Review of Social Learning Theory: And its application in collaborative governance processes for environmental management and sustainable development

Commissioned Report

The importance of collaborative governance and participatory decision making for sound environmental management and sustainable development has been documented and promoted in numerous studies. This form of social cooperation is seen as central in mobilising the necessary human capital and ingenuity that is needed to dramatically modify current social trajectories and lead towards transformative change. Although the proponents of collaborative governance present substantial evidence to support the effectiveness of these processes in stimulating change, wider attempts to model and replicate the facilitation of such collaborative governance approaches often fail to achieve the same level of efficacy and impact highlighted in the best practice cases.

This paper reviews the literature on social learning theory and considers its application in processes of collaborative governance. Social learning is both the individual and collective learning that occurs in groups when they come together to deliberate on, envision and enact some type of collective change/improvement. This form of learning is driven by discourse among group members and is enhanced through action-reflection cycling, furthermore pragmatic and consensus validation serve as the main means for validating new knowledge generation. In social learning processes, individuals do not just gain “existing” knowledge, but groups collectively codify and elaborate new understandings and worldviews.

A procedural analysis of social learning elucidates the means for facilitating social learning within collaborative governance processes in order to achieve the desirable efficacy of such processes. As social learning is not about the formulaic transfer of knowledge or skill sets, but rather the collective investigation and generation of new meaning and knowledge, the learning approach facilitated in this process must move beyond the rational education models reflected in traditional community awareness raising approaches. Instead, social learning may be best facilitated through an effort to create the place / group setting and collaborative process that engenders individuals’ autonomous participation is such collective inquiry. For future research on social learning in collaborative governance, evaluation will need to consider three distinct factors – process, learning achievements, and social learning outcomes – to provide a holistic framework for evaluating the overall effectiveness of social learning.


Commissioned Literature Review for the Global Environmental Outreach Centre (GEOC)