We all have a unique trajectory through the landscape of practices that constitute the human world. All these practices have in some way contributed to shaping who we are. And the resulting identity is a unique perspective on the world.

As we participate in different social learning spaces our actions affect those spaces. They also affect the people we interact with. And those people belong to other social spaces. So our own learning behavior can affect the learning capability of a whole landscape of learning spaces.

Taking responsibility for managing this participation in and across different learning spaces is what we call “learning citizenship”. It comes in different forms. Learning citizenship might simply be the quality of our engagement in a given learning space, for instance, our commitment to a community of practice or our responsiveness in a network. It might lie in the kind of questions we ask in a conversation. Or it might even be a decision to leave a learning space if we think it has stopped serving its purpose. But learning citizenship may also take the form of more active leadership. We may decide that a social learning space does not exist but should—a missing community, a missing conversation—and take on the responsibility of convening it. Or we may become aware that two groups we belong to do not communicate enough and use our multimembership to bridge the boundary and broker elements of one learning space into the other. All these acts, from the minute to the major, are acts of learning citizenship.
Michael Fung-Kee-Fung is an oncological surgeon in the province of Ontario, Canada. A few years ago, he realized that oncological surgeons in the province did not interact enough and that they needed some well-designed social learning spaces to adopt new practices and serve patients better across the province. So he started to work with a non-profit, CancerCare Ontario, to cultivate communities of practice around key domains in the profession. The awareness that these learning spaces were needed, the recognition that he had the legitimacy to do something about it, and the decision to go ahead, all these are acts of learning citizenship.

The notion of learning citizenship brings an ethical dimension to learning. How we decide to act as learning citizens affects the world around. It enhances or decreases the learning capability of the social systems we are part of. Because learning citizenship is anchored in the experience of who we are in the world and uses our identity as source of leadership, we could call it an “ethics of identity”.

Organizations need to start recognizing, fostering, and supporting learning citizenship as a way to increase their learning capability and fostering and spreading innovation. Workers can act as learning citizens when they make decisions that affect the learning capability of their surroundings. Say you are a bridge engineer in a company, and the bridge engineers in your organization are spread all over the world and don’t talk to each other very much. As a worker, you’d say, “I have all this work to do; I don’t have time for anything else.” As a learning citizen, you’d say, “This organization is not maximizing its learning capability. We need to put some energy into making sure we engineers form a community and learn from each other.” We would call doing that an act of “learning citizenship.” That brings a new dimension to the definition of work. But right now it is something that is not recognized in most organizations. There is not even a language to talk about it. We would say, your most valuable employee is your best learning citizen.

Read more about learning citizenship in this collection of essays by Etienne.

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