Is all learning social?

Just about every day I find myself embroiled in discussions about fundamentals of learning, the nature of knowledge and the processes of education. It comes with the territory of working as an academic in a university, and I expect to do it much of the time. When I'm not talking about learning, I'm reading about it, researching it, thinking about it, and writing about it. Today was particularly interesting because I had a conversation on this blog with ePortfolio Keith (Keith Brennan aka @wiltwhatman), who was commenting on my Three Things post. In the post I made the remark that today's learning needs to be personal, social and global, all of which can be mediated through technology. Keith asked me 'Does learning always need to be social?' This of course is a profound question, and one which demands some good theory and reflection. I told Keith that his question deserved a more protracted and considered response than I could provide within the constraints of a blog comment box. I said I would write a full blog post and I therefore present my response here:

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 (Retrieved 19 February, 2013).
Vygotsky, L. S. (1978) Mind in Society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Photo by Steve Wheeler

Creative Commons License
Is all learning social? by Steve Wheeler is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


Cristina Milos said…
This is a much more subtle, reference-based argumentation of learning as a predominantly social act. I appreciate the nuances and the space for doubt.
Personally, I think learning is far too complex to ever exhaust definitions. It can be viewed from many perspectives (evolutionary, cognitive, social, philosophical etc) and on various levels (individual, group, society and so forth).
Srujan said…
An ideal of all the training is to make the mind grow. An ideal way of learning is learner learns by himself it may be by through what ever means. Here social learning concept makes the learner learn by himself better through interacting with his other fellow men who are geographically dispersed with help of technology. So definitely his learning is enhanced.
Hi Steve,

I'm not certain of my reasoning here, and am on ground in which I am far less an expert than you, so what I say I say tentatively, and without certainty. This is more my curiousity saying itself, than my certainty aseerting itself.

first off, I welcome the second post too. I think your essay does a good job of sketching out the main players, and plotting the theoretical background to social learning.

I'm doing a connectivist MOOC at the moment - #etmooc - and I'm particularly interested in Siemens on your list. The Mooc I'm doing, and it's concenytration on Connectivist theory, and Cormier's Rhizomatic Learning called to mind a quote from Terry Mayes

"Learning theories are often presented as being alternative accounts of the same phenomena, rather than perfectly compatible accounts of very different phenomena. The term ‘learning ’is very broad indeed, covering as it does a range of processes which stretches from acquiring the physical coordination to throw a javelin ,through to the sensitivities involved in marriage guidance"

I mention this for several reasons. It's not that I think learning isn't social, but that I think that this is not, and does not have to be, an entire description of all learning processes. Wenger's Communities of Practice describes well established practices and phenomena. But it is, perhaps, not a complete explanation of all learning that can and does occur.

If we accept a definition of social as all inclusive and broad as having a conversation with yourself about something, then, I'd argue, we have set such a broad definition that there is no sense in which we are not social. But I would also argue that broadness to that degree is ad hoc, and undermnines the falsifiability of what it is we are talking about. It becomes impossible to test the reality of a proposition when the definition of it's application is so polymorphic.

If we accept the definition of social as including when we are alone, it becomes, I think, impossible to refute, and investigate. The purpose of ad hoc hypotheses are to refute convincing evidence by changing the terms of the argument. With such a broad definition, it becomes impossible to avoid ad hoc arguments that render falsifiability impossible.

A good hypothesis is falsifiable.

And a good hypothesis makes itself available to the process of destruction by testing, evidence driven assessment and caustic review. Difficulties in discerning truth make attention to rigor more and not less imprtsant, and, even in cases where objective truth may not be attainable, we still need to adhere to rigor and methodology. The role of evidence, and cold methodological rigor in pedagogical theory seems - and I'm a novice here so I may well be wrong - to be underplayed.

I'm reminded of a post a while ago of yours on Gardner's Multiple Intelligences. You describe a process of Communal Reinforcement - the repetition, often unfounded in empirical evidence or truth - of a claim in a community to such a degree that it becomes accepted as truth while having no basis. Is this a claim that could be made of, for example, connectivism?

Again, my thoughts here are somewhat rambling...
Steve Wheeler said…
Thanks for your comments Cristina. I agree learning is a very complex proposition and probably intractable in terms of our full understanding. That is indeed why so many theories have emerged to try to describe some aspects of it. There are indeed many perspectives, but I feel that the most powerful at least in terms of their potential are the theories that have emerged in recent years to describe learning in the digital age (e.g. connectivism, paragogy, heutagogy). They will all need to be developed of course.
Steve Wheeler said…
Indeed, that is the beauty of our affinity with technology Srujan - it means that for the first time in our history we are able to connect (theorectically and in many cases in reality) instantly with anyone on the planet.
Steve Wheeler said…
Thanks for your comments again Keith - some really thoughtful ideas and questions there. Let me again briefly respond in this limited space by tackling your question about hypotheses. Yes, a good hypothesis is falsifiable, and in the best Popperian mode, that is how scientific research is conducted. However, increasingly, the liberal arts and particularly areas such as sociology, education, cultural studies and anthropology are moving away from logical positivistic methods toward a more interpretivist approach to research. Of particular resonance at present are the post-modernist and post-structuralist perspectives which privilege a more phenomenological and hermenuetic interpretation of the world around us. Much data generated is now unfalsifiable because it is existential, personal, representational. Where this leaves us in current research is uncertain, but it is the world we have apparently inherited. Not a clear answer I know, but it represents what I currently see happening in academia.
A fellow named Dillenbourg wrote an article back in 1999 about metacognitive learning. I think there was some merit to his suggestion. The argument he made was that while most learning does occur through "interaction" with the environment (nature, including others of the same species, and so on) there is also the internal cognition/learning experience that, being most personal, may have the most significant impact. For humans, I would argue, based on my limited knowledge of such things as life, the universe, and everything, that stimulus is key --- humans need stimulation. That, Steve, is life. Thanks for stimulating my mind, as always!
A fellow named Dillenbourg wrote an article back in 1999 about collaboration that suggested that while learning is social, through interaction with the environment (including members of ones own species, of course), it is nevertheless also an internal/metacognitive activity. That is, to me, a simple way of saying that we learn through thinking and thinking is spawned from interaction with stimulus. So, perhaps swe backtrack here, Steve, and ask ourselves what "social" really means. If it always means interaction with others then the next question is, what characterizes an "other" -- can an object be an other? Perhaps. Recently I viewed some art at Balboa Park in San Diego... it was quite a learning experience for me. Was I interacting with the artist? No, not really (except the history of the artist I may recall learning)... anyway, just thinking aloud here... thanks always for the stimulating posts!
Uh oh... signing in with other gmail.. think I just posted twice -- well, versioning does have its merits. ;) -- thanks again!
Steve Wheeler said…
Glad you posted twice, because your second comment above, resonated with me more. You mention Balboa Park, where I spent some time wandering around a few years ago. I kind of consider that the entire area is one where I could interact with the culture and history of the place, especially the walk down through the esplanade. I also recall standing beneath the flight path of jets landing at the airport, and watching as vapour contrails fell to the ground. It was all rather surreal to me, being in California for the first time, and the interactions I enjoyed with residents, the art work and the culture of the place were significant to me. I am not sure what social means. Is anyone? But I know that the experiences I had while in SD were very rich, and that impact was very largely down to the people and their colourful history and culture.
All places I've visited or lived have beauty and resonance ... well, except one. But, that's a long story and not relevant here. Yes, California is a good place. Good in many ways. It's why I chose to make it my home! :) Do let me know if you're visiting... there's good miso soup at the Japanese Friendship garden at the park worth experiencing too...
I think you've done an excellent job of replying. I could learn a lot from your ability to summarise. Thanks for the thought provoking conversation, and for food for further thinking on my part.

I'm a philosophy grad, and both as someone with that background, and as a student and reader of academic journals, I'd agree, that is the direction, and has been for some time.

I don't think the move is a good one though. From Luce Irigaray's assertion that the e=mc2 equation privileges the masucline speed of light over other, more feminine speeds, to Sokal's published gibberish in peer review liberal arts publications, to Lacan's nonsensical psychotherapy equations, Foucault's bad historial rigor (the panopticon was never really built, the Great internment didn't happen, there were no such things as the ship of fools), Feyerabend's bad science, DeMan's personal history coinciding with a convenient view of the negotiability of history as a text...but that's another argument...My conversations with many post structuralists remind me of my teenage conversations with Marxists, and my adult conversations with religious zealotss. An exercise in contructed futility.

It's probably clear what I think.

Falsifiability can't include the entire story. But without it, we risk, and often achieve, the replacement of enquiry with ideology. It becomes almost impossible to avoid confirmation bias, ad hoc reasoning and post hoc causality. Critical thinking becomes atrophied, and assertion replaces evidence as a mediator of truth.

This is not to say that the flattening of academic walls, the democratisation of knowledge, the alteration of our sense of what constitutes culture are bad things. They're not. But the philosophies that helped spawn them are not the tools we need. I wouldn't have Feyerabend train my doctor Foucault defend me in a libel trial dependent on historical rigor, Irigaray teach me physics, or Lacan treat me for depression.

When Penguin needed to investigate the methodology of David Irving to defend their libel case, they went with, if memory serves, conventional historians, and not post structuralists. They needed methodology, rigor, and attention to detail. And so they chose an appropriate tool.

We may, as educators, need to deploy more care in the tools we use to investigate ourselves, our ideas, and our suppositions.

You're right.

This is a much larger conversation than a comment box can contain...
It's a productive and useful way to think about it. My own thoughts on some aspects of social learning come, in part, from observing students who seem, at times, to need to withdraw from socially mediated spaces for solo reflection before re-engaging, and in part from personal reflective experiences. Encounters with art works are a good example, but, also, encounters with ones own reflections, metacognitive ideas of analysing ones own thinking, watching yourself watch things.

When I read Walt Whitman, or the manual for a chainsaw, or the growth of the pasture in the top field after having it grazed late in the year (slow and late growth in the next spring...I did not know that) none of them strike me as social experiences, primarily.

That said, I have a welath of reading, considering and conversing to do before I begin to feel confident here.

Simon Ensor said…
On first sight the answer to the question can only be yes. However if learning is essentially social, one might add that learning or ability to learn is also primarily (?) instinctive, genetic?

It's not just about ABC but DNA?

Simon Ensor said…
Learning to evolve...

Popular Posts