What is social learning?

Annotation for What is social learning?

Reed M.S., Evely A.C., Cundill G., Fazey I., Glass J., Laing A., Newig J., Parrish B., Prell C., Raymond C. et al.. 2010. What is social learning? Ecology and Society.


Response to several social learning articles, attempting to improve conceptual clarity of the term.

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Key Findings: 

Social learning is becoming a normative response to natural resource management issues and policy, and yet there is still a lack of consensus in theory and practice. For example, the term social learning is often confused with the processes and methods used for its facilitation, such as multi-actor participation. Lack of conceptual clarity makes evaluation of social learning difficult. This article contributes several principles for defining the process of social learning that attempt to improve these conceptual difficulties. For social learning to occur the authors argue that the process should clearly demonstrate: (i) changes in individual understanding; (ii) expansion of individual change into transformation of broader social units; and (iii) that this change has resulted directly from interactions and processes among actors in a defined social network. Greater shared understanding of the meaning of social learning will help with critical evaluation of process and outcomes, and further aid with the effective facilitation of this learning framework.


The concept of social learning is relatively new and has its roots in earlier theories of individual learning. Expanding individual theories of learning into collective settings is challenging in a number of ways. Evolving from theory to normative concept and beyond into praxis is an iterative process requiring increasing clarity amongst theorists and practitioners. This article is an important contribution to this evolutionary, communicative process. Equally, the theory of adaptive learning requires conceptual clarity and consensus to enable effective evaluation of its processes and outcomes, and to aid with its facilitation. Without this, adaptive learning becomes just another ‘buzz word’ or dry terminology. The concept of adaptive learning should therefore build on, and add to, (i.e. assist with the evolution of) theories of social learning to provide greater insights into collective learning processes. In other words, adaptive learning is required to add tangible value that further clarifies the complex processes of social or collective learning and, most importantly, to contribute toward greater and more effective action and change.