

Learning community

To Bawden (1999), a learning community is a critical social learning system (page 47). He lists (page 54) a number of characteristics of an effective learning community.  These are all drawn from his conceptual model of an integrated critical learning system described above.

However in Bawden’s later paper, 2009, he does not use the term learning community any more – he simply refers to a critical social learning system or CSLS as quoted above.

First- and second- order change

Ison (2005) describes first and second order research and development.  However, the Study guide suggests we consider the meaning of first and second order change.

So is R&D the same as Change?  I don’t think so, I can see some similiarities but to me R&D is one discipline and set of practices that may contribute to change.

Ison (2005) quotes two questions posed by von Foerster (1992) which help distinguish the difference between first- and second- order traditions: (page 77)

Am I apart from the universe?  That is, whenever I look, am I looking through a peephole upon an unfolding universe (the first-order tradition)?

Am a part of the universe?  That is, whenever I act, am I changing myself and the universe as well (the second order tradition)?

So if I apply these two different modes to notions of change….

I would understand first-order change as change that is mostly technical in nature backed by a problem-fix mentality.  There seem to be risks here of unintended consequences.

I understand second-order change as change that is more transformational and more akin to systemic change.  I can see that critical social learning can be a key way to achieve second-order change.  The realisation that whenever you act you are changing yourself and the universe seems to be an integral part of juggling the B-ball.

Institutional design

Woodhill (2002) identifies institutional design as one of three elements that are needed to facilitate social learning – the other two are philosophical reflection and methodological pluralism.  Together these are three defining features of a social learning paradigm.

Institutions are both the means to, and the outcome of, social learning (Woodhill, 2002 in Blackmore (ed, 2010, 67)

So they are in a relational dynamic.  Institutions and social learning mutually construct each other.  Social learning depends on supportive institutional arrangements.

Woodhill proposes 8 key principles for facilitating institututional design (pages 67-69):

– self-organisation.

– cultivation of social capital – build trust, create sense of place, a sense of responsibility and a sense of belonging

– facilitated coordination – invest in linking up disciplines and different specialisations

– institutional diversity – need interplay of smaller organisations as well as larger ones

– local-global dialectics – responsibilities and decision-making processes occur at the appropriate scale/level

– multi-layered democratic participation – increased participation by community and different interest groups in the dialogue over policy matters

– autonomous and integrative knowledge systems – invest in quality of knowledge and different ways of knowing

– meta-reflexiveness – encourage and enable learning about learning.  Be critically conscious.


Woodhill (2002) describes how the existing relationship between humans and the environment is unsustainable and that existing democratic arrangements and economic power are unfit to deal with this.  A sustainability focus requires different social institutions including greater participation in democratic processes at all levels and social learning.

Traditions of understanding

I am familiar with this term from its use when we look at the juggling isophor in Part 2 and particularly the B-ball.  There we looked at it from the perspective of the traditions of understanding of the individual practitioner – here it is more at the level of a community or society.

I particularly like the explanation provided by Ison (2005, page 75-76) as it offers a good summary of the concept:

[…] a tradition is the history of our being in the world.  Traditions are important because our models of understanding grow out of traditions.  I further define a tradition as a network of prejudices or pre-understandings that provides possible answers and strategies for action.  Traditions are not only ways to see and act, but also ways to conceal […].

Traditions in a culture embed what has been judged to be useful practice.  The risk for any culture is that a tradition can become a blind spot when it evolves into practice that lacks any avenue for critical reflection.


Bawden, R (1999) The Community Challenge: the learning response in Blackmore, C (Ed, 2010) Social Learning Systems and Communities of Practice, The Open University/Springer Publications, Milton Keynes/London

Woodhill, J. (2002) Sustainability, Social learning and the democratic imperative: lessons from the Australian Landcare Movement in Blackmore, C (Ed, 2010) Social Learning Systems and Communities of Practice, The Open University/Springer Publications, Milton Keynes/London

Ison, R. (2005) Traditions of Understanding: Language, Dialogue and Experience in Blackmore, C (Ed, 2010) Social Learning Systems and Communities of Practice, The Open University/Springer Publications, Milton Keynes/London

Bawden, R. (2009) Messy Issues, Worldviews and systemic competencies in Blackmore, C (Ed, 2010) Social Learning Systems and Communities of Practice, The Open University/Springer Publications, Milton Keynes/London

Schön, D.A. (1973) Beyond the stable state pp.30, 116 – 179. The Norton Library, W.W. Norton and Company INC, New York reprinted as Chapter 1 in Blackmore, C. (Ed) (2010) Social learning systems and communities of practice, The Open University/Springer, Milton Keynes/London

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