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Learning socially in a brave new world

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Many years ago, I found myself sitting in my kitchen watching my son and his friends skating on the ‘rail’ that I had put up in the garden for them. As I watched them, I was struck by how intently they were practising. Sharing and developing different ‘moves’, supporting and challenging each other. Building on the individual moves and choreographing complex sequences. They were chatting, watching, laughing, supporting, experimenting. The energy, effort and focus were incredible.

As a coach, I was fascinated. This was a scene I would have died for in my own coaching practice. A deeply intense, self-motivated, social learning environment was unfolding outside of my kitchen window and I couldn’t stop watching.

Being able to observe that happy group of little boys was a ‘sliding doors’ moment for me. It made me reflect on, and challenge, much of what I was doing in my work. Like many people, I was introduced to concepts of learning socially (for example; Social Learning Theory and Self-Determination Theory) in my undergraduate psychology class, in a large lecture theatre, outside of a social learning context. It took ‘seeing’ social learning in practice, for me to really start to appreciate and understand it.

My reflections then were about what it meant for the athlete or performer. Many years later I found myself suddenly in an incredibly vibrant and inspiring remote social learning space, partly as a result of my PhD research into skill development. It was not until my social learning environment changed that I appreciated how powerful it was for me as a coach, coach developer and researcher. Again, I felt like I was re-learning something I thought I understood well. I knew when I decided to start a PhD that ‘making a change would make a change’, and I knew that I could not really anticipate what would happen, but I can honestly say that the energy, enthusiasm and learning that I became part of, has transformed my life.


Doing, experiencing, belonging, becoming.         

What am I doing? Learning lots! Trying to make sure I don’t just leap from one thing to another, but give myself time to reflect and capture what is happening. Time to think about how I can focus on the future and how that can be shaped into something different. I’m acutely aware that the world will never be the same and I am focusing on how we can all co-create a brave new world from the ashes of our enforced disruption and isolation. What could that look like? How will we navigate the transition out of the current situation? How will we reclaim our autonomy, competence and relatedness in a new social learning space?

My experience is a mixture of old connections, familiar social networks (many that are changing), and new emerging social groups and ways of connecting. I have times shaped by IT meltdowns and moments of frustration. A podcast not recorded, reduced bandwidths and system glitches. Then there are the wonderful webinars that I am able to both deliver and partake in. Connections that are stronger than ever in family, friends and colleagues. So much innovation, so much support, so much love and determination to make the most of a difficult situation.

When I think about my recent experience, can I answer the question ‘Where do I belong?’ I definitely feel that I now belong in a welcoming, curious, engaged, challenging, and surprisingly safe academic ‘space’, that spans the whole globe. I belong in a great organisation (UK Coaching) and a supportive, committed and brilliant team. Even after only a few weeks, I feel very much a part of the UK Coaching family, where old hands and rookies alike are adjusting to a brave new post corona world.  

Who am I becoming? That is harder to answer. So much is in flux at the moment. But I know that I am rising to the challenges of this brave new world and I am on a steep growth curve and excited to see where that takes me. I know I want to become someone who can add value and make a difference, in the everyday conversations and in the wider world.


What is social learning theory?

Now, it’s not lost on me that I am exploring the concepts and meaning of social learning, sitting at my work desk, separated from a physical environment or learning context. However, I am hoping that I can still guide you to reflect on, and make sense of, your own experiences of learning within a wider social learning context. To reflect on what that means to you as a coach and explore how you can become more aware of your social learning spaces.

The key element of social learning theory is the idea that ‘learning’ takes place in a social context and wider socio-cultural and physical environment. It is embedded in four areas that overlap and influence our skill development, experiences and motivation. These areas are Practice, Meaning, Community and Identity,’

Social learning theory

A social theory of learning: some key concepts (Etienne Wenger).


What does that mean to us as coaches? 

Here are some questions that might help you reflect on your own experiences. 

  • Think about your experiences of learning. Can you answer the four questions from the diagram above?
  1. What am I doing? 
  2. What is my experience?
  3. Where do I belong?
  4. Who am I becoming?
  • How many ‘social learning groups’ are you part of?  Are your answers different for different learning groups or different areas of each group? (NGB’s, other coaches, parents, qualifications, sponsors, social media groups, etc).
  • How has being part of social groups influenced you? Are they working for you?
  • How can you nurture/ improve your social learning groups, or start new ones now that we are having to interact remotely?
  • How can we influence and shape our new (after corona) worlds of social learning?

I believe that a shift in mindset about learning is in the air—from a view of learning as a formal process caused by instruction to learning an essential aspect of everyday life and thus a capability inherent in social systems. (Etienne Wenger - Social Learning Capability - 2009).

This blog post has been written to support the Curious Coaches Club meetings and will give you an introduction to the questions and topics that we will explore on the Webinar on the 6th of April 2020. You can now view a recording of the webinar Curious Coaches' Club: Learning Socially. 

The other topic will be around motivation and autonomy. The blog post Motivation Part 1: How can we create optimal learning environments? is a great introduction. 

If you enjoyed this you will be able to find all my other ConnectedCoaches blogs here.

You can find out more about me by visiting my profile.

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Comments (3)


Terrific read. Made me think about some of the analysis on why women engage with sport activities - friendship, a space outside of their responsibilities etc. Just love this model! I too watch my son and how he responds to being on a SUP; to him its not a board to balance on but something much more interactive and playful.

Avg: 4.8 / 5 (1votes)

Thank you, Emma. Look forward to seeing you on the Webinar on Monday.

Avg: 0 / 5 (0votes)

I suspect those of us who come together around coach development are all accustomed to working with individuals who would be seriously challenged by the questions posed here... and expecting ourselves to be a lot clearer might be unreasonable... as meaningful clarity only tends to come with hindsight!

For 25+ years, my key question has been "what will we come to see ourselves as having been doing?" - which anyone with any humility ought to accept as being at one and the same time both profoundly challenging... and powerful!

Stepping back from that - where do our aspiring or newly qualified coaches see themselves as belonging? Equally significantly, where do the "old guard" see themselves as belonging? If they are trying to co-exist within the same club environment... what do the differences in their answers mean for those of us who are keen to offer support?

These are questions which could frame an answer I might give to "what am I doing?" - because my roles (as a Regional Chairman for an NGB, as an Area Coaching Representative and as Head Coach for my local canoe club) means I'm working day in, day out, with complex social landscapes in which diverse volunteers have hugely different takes on their own role.

What do I see myself as doing? That's tough... as it's not really about formal roles. It's more about how I am working to have an impact, both directly and indirectly, on the landscapes of practice encountered by those who coach (including, but not limited to, those who have formal qualifications).

I'm perhaps overly conscious of how the development of all of these coaches (from my own 15 year old through to those who have been coaching for over 30 years) will be shaped, above all, by factors beyond my control. That's by how they were coached... by the culture of the clubs they're in... by their peers in wider networks... by those coaches they put on pedestals... and by so much else that is hard to pin down.

I'm comfortable that what I'm doing could in part be captured by Etienne Wenger's conception of the social artist - something I wrote about here: https://community.ukcoaching.org/spaces/48/coach-developers/blogs/general/16648/social-artists-in-coach-development

What am I experiencing? Ups and downs! I've been described as a "relentless optimist" - but that's perhaps mostly down to my faith in the awesome capabilities of ordinary, everyday coaches... in the resilience of ordinary, everyday networks of social learning within which ordinary, everyday coaches find the support they need to muddle through on messy developmental journeys - but I recognise that social learning can lead in directions that I'd struggle to applaud!

I draw inspiration from those who "get" the old truism that "culture eats strategy for breakfast" - from those who recognise that coach development is about transforming entire landscapes of practice - but much of the time, I experience frustration - mostly with what well-intentioned initiatives which have simply not allowed for unintended consequences!

Where do I belong? I've very little idea! I suspect that's a good thing... as once we settle into certainty, we perhaps start becoming part of the problem (encouraging others to lock-in the past) rather than part of the solution (encouraging more energy to be poured in to shaping the future).

Who am I becoming? If I can't answer the earlier questions, I'm not sure I stand a chance on this one - but hopefully someone who is ever more able to "make a difference" in the coach development space... albeit through channels which never appear anything less than opaque... and overwhelmingly in ways which don't pay the bills!

Avg: 4.55 / 5 (1votes)

Thank you for sharing your reflections, Greg. A rich and fascinating insight (as always), exploring a lived experience that may be very different from the one many coaches are living through at the moment. Much of the Coach Developer Conversation today in the virtual breakout room of 'making a difference', was focussed on how important and valuable it was for us to listen to and understand the different lived experiences of those around us. This will surely help us to nourish and build relationships to take forward to a new 'normal' in the future.

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Aspects of 'Learning socially' and the impact of motivation and relationships, has cropped up in almost every webinar and conversation we have had since doing the curious coaches club on that topic. Even in the community of practice today. If you would like to connect to the conversation as it moves and changes you can find it here: https://community.ukcoaching.org/spaces/10/welcome-and-general/forums/uk-coaching-s-curious-coach-club/16718/learning-socially

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