Better together

Photo by US Dept of Agriculture on Flickr
Social learning is one of the vital components of contemporary learning and development. None of us lives in a vacuum, and we are better, stronger and wiser when we learn and work together.

Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky (1978) argued that we learn best when we are immersed in a socially rich, culturally relevant environment. Language is key, as is context. So is the social connection between those who are learning, and those who are supporting that learning. Vygotsky's Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) theory has several layers, but the important one to consider is the zone where we are able to learn more with the help of a more knowledgeable other person.

Image from Wikimedia Commons
This has been the principle of apprenticeships since ancient times. Young men and women would learn and practice their skills and knowledge in the presence and under the authority of a master craftsmen or practitioner. They were corrected as they learnt, and the scaffolding came directly from the authority source. This support became the learner's ZPD, and as the learner became more competent, the scaffolding faded. This important nuance of education was relegated during the era of mass instruction, where entire classrooms of individuals were taught at the same pace, at the same level of understanding and in a uniform environment where behaviour was strictly standardised.

This kind of en masse training is no longer relevant in an age where many are independent knowledge workers. It is also a poor method of learning. This is because learners are individuals. Each of us learns differently at our own pace and in a variety of contexts and modes, depending on our preferences, the time we have available, and according yo our abilities and motivation. Social learning in the workplace works because it capitalises on these individual differences and various contexts, and relies on the relationship between those who are undertaking the tasks.

Social learning is strongly relational. Albert Bandura (1986) argued that people learn from each other through observation, imitation, and modelling. Everyone knows something, but no-one knows everything. Therefore, in a peer relationship, each employee can provide social scaffolding for others, whilst receiving support in return. Dialogue between individuals mediates the social capital and generates the intellectual capital. Dialogic interaction therefore enables the reciprocation of knowledge and skills transfer across multiple ZPD contexts.

Personal technology and social media can support social learning in the workplace, and make it a reality no matter the size of an organisation.... and we can all use a little help now and then.

Bandura, A. (1986). Prentice-Hall series in social learning theory. Social foundations of thought and action: A social cognitive theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ, US: Prentice-Hall, Inc.
Vygotsky, L. S. (1978) Mind in Society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Creative Commons License
Better together by Steve Wheeler was written in Plymouth, England and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.



Fiona Grant said…
Vygotsky and Bandura theories and conclusions about social learning should support the argument for apprenticeship models. Learning together, through others and with the support of the knowledgeable, experienced 'someone' and gaining a formal qualification (foundation / modern apprenticeship) has much potential for young people and employers. Alas, the value of apprenticeships is often overlooked by institutions and subsequently by parents.

Agree, as proof, that social learning is an important component today. A notification distracted me, whilst reading about independent learning through Youtube for a piece I am currently studying!

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