Paving the way for social learning in the climate change context

We have identified social learning as an approach that has the potential to improve the quality of stakeholder participation in and uptake of research. That is why, together with partners, we've developed the Climate Change and Social Learning (CCSL) initiative — in order to explore and build on this potential.

Marissa Van Epp's picture
Insight by 
Marissa Van Epp
24 March 2014
We have in the past few years made progress on the theories and understanding of social learning approaches. But more research and real-life case studies are needed (Photo: Z Sewunet (ILRI)

We have in the past few years made progress on the theories and understanding of social learning approaches. But more research and real-life case studies are needed (Photo: Z Sewunet, ILRI, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

Our initiative seeks to understand what we, both Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) and others, can learn from various social learning approaches that in the end could help provide better ways of adapting to climate change and ensuring food security.

What is Climate Change and Social Learning?

Social learning, according to us, can very much create better decision-making on climate change and agriculture issues.

Since knowledge sharing, joint learning, and co-creation of experiences between stakeholders are key focus areas, this approach can improve the quality of engagement from various stakeholders and improve the inclusion of research into development activities, we believe.

Learn more about the approach: Making it real: Social learning in practice (by IIED communications director Liz Carlile).

Taking on the research challenge

We have in the past few years made progress on the theories and understanding of social learning approaches. A detailed strategy has been prepared and our team is now taking concrete steps towards building an evidence base for the approach.

In a recently held meeting we identified seven key challenges and opportunities in using social learning approaches, which could help point the way forward for practitioners and donors - together. The event was hosted by the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) last year.

Key opportunities and challenges in using social learning approaches:

  1. Finding a common language in a given context: A common language can be used to build social learning narratives and to bridge the gap between social learning and other evidence-into-policy areas, like knowledge transfer or knowledge brokering
  2. Being demand driven: Being demand driven is implicit in the definition of social learning. This means identifying the different questions being asked by the various actors involved and attempting to answer them
  3. Forming better partnerships: The right partnerships are crucial to successful social learning
  4. Staying flexible and selective: Recognizing the limits of social learning is key. Social learning won't always lead to a neat resolution. What matters is to clarify the agendas of the actors involved and their position towards a possible common agenda — here, negotiation and facilitation skills are the key to success 
  5. Integrating social learning into your organisation: Social learning practitioners are not "delivering" social learning methodology, rather, they should be taking the lead in learning together
  6. Building an evidence base for social learning: More evidence is needed to make the case for social learning. We need to build the legitimacy, relevance, and salience of social learning
  7. Addressing the time continuum: Three different time scales are at play – and all three must be addressed together if social learning is to be successful. The diagram to the right illustrates possible actions at each scale – short term, interim, and long term.

Building an evidence base for social learning

As mentioned, we are seeking more evidence for social learning approaches. In this context, we wanted to assess previous and current use of social learning within CGIAR. Julian Gonsalves was therefore commissioned to carry out a stocktaking exercise of social learning-related efforts.

The stocktaking exercise revealed that CGIAR Centers are already using social learning methods and appreciate their potential to increase development impact.

When surveyed about the potential for mainstreaming social learning across CGIAR, scientists' responses pointed to eight key propositions:

  1. More potential for social learning in a reformed CGIAR: The explicit inclusion of development objectives at the system and program level, has created more space for social learning and related approaches
  2. Institutional environments, structures and work environment are critical enabling factors: Despite achievements, institutional frameworks and leadership attitudes still pose hurdles to the creation of an enabling environment for trans-disciplinary approaches and recognition of multiple sources of knowledge. Adequate channels for coordination between centres and partner involvement are lacking
  3. Recognition, rewards and incentives serve as motivation and driving forces: Institutional (especially higher management) support is a key determinant of successful wider application of social learning. Emphasis is needed on impact over outputs, and cooperation over competition. A diversity of knowledge products other than peer-reviewed papers should be recognised and compensated.

The additional five propositions, and details on how the stocktaking exercise was carried out, are available in the Working Paper: A new relevance and better prospects for wider uptake of social learning within the CGIAR (findings from a stock taking exercise within the CGIAR).

In the upcoming months, we will together with IIED and partners release a number of Social Learning Case Studies to further make the case for this approach and share lessons learned from social learning projects.

Learn more about climate change and social learning:

To learn more about the CCAFS Climate Change and Social Learning (CCSL) initiative, and for information on upcoming social learning events, initiatives and funding opportunities, please visit the CCSL wiki.

Marrissa Van Epp ( works as a consultant for IIED. This blog was first posted on the CCAFS website.