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A Critical Systems Approach to Social Learning: Building Adaptive Capacity in Social, Ecological, Epistemological (SEE) Systems

Daniel D. P. McCarthy, Waterloo Institute for Social innovation and Resilience (WISIR) University of Waterloo
Debbe D. Crandall, Save the Oak Ridges Moraine Coalition
Graham S. Whitelaw, Queen's University
Zachariah General, University of Waterloo
Leonard J. S. Tsuji, University of Waterloo


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This paper presents a conceptual tool, or heuristic, for describing the epistemological context for social learning within complex social–ecological systems. The heuristic integrates several definitions of social learning that emphasize the importance of critical reflection and its collaborative nature and that it is rooted in and oriented toward practice through social interactions. The conceptual tool is useful in identifying and conceptually mapping different perspectives based on types of learning described along three dimensions: typology of knowledge; different levels of critical reflection; and scale. The heuristic was originally developed in the context of an environmental planning process in southern Ontario, Canada, and is applied to identifying barriers and bridges to social learning in the case of flood damage reduction in a remote First Nations community in northern Ontario, Canada.

Key words

adaptive capacity; critical systems thinking; First Nations; social learning

Copyright © 2011 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article is under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. You may share and adapt the work provided the original author and source are credited, you indicate whether any changes were made, and you include a link to the license.

Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087