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We may know what we need to know to deal with many of the world’s complex problems; what we don’t have as a system is the learning capability to deal with them. After a talk on the subject of social learning capability at the WHO, a doctor shared the following reaction: “You are onto something important here. We know everything we need to know to save 95% of children under five today. What we don’t know is how to increase the social learning capability of societies to make that happen.”

If facing change, expanding our horizon, and dealing with complexity are all social learning challenges, we live in demanding times. In the context of rapid globalization and increasing interdependence, we face a threatened environment, economic precariousness and imbalances, the need for better education, ideological conflicts – to name a few of our challenges.

These challenges are neither simply personal nor abstractly global. They require accelerated learning at various levels of scale at once, from individuals, to communities, to organizations, to regions, to nations, to worldwide learning systems.

Learning capability – or the ability to learn – is a paradoxical aspiration because learning by itself does not guarantee learning capability. Sometimes being successful at learning is precisely what prevents you from learning the next thing. When applied to social systems, learning capability depends on the learning capability of individuals, but in the context of the structure of the system in which they live. Networking, convening new social learning spaces, brokering across boundaries, acting as learning citizens and social artists – these are the kinds of interventions that have the potential to increase social learning capability at a systemic level.

Taking such a systemic view is especially critical at a time when global challenges are placing unprecedented demands on our ability to learn together. Developing social learning capability across sectors may be urgent, but it is still an elusive aspiration. We need a social discipline of learning.

Making sense of social learning capability is the great challenge of learning theory in the 21st century. Learning how to enhance it, accelerate it, and evaluate it is the challenge of the practitioner. Both undertakings are interrelated – and contributing to both is our personal and professional aspiration.

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



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