This site uses cookies. See our Terms of Service and Privacy.

Why learning networks?

Posted by Peter Donovan 2 years, 6 months ago in policy and framing /

I've spent a dozen years reporting on ranchers, farmers, and groups in North America, and another dozen years measuring soil carbon change on 100+ ranches and farms. My experience is that:

  1. Everyone with some understanding of the connections between soil and water wants better soil health and watershed function. As a desired and needed direction, this is not controversial.

  2. Those land managers who are doing the most for soil health and watershed function are internally motivated: by their love of their land, by living and working the way they want to, and by their growing curiosity about the complex relationships and feedbacks between the decisions and choices they make and the outcomes they observe, which can provide the all-important sense of possibility. Most are eager to share what they are learning, and empower others.

Yet the self-evident 'best practice' approach for governmental, research, and advocacy groups remains external or extrinsic motivations: rewards and penalties, carrots and sticks. These are usually aimed at practices such as cover cropping or manure handling, and include incentives or cost shares for soil health practices and carbon "sequestration," market certifications, credit trading, "best practice" advice and technical assistance, policies, taxes, regulations, and buyouts, all backed by predictions, promises, or threats. 

External motivations work well for increasing production in an input-output system where cause and effect are mostly linear. Higher corn prices result in more acres planted, more inputs applied.

But external motivations, along with the expert information model that often informs them, have disadvantages, especially where internal incentives such as curiosity, love, feedback or active learning, or sense of possibility are weak or absent, and where causes and effects have mutually influential relationships (water cycling and carbon cycling for example) and form feedback systems and loops.

one hand drawing another


can be much more than a grade from a school teacher or an evaluation; it can be a co-creation or co-production, a relationship, a possibility.
"Simple causal reasoning about a feedback system is difficult because the first system influences the second and the second system influences the first, leading to a circular argument. This makes reasoning based upon cause and effect tricky, and it is necessary to analyze the system as a whole."
—Karl Johan Åström and Richard M. Murray, Feedback Systems: An Introduction for Scientists and Engineers

In complex domains such as agriculture and ecosystem function, reliance on external motivations can:

  1. create antagonism or dissonance between what we know or believe, and what we do. External incentives are typically rule-based programs rather than outcome-based explorations, and may kill off creativity, curiosity, experimentation, autonomy, and the acceptance of responsibility for one's actions and choices—all of which are crucial in dealing with changing, complex systems with multiple feedbacks. (Education researchers have long realized this.) The antagonism and conflict affects researchers and policymakers as well as producers who are the targets of the programs and incentives—eroding trust, integrity, and effectiveness, and producing resistance, backlash, and the belief that significant change requires stronger forcing, or is impossible.

  2. substitute judgments, surveillance, categorization, and compliance—acres of soil health practices implemented, number of plans, contracts, or certifications signed—for real feedback on results. Without good feedback, procedures and "best management practices" displace principles and holistic understandings. Dysfunctional approaches may persist, and beneficial innovations may be resisted, ignored, or misapplied.

  3. cost a lot for the results or outcomes achieved. Controversy persists over the effectiveness of incentivized practices such as buffer strips, no-till, rotational grazing, compost applications, or cover crops. When the incentives or cost shares disappear, so do the practices.

  4. Maintain and support the habit of blaming individual choices for bad outcomes: your food choices for your health problems, your reliance on chemical inputs to pay off your farm operating loan, your individual "carbon footprint" for climate change. This helps distract people from the systemic issues and power relationships that drive these individual choices and enhance their convenience.

In complex, feedback-driven domains such as soil health or regenerative agriculture, internal motivations are essential, which require participation and empowerment with others. Learning networks are an increasingly popular way of developing, articulating, sharing, adapting, and testing these intrinsic motivations and values. In some academic literature these are called "communities of practice" engaging in "transdisciplinary co-production of knowledge." They can take advantage of generations of advances in the theory and practice of people-centered learning.

"We suggest that a more promising approach to scaling up RR [regenerative ranching] will involve government-led peer-to-peer learning programmes . . . . We have also proposed that, although top-down incentives such as carbon markets may help incentivize RR practices, more important is recognizing RR as a bottom-up movement that calls for in situ research involving producers in the co-production of knowledge . . . ."

Hannah Gosnell, based on interviews with 50+ Australian and U.S. ranchers

But learning networks can be challenging:

  • Bottom up, spontaneous, indigenous. Learning networks begin with local conveners, connectors, champions, and local concerns, questions, and issues—all of which vary, and can be hard to maintain or scale, particularly from afar.

  • Without effective facilitation and leadership, people coming together around a common concern often remain focused on the quicker and easier judgment questions, problems, and positions rather than on the more difficult assets or strengths, and end up imitating and aligning with top-down rule-based programs of external motivations, academic definitions of "good science" with anonymized, decontextualized but uniform data, "education," and technical transfer. In terms of culture, beliefs, and skills, this is what most of us are familiar with and surrounded with. Effective facilitators with practical experience may be difficult to discover.

  • Reporting and evidence, ground-truthing questions and evidence, even recognition and evaluation of progress, can be more challenging for "soft," people-centered approaches, especially with the reporting tools and contexts used by nonparticipant evaluators, such as surveys. Learning networks require sharing and reporting platforms that: 1) support learning, feedback, and whole-system understanding, not just surveillance, judgment, advocacy, or information delivery; 2) can give good context to data, observations, and stories, and protect data privacy as well as offering some data and stories to a larger public; and 3) are adaptable and responsive to the needs and creativity of a group.

It's not that external motivations are always wrong, or that internal motivations are always right. It's a relationship issue, with possibilities for complementarity and synergy as well as antagonism or dissonance. Where internal motivations are undeveloped, hidden, or unconscious, external motivations may form a pervasive monoculture without a working, participatory, learning and inquiring feedback loop, and thus a high tolerance for unseen risk.

Everyone wants better soil health and watershed function. Learning networks can help align external incentives such as peer pressure with internal incentives such as curiosity, learning, and a land ethic.

Problem-oriented: When dealing with complexity, this structure becomes risky. Positions, predictions, and advocacies may overshadow evidence. Fragmentation and resistance is guaranteed, and there is little accountability for results. Diversity of opinion or perspective becomes a threat.

Antagonism or "balance" between external and internal motivation

Opportunity-oriented: a diversity of framings and contexts, and wider participation by both people and land, become assets to a shared intelligence based on local evidence, with collaboration between internal and external motivations.

How can the structure on the left transform itself into the structure on the right?

Three legs of a learning network

1. Framing good questions
  • Questions often begin with resource concerns or problems, including the need to form judgments, assign categories, and take positions. But good questions will also include deeper levels: understanding and observing underlying forces and processes (such as water cycling, carbon cycling, economics, change, conflict, and the relationships between them), and influencing them toward what people need and want.
  • Good questions are the ones the participants want to learn from and can own, and can be answered with participatory inquiry and evidence of results or outcomes such as measurements and observations over time.
  • Good questions are open-ended, can generate bigger and better questions, and can transform our understanding.

As humans in society, we will always be concerned with judgmentsour own and those of others. It's easy and tempting to stop there, but we can also add bigger questions, learning questions:

Judgment questions Learning questions
Am I doing the right thing? What results am I getting?
Are we doing sustainable or regenerative practices? Is our soil covered, do we have living roots for all of the growing season, and diversity of plants and animals? How might we find out?
How do I kill this weed? How do I get rid of this person or group, or solve this problem? What conditions or relationships can I begin to create, what position do I need to be in, so that this weed, person, group, or problem is no longer a problem?
Is it good or bad? (Cow, wolf, carbon dioxide, knapweed, etc.) How does it function in the system as a whole, and how to find out?
Having identified best management practices, how should agencies or organizations increase producers' adoption of them? Who are the caretakers of the land, the circle of life? What are the relationships between and among them? How to create situations and contexts in which caretakers learn from each other?
add a judgment question here add a learning question

2. Facilitator-coordinators

These essential roles, which can be shared, require commitment, trust and familiarity with local people, skills, and experience in people-centered approaches, as well as some form of continued local support. Facilitator roles, which could be filled by employees, part-timers, contractors, or volunteers, include:

  • creating, maintaining, and connecting a continuing variety of learning environments: events such as farm tours, pasture walks, and get-togethers and communications where learning is shared, as well as one-on-one sessions with participants around evidence and new questions;
  • enlarging judgment questions with learning questions, and connecting with people who can help answer them;
  • accompanying the caretakers: sharing leadership, blurring the boundary between teachers and students, helping people recognize and respect their own knowledge and experience, and that of others, in a new light;
  • curation and presentation of evidence, data, and stories;
  • addressing conflict around change, scarcity, power, diversity.
3. Platform for questioning, reporting of evidence, and sharing
  • helps connect questions and answers with evidence-based feedback;
  • provides appropriate ways of entering, displaying, and sharing data and stories among participants and stakeholders, with a variety of privacy options;
  • adds visibility, memory, repeatable observations, and some degree of permanence.

In combination with good questions and effective facilitation, a questioning and reporting platform can help groups move beyond the information delivery and advocacy stage to active, evidence-based participatory learning and a shared intelligence. (This is the design of, a web app for learning networks; but online or digital is not the only answer here.)


Functioning learning networks can improve the relationships between external and internal motivations, and introduce learning, curiosity, creativity, autonomy, participation, real feedback, and integrity into the conflicts between external motivations and the backlash and resistance that emerges everywhere. So, two new questions:

How might learning networks, existing as well as potential, be better supported, for example through locally hired or supported facilitator/coordinators?

How might learning networks add participatory, evidence-based learning to ongoing efforts of information sharing, technical assistance, and advocacy?

See also:

Institution or association? A brief comparison from

recent Australian article on learning groups or communities of practice

"Do civilizations fall because the soil fails to produceor does a soil fail only when the people living on it no longer know how to manage their civilization?"

Charles E. Kellogg, 1938

"Underlying every single conflict is power—who gets it, who doesn't get it. You have to know how to balance power, to empower, to create an environment where I empower myself."

—Bob Chadwick

"The Nation that destroys its soil destroys itself. . . . The [Standard State Soil Conservation Districts Law] provides for the organization of `soil conservation districts' as governmental subdivisions of the State . . . . Such legislation is imperative to enable farmers to take the necessary cooperative action."

Franklin D. Roosevelt, in 1937 letter to state governors (emphasis added)

"Subsidies and propaganda may evoke the farmer's aquiescence, but only enthusiasm and affection will evoke his skill."

"Obligations have no meaning without conscience, and the problem we face is the extension of the social conscience from people to land. . . . In our attempt to make conservation easy, we have made it trivial."

Aldo Leopold

"If you want to make small changes, change how you do things.
If you want to make big changes, change how you see things."

Don Campbell, Saskatchewan rancher and facilitator of learning networks