The Five Principles: Social Learning

This post is part of a series looking at what I believe to be the five key principles for creating long-lasting community connections at scale. You can read all of the posts in this series in this archive.

The fourth of the five principles for creating community connections at scale is social learning. This is a huge topic that folks far smarter than me have written about, so I’m going to pick out some of the core principles of social learning here and look at how they can be applied to community building.

I can say with confidence that discovering social learning will genuinely change the way you approach community building.

Before I jump into this, and it is something worth jumping into with both feet, I want to highlight the incredible work in this area from Etienne and Beverly Wenger-Trayner who wrote the book Learning to Make a Difference, amongst others (for some context, Etienne co-authored the 1991 seminal work on communities of practice where the phrase “community of practice” was first coined). The social learning theory that they expound upon in their book is full of rich detail with exceptionally practical implementations. I strongly encourage you to get a copy of Learning to Make a Difference and let it inform how you view education within a community context – I can say with confidence that discovering social learning will genuinely change the way you approach community building.

In this post, I’m going to focus on the three core characteristics of participation in social learning spaces and look at how they can be applied in a community growth context.

Caring to make a difference

In this context, “making a difference” isn’t necessarily used in an altruistic sense but rather as making any kind of difference that an individual might find valuable – this could be as grand as a desire to solve homelessness, or it could be simply wanting to improve personal productivity. The point is – people will only truly engage with a subject and learn more about it if it is something they care about.

How does this apply in community work? Find out what your community members care about and focus on helping them learn more about that. This ties neatly back into the principle of support that we previously discussed, particularly when you support people in the community’s focus area – provide training materials that link back to the focus area of your community and you’ll know that members are far more likely to be interested in it.

Poll your community to get an idea of what they want to learn about and then work towards providing relevant materials for them to learn. Keep the social aspect in mind though – it isn’t only about the asynchronous learning experience (like watching tutorial videos) but it’s very much about people learning alongside each other. Bring people together regularly to discuss what they’re learning and ask questions of others in the community. This way people are discovering a subject together.

You’ll find that very few things bring people together in the way that uncovering new knowledge does.

You’ll find that very few things bring people together in the way that uncovering new knowledge does. So long as it’s a subject in which your community members care to make a difference then you’ll be on the right track.


Engaging uncertainty

The idea of engaging uncertainty has been revolutionary for my understanding of how to effectively communicate educational concepts with a community context. It may seem like a simple idea – people can only learn something when they don’t know everything about the subject – but you’d be surprised how often people are not willing to engage uncertainty in their learning. It’s far more comfortable to only “learn” about things that we already know – that way we won’t have to test our assumptions and we won’t have to be challenged in any real way.

To ensure that your community members do engage with uncertainty in their learning, dive into the subjects where they care to make a difference and push towards the leading edge of what they already know. If they care about the subject and you can start at a point where their knowledge tapers off then they’ll be forced to engage with their uncertainty and you’ll be able to jump right into active learning.

If you can bring your community to a point where they are engaging uncertainty and learning together you will see natural connections forming between people that will become the basis for deep and valuable relationships.

In many cases, engaging with uncertainty will be uncomfortable for participants – this is a good thing! We don’t learn when we’re comfortable and we don’t grow when things are easy. Again, if you can bring your community to a point where they are engaging uncertainty and learning together like this, then you will see natural connections forming between people that will become the basis for deep and valuable relationships.


Paying attention

Learning should always provoke some kind of response or, at the very least, provide feedback with some new knowledge. Participants in a social learning space need to pay attention to this feedback so they can learn from it. You might be thinking that’s really obvious but it’s more than just being aware of what you’re learning, this is taking an active role in ensuring that all feedback is recognised and absorbed.

While this is ultimately in the hands of the learner, you can help facilitate this for your community members by providing regular opportunities to reflect on what you are all learning together. Comprehension questions, knowledge surveys, quizzes, active group discussions – those can all be used to help people pay attention to what they are learning.

This can also be done as a community and not just on an individual level – learning can be applied to how the community grows as a whole, so paying attention to feedback becomes a group activity that community members can partake in together. So much is possible here and it all comes down to whether people are actually interested in collective learning.

You can work in feedback sessions (and indeed all aspects of social learning) as the shared experiences that we spoke about in the previous post in this series.


Learning in a social context is a powerful way to bring people together and ensure that they create long-lasting connections with each other.

These three characteristics of participation in a social learning space work in concert with each other to create a collaborative learning environment that not only allows individuals to gain greater subject matter knowledge about something they care about but for a community to learn and grow together as a unit. Learning in a social context is a powerful way to bring people together and ensure that they create long-lasting connections with each other.

The last post in this series, covering the fifth and final principle of Shared Responsibility, is available to read.

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