Social learning and climate change adaptation: evidence for international development practice

Jonathan Ensor, Blane Harvey

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The potential for social learning to address complex, interconnected social and environmental challenges, such as climate change adaptation, is receiving increasing attention in research and practice. Social learning approaches vary, but commonly include cycles of knowledge sharing and joint action to co‐create knowledge, relationships, and practices among diverse stakeholders. This results in learning and change that goes beyond the individual into communities, networks, or systems. Many authors have focused on analysis of case studies to better understand the contexts in which such learning occurs. In this paper, we look across this literature to draw out lessons for international development practice. To support those looking to purposively design social learning interventions for adaptation, we focus on four areas: lessons learned and the principles adopted when using a social learning approach, examples of tools and methods used, approaches to evaluating social learning, and examples of its impact. While we identify important lessons for practice within each of these areas, three cross‐cutting themes emerge. These are: the importance of developing a shared view among those initiating learning processes of how change might happen and of how social learning fits within it, linking this locus of desired change to the tools employed; the centrality of skilled facilitation and in particular how practitioners may shift toward being participants in the collective learning process; and the need to attend to social difference, recognizing the complexity of social relations and the potential for less powerful actors to be co‐opted in shared decision making.
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Conflict of interest: The authors have declared no conflicts of interest for this article.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)509-522
JournalWiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - 2 Sep 2015


  • environmental studies
  • earth sciences

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