All Social is Learning

I’ve been reflecting lately on my brief sojourn into education reform prior to returning to “the world.” Several things I learned there, including the idea that how brains work and how people interact represent new fields of study to the Field of Education. (With apologies to any of my new Ed friends, please correct me if I heard wrong!)

Yeah, I was appalled too. Turns out it’s called there “The Learning Sciences,” and while I don’t know when it started to gain traction, people in education somewhat recently started to compare the education system we have with the stuff we’re learning from cognitive science, sociology, etc. Pretty exciting stuff, and I can’t help but compare this welcome attention to interdisciplinary studies to the breakthrough in economics when – RECENTLY– leading economists began to realize that people are messy and don’t have consistent utility functions. (In both cases, the system failures become a tad obvious using this lens.)

So the world is changing. All around us. One meme in education making the rounds is, attributed to The Learning Sciences: “All learning is social!” As someone mentioned this weekend on Twitter: The learning that isn’t social, isn’t worth our time studying. This remains controversial – what about human instinct, core behaviors, the idea that some of our personality traits may be inherited? Surely these aren’t learned! But then we read that an infant, long before she can understand a language, is able to discern WHICH language is spoken by her tiny tribe. And before she understands that she belongs to the same animal group as her parents and siblings, she can discern individual faces among primates. Once she learns that she is one of the naked apes, the individuality among chimpanzee faces becomes invisible to her, as it is to us.

Ponder that one for a minute. Heady stuff.

This weekend, I was struck by a logic stick. If all learning is social, is all social learning? We know this is not automatically so, learned that in the intro to Logic, Sets and Numbers (an actual college course I took in the 70’s). But when we engage in a social setting, online or offline, are we ever not learning? Let’s add in a third statement: we are constantly learning. Even while asleep, some research indicates, the brain assembles and makes sense of what it experienced that day. There isn’t a time when our brains aren’t rewiring themselves based on input from our environment.

We learn something from every experience. If events occur as predicted, we reinforce that cognitive pattern for the next use (naturally, we have the ability to learn the wrong things here). If they do not, we reconsider our pattern assessment logic. We descend the stairs at 3 am differently once we learn the fourth step from the landing squeaks now – and will subsequently do that in another’s home without thinking.

So we’re constantly learning, and all learning is social. (Is it? We learned that squeaky stair avoidance thing on our own, didn’t we? Hint: No.)

Enter social media! What is your social media strategy? Does that question even make sense anymore? Or should we ask now: What is your learning strategy, and what role is played therein by social media, happy hours, phone calls, email, downtime, etc.? If all social is learning, shouldn’t any associated strategy for socializing tools be focused there?

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Avatar photo Bill Brantley

Although I agree that social learning is important, the educational field is swinging the pendulum way too far toward learning through socialization. They are forgetting the valuable practice of reflection. I can learn a great deal in my interactions with others but it is also important for me to take the time to think about my conversations and reorganize what I have learned so that I can internalize the knowledge. Sometimes my best insights come when I am in the shower or on the Metro and I am replaying a conversation I had with someone just yesterday. A great book on this subject is Jennifer Moon’s Reflection in Learning and Professional Development.

I also herald the rise of learning science because, IMHO, the current research in education and training is basically folklore with very little evidence to support the recognized “gurus” in the field. Ruth Clark’s Evidence-Based Training Methods: A Guide for Training Professionals is a great resource for using research-tested methods.

John Bordeaux

Agree, but I consider reflection as part of the learning process – it is not severable from the social aspect. I just consider that some ‘reflection’ occurs below the conscious level. Good resources on reflection, thanks!

Michele Costanza

@John: I agree with what you are writing. Social media does lend itself to social learning theory (Vygotsky) and situated learning theory (Lave and Wenger). However, if organizations started measuring whether there is any learning taking place via social media like facebook, twitter, online communities, etc. that would mean metrics to show the value of social media. I don’t think most organizations want to measure the value of social media based on how much new knowledge is created, shared, transferred, or constructed. That’s a challenging measure. If we did a content analysis of the discussion threads in GovLoop (not to pick on GovLoop) or the Washington Post would we have an easy time finding examples of new knowledge construction? Perhaps there are two different uses for social media 1) to engage a large number of constituents and 2) knowledge creation and transfer. The objectives of social media would need to be made more clear and more aligned with “learning” as a goal.

Michele Costanza

@Bill: I just watched the 1973 film The Paper Chase the other night on MoviePlex on demand, where Professor Kingsfield at Harvard Law uses the Socratic method to demand of his students that they “Elaborate!” and give “Example!” I wonder what Kingsfield would think today of online learning.

As a person who has studied how people learn online, even the Socratic method is one that can be used to facilitate discussions, whether face-to-face or online.

Avatar photo Bill Brantley

@Michele – What I like about the Socratic method is that it could be considered engaged reflection. A good use of questions can help a person examine their knowledge store and help them organize it better. I attempt Socratic questioning in my online classes but the asynchronous nature of discussion forums is tricky to work with.

Christopher Dorobek

John… Interesting post — and your thoughts are one of the reasons I selected the book The New Social Learning: A Guide to Transforming Organizations Through Social Media as the DorobekINSIDER Book Club selection.

The idea put forward by the authors is that training often gives solutions to problems already solved, but collaboration addresses challenges no one has overcome before.

You can hear the Federal News Radio Book Club during the Best of the DorobekINSIDER this Friday on Federal News Radio 1500 AM at 3 and 5p ET… and online anytimehttp://federalnewsradio.com/index.php?nid=150&sid=2116272

Love to hear your thoughts.

Andrew Krzmarzick

Thanks, @Chris – I was going to reference that conversation.

@John, @Bill and @Michelle: See also my recent two-part series on social learning:
Stop Learning the Hard Way, Part 1
Stop Learning the Hard Way, Part 2

A couple points I made there that I’d like to share here:
– At the end of the day, learning for the purpose of performing at work comes down to one question: Did I access and apply the information I needed to do my job better?
– In general, I would agree that all learning occurs in a social context. Even when you are reading a book, someone else did the research and/or wrote it. Even when you in the shower or on the Metro working through an issue in your mind, you are likely drawing upon (or battling against) context and stimuli from your day-to-day environment.
– The masters of a fast-paced information society are those individuals who can successfully aggregate and assimilate that information for rapid application.

Jay S. Daughtry, ChatterBachs

The key here: “We learn something from every experience.” Not all that learning is good, beneficial, or in the right direction. That learning could be inappropriate or erroneous as we misinterpret the signals or are taught be the wrong kinds of experiences or by “teachers” (think abusers, drug dealers, etc.) with evil intent. Nevertheless, each experience does teach something new or serves to reinforce previous learning.

John Bordeaux

@Christopher – thanks for the pointer, catching up on Marcia’s book, which I should have read long ago. As regards training, I’m fast becoming a fan of those who are questioning the value of current methods for corporate training: http://www.lifescapes.org/Papers/0212_from_training_to_learning.htm I don’t know about training belonging to “problems already solved,” because the context for solving problems shifts invariably and significantly. The reason “best practices” are ruinous for the enterprise or a profession is because this approach ignores shifting context. Solving problems entirely based on how they were solved before works for a small and increasingly uninteresting set of problems.