Is all learning social?
Just about everything we learn is situated within a social context. We learn during our early years by observing and mimicking others. No first language is learnt in isolation. Much of an individual's sense of conscience, social justice and even compliance to authority are thought to derive from social modelling processes in early life (see Bandura 1977). We also learn through experimentation, but even though some of this is conducted in a solitary context, our thinking is still shaped by previous social encounters and conversations. Much of our thinking about learning over the past few decades has been influenced significantly by the writings of Russian psychologist Lev Vygotskii, who proposed the theory of social constructivism (Vygotsky, 1978). In essence, Vygotskii's argument is that all humans learn within rich social and cultural situations, and that children and novices learn better when they are in the presence of knowledgeable or more experienced others than they do when they are on their own. This is known as the zone of proximal development (ZPD). This does not preclude good learning in isolated settings, but ZPD does hold that learning is strengthened and extended through the presence of others.
Tools also play a part in what we learn. One theory that has emerged from the social constructivist school, Activity Theory, suggests that all learning is shaped and motivated by social influences (Engeström et al, 1999). We act upon our environment and with the use of tools, mediate our understanding through them and use them as mind tools to construct, negotiate and develop our learning. The manipulation of tools, a very specific human activity, carries with them an accumulation of cultural and social knowledge. They are infused with social meaning. Even a tool such as a book, when read by a solo reader, socially mediates learning. The reader in effect has an internal conversation with himself (thinking) which is shaped through reading text that has been written by a knowledgeable other person - the author. Even consciousness is social. It is not seen as 'a series of disembodied cognitive acts', but rather is located in the everyday practice of social interactions (see Nardi, 1995).
Another theory derived from social constructivism has been proposed by Lave and Wenger (1991) who argue that the formation of communities of practice can explain much of the informal learning that occurs for example in the workplace. Development of this theory placed emphasis on the sharing of knowledge within the community of practice, enabling members to situate their learning within their community. Further development in the digital age has led to such theories as connectivism (Siemens, 2004) which suggests that knowledge is not exclusively something we internalise, but can now also reside outside the individual within the social context he inhabits and the tools he employs. Anyone who maintains a personal learning network will clearly recognise this phenomenon.
I trust that in this brief essay I have been able to outline and highlight some of the key arguments for learning as a predominantly social process. I will not have convinced everyone that all learning is social, indeed I have some minor doubts myself. But I intentionally leave plenty of space for discussion. There is a great deal more that can be said about the social nature of learning, but that will need to wait for the next blog post.
Bandura, A. (1977) Social learning theory. Englewood Cliffs: NJ: Prentice Hall.
Engeström, Y., Miettinen, R. and Punamäki, R-L (1999) Perspectives on Activity Theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Lave, J. and Wenger, E. (1991) Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Nardi, B. (1995) Context and consciousness: Activity theory and human-computer interaction. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Siemens, G. (2004) Connectivism: A learning theory for the digital age. Available online at http://www.elearnspace.org/Articles/connectivism.htm (Retrieved 19 February, 2013).
Vygotsky, L. S. (1978) Mind in Society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Photo by Steve Wheeler
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