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Social Artists in Coach Development | Coach Developers | ConnectedCoaches

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Social Artists in Coach Development

Avg: 4.73 / 5 (4votes)

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).

On 28th March, 2020, UKCoaching’s Andy Bradshaw convened an open gathering to nurture a social learning space for people keen to make an impact in the world of coach development. The group’s discussion kicked off with efforts to frame the idea. Shortly afterwards, a thread appeared on Connected Coaches encouraging engagement around the ideas of Beverly and Etienne Wenger-Trayner - and in particular with a paper by Etienne - who co-authored Situated Learning, where the term “community of practice” was coined.

What follows is reflection from that initial encounter. It’s framed around Etienne Wenger’s seminal Social Learning Capability: Four Essays on Innovation and Learning in Social Systems (2009) but with a tight focus on what this might mean right now, in the midst of today’s Coronavirus lockdown, for those of us involved in coach development. That’s a focus at two levels: how we might further develop our own social learning spaces… and on what our thinking about social learning spaces might mean for those of us who wish to shape the social learning spaces in which our coaches interact.

Social Learning Spaces

Etienne Wenger's "spaces" focus in his 2009 Social Learning Capability study is on innovative capability and the spread of innovation within complex social systems. He talks of "the human side of learning and innovation" and of what we each might need to contribute to sustain a motivational environment in which we're all keen to engage with one another. His "social artists" are those who have a big influence on the social dynamics of, and intensity of commitment within, informal spaces where individuals pursue personal development and find new ways of engaging with the world.

What Wenger spells out what may, for many, just look like common sense. Yes, if we're going to learn together through time, we are going to have to make a commitment. That commitment is clearly going to be easier where we can identify with one another both around a common "domain of interest" and around the passion we have for exploring together. Things tend to work better when we develop "a shared repertoire of language, concepts, and communication tools that make practice discussable" - but ultimately, what matters is recognising one another (respectfully) and building relationships and trust.

We might all accept the basics here. We might accept that our practice is almost always messy, improvised, and requiring judgment. We surely recognise that opening the doors of reflection onto the messiness of our practice can be tough. We might also accept the need to be ready to re-frame the stories we work by, even where that re-framing cuts to the core of our sense of self. If we’re accustomed to helping make all of this possible, we may also accept that establishing a culture of candour as a "property" of the social learning space can take strong leadership.

Shaping Spaces: The Role of the Pragmatic Activist

Wenger's recognition that "the spirit of inquiry is contagious when it takes off" is followed by a short discussion which moves swiftly from our engagement within learning spaces to the challenge of us recognising when it's maybe time for us to move on to new learning spaces. Talk of us brokering interactions between learning spaces to "thicken the weave" then leads into talk of us convening new learning spaces - though we might prefer a language of noticing (and being willing to nurture) learning spaces which emerge more or less organically from a dynamic context.

In his discussion of the ethics of identity, Wenger questions the distinction between contributing to and benefiting from our learning spaces. He notes that "if one could know what to mandate, then a social learning space would not be necessary; a course or a book would do." This perhaps challenges commonplace notions of “empowerment” and “coaching for independence” - as these latter notions tend to position us apart from, and in a hierarchical relation to, those who are contributing. We might prefer to link to the old "guide by the side" theme which Stuart Armstrong has been championing so effectively: to see ourselves as accompanying one another on journeys where we explore together.

Because learning citizenship is fundamentally voluntary, but with broad effects for individuals and collectives, the ethical dimension of learning is inescapable. People are going to act as learning citizens out of their own experience of the meaning and value of doing so.

This is where Wenger gets into fostering learning citizenship. He links it to personal responsibility and initiative, noting it is very sensitive to context and he highlights many potential pitfalls. Unsurprisingly, what's written fits nicely with Stephen Rollnick's work on Motivational Interviewing. From there (Page 10), he moves into deeper consideration of social artistry suffused with purpose, into inspiring people "to do things these people never thought they would do and end up feeling good about doing" and into the need for social artists to be pragmatic activists, committed to making a difference.

Liminal Cynefin - by Dave Snowden of Cognitive-Edge

Wenger's concluding thoughts on social artists are rich with significance for anyone who has encountered Dave Snowden's Cynefin framework. We’re looking at influencers who thrive in complex domains where the past is an unreliable guide to what might happen next: where certainty is never an option. We’re looking at those who proceed by probing with safe-to-fail experiments. That’s in contrast to those specialists who thrive, so valuably, in complicated domains, where they use their expertise in sensing, analysing and then responding in ways which can be expected to deliver desired outcomes.

Managing Pragmatic Activists: Herding Cats?

Wenger eventually moves onto the idea that within learning spaces, even the idea of learning to do something “better” is difficult. In social learning environments we’re dealing with “contestable terrain” awash with value judgements. He gives an appropriately cautionary note about being careful what we wish for - highlighting the potential unintended consequences of our desire for alignment and agreement around our ability to project what we care about (individually and collectively). This is opening many cans of worms, but ones familiar enough in the social sciences.

The talk of "Governance" might sound dry but the focus is on the need for the sort which "bubbles up from a distributed system of interactions" to give us learning safeguards against overreach. This leads into a discussion of the need for humility and for respecting how social learning spaces must place governance in the hands of participants - because that is the only way that the learning process can fully engage with, and reflect, each individual’s sense of self.

Some here may want to bookmark the passage about the temptation to assume that horizontal relationships lack accountability and the warning about demonising vertical accountability and romanticising local engagement in practice. Others might find more value in the side notes about over-constraining a system - which tends to lead to unexpected situations, to compliance to the letter rather than the spirit of constraints, to workarounds, to the appearance of compliance and to improvised interpretations.

Other highlights in this seemingly dry terrain concern power within horizontal / local engagement. My analogy for the latter would be with going hill-walking together: we may go as friends, but a degree of deference may be required where one person's prior experience and wealth of expertise confers an inescapably greater Duty of Care. Meeting as peers (as fellow participants, irrespective of role title) still leaves ample room for respect and deference, it’s just that the mechanisms are more complex.

Wenger ends with a note that none of the above is really that new - but the way it's put together might give it a value which goes beyond originality. What might people take away? Who knows - but even at a very basic level we might try a renewed commitment to asking where our instructional spaces, projects, informational spaces, service encounters might develop as social learning spaces. We might also go away with a greater commitment to contextualising instrumental and technical knowledge and to making collaborative efforts to find meaning in activities.

Reflections on Social Learning Capability

Enriching Lives - On and Around  the Water

My own recent work was all done prior to my recent engagement with Wenger’s study, but I am struck by the deep parallels. My work has been on Enriching Lives - On and Around the Water - and the focus is very much on how a National Governing Body’s orientation might foster the development of both new and existing social learning spaces. I developed my thoughts further in two short video/ podcast presentations where I asked things like:

  • How can our next Strategic Plan help us contribute positively to motivational environments within which passionate enthusiasts wish to continue pouring energy into realising their "fields of dreams"?
  • What forms of innovation and what emerging trends might we be looking out for (and be keen to nurture) as we inspire so many to pour their energy into realising "fields of dreams"?
  • Where should our priorities lie, for investing time and effort, if we are going to use our strategy to energise a culture of grassroots efforts to realise "fields of dreams"?

From those, I moved onto a small piece of work on sustaining great club cultures (podcast). That was first and foremost a reflection on the possibility of seeing clubs as social learning spaces. Wenger’s themes ran through it, as they did in my Energising Enthusiasts: On and Around the Water (call-to-action paper). If I had revisited Wenger first, I would have configured each of my ten "let's start with the people" examples around the potential at each focal area to get massively increased grass roots commitment to sustaining and developing social learning spaces.

Will engaging with Etienne Wenger-Trayner’s work now add much for me? Given that my work was perhaps already informed by much of what informed Wenger’s study (and perhaps even by long forgotten reading of the same material) then perhaps the main thrust will remain unchanged. On the other hand, the language Wenger uses and the way he frames things provides others with a way to connect with my work, and to develop it. In a domain where ethnography has previously had little purchase, Social Learning is a framework which may help me with my goal of having an impact!


  • Social learning capability: Four essays on innovation and learning in social systems - Etienne Wenger (April 2009)
  • A tour around the latest Cynefin iteration - Chris Corrigan (March 2020)
  • Coaching Athletes To Be Their Best: Motivational Interviewing In Sports - Stephen Rollnick et al (Nov 2019)
  • Enriching Lives - On and Around the Water - Greg Spencer (February 2020)

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

For links or to contact me about my Enriching Lives work please see my Connected Coaches profile.

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Comments (5)


Hi Greg, I really enjoyed reading this blog and hope other people will find it an interesting reflection on the conversation last week.

Avg: 4.87 / 5 (2votes)

An interesting read, Greg. In this time of uncertainty and with all this time for self reflection, would you argue that after all this, we will pay more attention and have more motivation and care when it comes to making a difference in our lives and the lives of others?

The reason I ask this is that during this time, there are so many opportunities for those of us who want to, to learn something new or learn more about what we do, by watching or listening to webinars, podcasts and/or Zoom meetings that when we are all living our everyday lives, we sometimes don't have or make time for. We also have the opportunity to reflect on our WHY behind what we have been doing and also for our practices. When you couple these together, you may have a deeper understanding of yourself and your practices while being able to add newfound knowledge that could help you further reflect on or further expand your WHY.

It's therefore possible that thanks to all these webinars, group thinks and Zoom meetings, we could come out of this being able to do things that we thought we'd never be able to do or have time to do. When this is added to our deeper reflections and knowing our WHY, might we possess better foundations to challenge the status quo while also being more willing and able to bring these foundations and experiences to the learning table when it comes to creating or interacting in social learning spaces?

Avg: 4.8 / 5 (1votes)

Luke Thorp - I'm with Wenger on one thing: that "the spirit of inquiry is contagious when it takes off" - but that's valuing curiosity and engaging with uncertainty in ways which go to the heart of our sense of what we're about.

My fear is that the overwhelming majority of those currently producing (providing) content are still seeing themselves in tradition "training" roles: as educators of others whose needs are apparent. Flip side: I fear many of those consuming content see things the same way - that their role is to digest and learn the lessons being offered.

My hope is that people like Marianne Davies, Andrew Bradshaw, Tom Hartley & Nick Levett can change the game - that as they lead by example, by getting engaged as participants in this social learning space, they can shape a psychologically safe space which attracts ever greater numbers of those involved in coach development in ways which are truly transformative.

Realistically... with Covid-19, we might make more progress in a few months than we had anticipated making in a few years... but that's still going to leave us with an awful lot to do!

Avg: 0 / 5 (0votes)

I agree, Greg, that the overwhelming majority of people providing webinars, podcasts etc probably still see themselves as educators and the people consuming the content still see themselves as traditional learners. We certainly have a case of 'infobesity' at the moment as the more learners consume, the more new information appears.

You're right that it is of the utmost importance to have more people who lead by example and engage with learners rather than continuing with the traditional model of someone appearing to have 'the answers' and learners only listening and writing them down. This will see us be able to make more progress and positively transform the learning space but, as you say, there's always more that can be done when it comes to this topic!

Avg: 0 / 5 (0votes)

For Jack Mezirow, "Transformational Learning" involved leaving behind certain habits of mind or "orienting predispositions that act as a filter for interpreting the meaning of experience.” That's moving beyond a particular “frame of reference” or “meaning perspective” - which is something more fundamental than a simple broadening of perspective or a shifting of perspective. This is transformation of the individual's “landscape of affordances” - though this is perhaps simply at one end of a continuum of developmental experience.

In "Enacting education" we find Mog Stapleton follows Michelle Maiese in suggesting any transformation is likely to be rather more connected to moods, feelings, and attitudes than Mezirow ever allowed. That bring in a focus on "sense-making" as something rooted more firmly in how we experience the world: on "a knowing that transforms the self who knows" with "consequences on the thoughts, feelings, and judgments (and potentially perceptions)."

Mog shifts the focus from “enlarging perspectives” to “deepening perspectives” and suggests "depth consists in the holding of one’s own perspectives (as well as those of others) with an awareness that they are formed by potentially unhelpfully-biased habits of mind" - and of how this awareness "may result in triggering shifts to perspectives that are more inclusive and discriminating."

In the paper I am referring to, all of this is used to elaborate on a familiar enough theme:

***** Quotes from Enacting Education *****

"While we teach [...] we hope for our students that they will leave us with more than the sum of this knowledge and selection of skills. We hope that they somehow become wiser, that they grow as people and as thinkers; that their perspectives are “transformed”. Such outcomes are hard to phrase in terms of the kinds of “learning outcomes” required by institutions in their course descriptions and syllabi because there is not a particular ‘goal’ state that we are trying to get the students’ perspectives to transform into.

We are not aiming for them to internalise and regurgitate our point of view and way of engaging with the world [...] Rather, we are hoping for them to develop their own ways of thinking to be more inclusive, more discriminating, and freer from the particular biases that they bring to thought either by virtue of natural temperament or upbringing [...]"

"[...] there is no clear methodology that assures you that if you follow a particular pedagogical path you will acquire the hoped for maturation of thought and perspectival changes. Instead we [...] tend to act on faith that [whatever we do] will somehow bring about these kinds of perspective transformations in (at least some of) our students. And indeed, it does seem to at times.

***** End *****

Mog's concern is with manipulating the constraints of ritual to "break up the habitual patterns of behaviour and allow other possibilities for socially engaging to emerge" - and we might reflect on how coaching (and coach-developer) spaces tend to be highly ritualised, with participants playing the role of "coach" and "learner" (or "coach educator" and "coach").

Mog's challenge to us might be to think of ways of using a "Community of Philosophical Inquiry" style approach where the coach / coach developer "is bound not to interfere in the discussion or guide the discussion towards what they might think are the “good” questions or some kind of goal such as what they might want the students to learn from the discussion" - perhaps joining the participants on a journey rather than shepherding them to desired outcomes!

For me, the larger significance of Mog's work in this context is her focus is on what we might see as the social artist as a "valuable catalyst to perspective deepening" - with constraints as "enlargening" as they "open up possibilities for action rather than shutting them down."

Ref: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs11097-020-09672-4

Avg: 0 / 5 (0votes)