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?


24 Nov: Update, thanks to the great comments I’m getting here.  Here is a another great resource exploring this notion that all learning is social, and questioning the value of corporate training methods as a result:

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11 Responses to All Social is Learning

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention All Social is Learning | Organizational Knowledge Design --

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  3. Lee Myers says:

    John, thank you for this summary. Any other of your writings from your “sojourn in education reform?” I was hoping to watch for your successes there. Goodness knows you were perfect for the task.

    • John says:

      @Lee – I do have a few others, one I’m trying to get ready for this week involves the move from a predictive to an anticipatory praxis in education. I appreciate your kind words, I am hoping to work in this sector again soon – this time from within a large consultancy.

  4. Rotkapchen says:

    Ergo, if all business is social, what is the significance of social business as a focus (a topic of debate within Enterprise 2.0 ranks)?

    Thanks for the fodder.

  5. ChooseyBeggar says:

    While one can’t discount the value of social reinforcement in learning, it goes too far to say that all learning is social unless you include things like burying yourself in a library to do research or using a learned social skill like writing or recording to keep track of field data. Some street people talk to angels. Is that social learning? It’s not as if we can automatically discount their intelligence, just the user freindly part on some occasions. But perhaps i’m missing the point. Is all learning indeed social? Or is this notion driven by those whose lifestyle is totally extrovertively dependent? This notion just doesn’t seem real.

  6. If as you say, “The learning that isn’t social, isn’t worth our time studying,” what does that say about all the learning that takes place in an isolated context? To be worthwhile, it may not be that learning has to be social, but at least the application of that learning must be social, i.e., you want to share it, hopefully to impact someone.
    Best regards,
    RJ Johnson

  7. John says:

    @RJ – I guess I’m questioning the notion that much learning takes place in an isolated (read: non-social) context. Even when we sit alone and read, our learning embeds the physical surroundings – so isolation is a relative term here. In addition, we bump into the whole notion of learning about versus learning to become. We learn to become, in part, through social interaction. All the way from practical experience through apprenticeship down to mirror neurons which may have a role in transmitting cultural cues.

    I don’t think we understand fully how learning occurs, but the indications – at least the ones I’m reading about – all point to a social context for most if not all.

  8. John says:

    @Choosey – I hear you! It doesn’t seem real to me either, particularly having been raised in a 20th century U.S. “learning environment.” But the more we learn about cognitive processes, the role of interaction seems to be more than reinforcement or a nice benefit for extroverts. Consider what is learned at the lonely library table as compared to what is learned when applying knowledge in a social context. The feedback we receive from the tire that needs changing at night in the rain is powerful, but nothing compared to the feedback we receive around a dinner table or during a seminar Q&A. Our brains appear wired for cooperative processes and mimicry more than we realize.

    Again, I don’t have anywhere near all the answers, but the indications are startling indeed.

  9. Pingback: Harold Jarche » Learning socially

  10. I just read an interesting article the other day, “Friends with Cognitive Benefits” that talks about how even a short conversation with someone can be as beneficial to the brain as doing a crossword puzzle. Here is the link:
    I believe that we were meant to be very social creatures, just look at how often young people text. Also, when more of us lived on farms years ago, there was often some one around to talk to, not so in many jobs today, at least where we get to talk about something that matters to us.
    Best regards,
    RJ Johnson

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