About Bev & Etienne Wenger-Trayner

The Action Research project that has been initiated by Wendy and Dorian within the Deep Adaptation Forum – of which this blog is one outcome – is strongly informed by the work of learning theorists and practitioners Bev and Etienne Wenger-Trayner.

Etienne Wenger-Trayner is a social learning theorist and consultant. He is known for his seminal work on communities of practise, which has influenced both practise and theory across disciplines. One of the most cited authors in the social sciences, he is a vitisting professional fellow at the University of Brighton, UK.

Beverley Wenger-Trayner, still an activist at heart for equitable development, is a social learning theorist and consultant known for her work in international organisations. Her expertise encompasses cross-boundary processes, the use of new technologies, designing and facilitating social learning strategies, and coaching social learning leaders in complex situations.

Learn more about Bev and Etienne, and their work, on Wenger-Trayner.com.


What follows is a brief summary of Bev & Etienne’s approach to learning, as we understand it, mainly based from their latest work – Learning to Make a Difference (Cambridge University Press, 2020).

Although learning what is known is important, it is not the main concern of our times. That kind of learning is not agile or imaginative enough to deal with the fast changing and complex challenges of today. We need to learn to live together on a small planet, where we don’t know what’s going to happen next, and where the survival of our species appears to be at stake. There is turmoil internationally, tribalism is on the rise, and nothing is available for a new generation. We can’t even guess what turns are ahead, or if the ending will be happy or tragic.

Today, people want to know how to make a meaningful difference to what they care about. But for that, traditional approaches to learning often fall short. Knowing in practise involves being able to function productively under conditions of uncertainty, and learning depends on paying attention to how things play out. We need a new theory, forged on the anvil of practise, to advance individuals, groups, communities, and organisations caring to make a difference.

The Wenger-Trayners offer a new theoretical and practical way forward, the concept of social learning spaces for developing both new capabilities and a sense of agency. A learning theory for today, to address situations where there is some urgency to engage people who “care to make a difference” when what is needed to know, about that difference, is not yet known.

They place high value on diversity and dialogic respect – a world where conditions are in place for all humans to flourish, and where that means having agency: at the heart of learning to make a difference, is an experience of agency. The power to make a difference. This value creation in social learning is their theory. It is a rich framework, which includes considering how to generate this value, monitor it, and learn iteratively through the process. From this perspective, social learning can be seen as a form of meaningful engagement with others, in a spirit of curiosity.