By Saga Briggs
February 1, 2015
"Learning is not purely behavioral; rather, it is a cognitive process that takes place in a social context."
Australia and the United States are the two most individualistic countries in the world. From the time we enter formal schooling, we are expected to forge our own academic paths and pursue individual careers, occasionally crossing paths with others but always keeping our own best interests in mind.
But in a world of increasing complexity and interdependence, we can no longer afford “to go our own way.” Informal learning may have already become a social phenomenon, but formal education has a lot of catching up to do–and quick.
One way of explaining this individualistic spirit is to say that many Western cultures still have a “Lockean” attitude emphasising individual freedom and the pursuit of individual affluence above all else. Our founders may have assumed that the freedom of individuals to pursue their own ends would be tempered by a “public spirit” and concern for the common good that would shape its social institutions.
But social scientists say that public spirit has been dwindling since the 1960s. One study, featured in USA Today in 2012, analysed how often certain words and phrases appear in written language from year to year. Co-author and psychologist Jean Twenge of San Diego State University says it is yet another indication that U.S. society since 1960 has become increasingly focused on the self. Her findings show nuances in different aspects of individualism.
“There’s an emphasis on uniqueness and greatness, and things being personalised for the individual. But it’s not about being independent and standing on your own two feet,” Twenge says. “We got changes we expected in words like ‘unique’ or phrases like ‘I love me.’ We didn’t get them in words and phrases more about independence. It shows the type of individualism that has increased.”
And it’s not just America suffering from this condition. According to the Hofstede Centre, Australia, the UK, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and Italy are also in the running for “most individualistic country.”
So how did individualism work its way into our education systems?
Developing the Individual
Dr. David H. Hargreaves of the Department of Educational Studies at Oxford University says it all started with Rousseau. The French philosopher’s romantic image of individualism spawned an educational philosophy in Great Britain called “developmental individualism” and society hasn’t looked back since.
“This tradition includes the now widespread belief…that education must be centrally concerned with the growth and development of the individual person,” Hargreaves writes in A Sociological Critique of Individualism in Education. “The child-centered movement in education stemming from the work of Dewey, buttressed by a psychology grounded in Freud or (more often) in Piaget, is merely one floriferous branch of a sturdier tree.”
You don’t have to look far to see evidence of Hargreaves’ theory in the real world. In 2008, the FrameWorks Institute conducted 49 in-depth interviews with Americans from New England and southern California, hoping to get a better picture of the way the public views education. After extensive analysis, they found that an overwhelming majority of participants shared the same three views:
- The purpose of education is to serve individuals.
- Individuals and families are responsible for educational outcomes, in the form of both successes and failures.
- Learning occurs through individual interactions with teachers.
“From a reform perspective,” the authors write, “these three themes present unique challenges for engaging the public in system-level policies. In other words, focusing on individual purposes, responsibility, and interactions diverts attention and crowds out those aspects of education that identify it as a public issue: the collective good, institutional responsibility, and policy-level changes.”
Beyond policy, individualism has become a communication problem as well.
“In the multicultural environment of typical American schools, teachers and educators are challenged by communication problems with both students and parents,” says Gheorghita M. Faitar for College Quarterly.
“Very often, the conflict is caused by the use of a different scale of values when the student is educated at home by parents, and in school by teachers. Strong ‘collectivist’ educational approaches, used by many minorities in USA, are not always compatible with the preponderant ‘individualistic’ style of teaching in the majority of American schools.”
Other social learning advocates warn that even online learning can be individualistic in nature. Just because we’re using technology to reach more people doesn’t mean it’s social.
“There has been much talk of the ‘online revolution’ in higher education,” writes Johan Neem for Inside Higher Ed. “While there is a place for online education, some of its boosters anticipate displacing the traditional campus altogether. A close reading of their arguments, however, makes clear that many share what might be called the ‘individualist fallacy,’ both in their understanding of how students learn and how professors teach.”
“These advocates of online higher education forget the importance of institutional culture in shaping how people learn,” he adds. “College is about more than accessing information; it’s about developing an attitude toward knowledge.”
Neem believes there is a difference between being on a campus with other students and teachers committed to learning and sitting at home. “Learning, like religion, is a social experience. Context matters.”
Learning as a Social Experience
Social learning theory arose in the 1960s as an alternative to the behaviorist paradigm that dictated psychology circles at the time. Whereas behaviorists believed that humans learned how to behave through a direct, rewards-and-punishments-based system, social learning theorists proposed that humans could learn indirectly, simply by observing others.
American psychologist Albert Bandura is largely credited with the development of social learning theory as we know it today. Over the course of his career, Bandura undertook innumerable studies showing that when children watch others, they learn many forms of behaviour, such as sharing, aggression, cooperation, social interaction, and delayed gratification.
In Bandura’s classic Bobo Doll experiment, children were exposed to situations in which adults acted aggressively to determine whether they learned from it and played it out themselves.
Each child was first brought into a playroom where there were a number of different activities to explore. The experimenter then invited an adult model into the playroom and encouraged the model to sit at a table and join in the activities. Over a ten minute period, the adult models began to play with sets of tinker toys. In the non-aggressive condition, the adult model simply played with the toy and ignored the Bobo doll for the entire period.
In the aggressive model condition, however, the adult models would violently attack the Bobo doll. In addition to the physical aggression, the adult models also used verbally aggressive phrases such as “Kick him” and “Pow.” The models also added two non-aggressive phrases: “He sure is a tough fella” and “He keeps coming back for more.”
After the ten-minute exposure to the adult model, each child was then taken to another room that contained a number of appealing toys including a doll set, fire engine, and toy airplane. However, children were told that they were not allowed to play with any of these tempting toys. The purpose of this was to build up frustration levels among the young participants.
Finally, each child was taken to the last experimental room. This room contained a number of “aggressive” toys including a mallet, a tether ball with a face painted on it, dart guns, and a Bobo doll. The room also included several “non-aggressive” toys, including crayons, paper, dolls, plastic animals, and trucks. Each child was then allowed to play in this room for a period of 20 minutes while raters observed the child’s behavior from behind a one-way mirror and judged each child’s levels of aggression.
What happened? Children exposed to the violent model tended to imitate the exact behavior they had observed, even when the adult was no longer present.
According to Bandura, the violent behavior of the adult models toward the dolls led children to believe that such actions were acceptable. He also suggested that as a result, children may be more inclined to respond to frustration with aggression in the future. The authors also suggested that “social imitation may hasten or short-cut the acquisition of new behaviors without the necessity of reinforcing successive approximations as suggested by Skinner.”
After his studies, Bandura was able to determine three basic models of observational learning:
- A Live Model, which includes an actual person performing a behavior.
- A Verbal Instruction Model, which involves telling of details and descriptions of a behavior.
- A Symbolic Model, which includes either a real or fictional character demonstrating the behavior via movies, books, television, radio, online media and other media sources.
The tenets of social learning theory, inspired by Bandura’s studies, are as follows:
- Learning is not purely behavioral; rather, it is a cognitive process that takes place in a social context.
- Learning can occur by observing a behavior and by observing the consequences of the behavior.
- Learning involves observation, extraction of information from those observations, and making decisions about the performance of the behavior (observational learning or modeling). Thus, learning can occur without an observable change in behavior.
- Reinforcement plays a role in learning but is not entirely responsible for learning.
- The learner is not a passive recipient of information. Cognition, environment, and behavior all mutually influence each other.
Useful applications of Bandura’s social learning theory have appeared in fields like criminology, developmental psychology, management, media violence, psychotherapy, and educational psychology.
But social learning has evolved far beyond its original parameters. Now, it’s an action-based concept, encouraging onging knowledge transfer and connecting people in a way that makes learning enjoyable. And no, it’s not just a product of social media, although it certainly makes use of it.
The real mission of social learning is to create “a culture of service."
Building a Culture of Service
“Social learning thrives in a culture of service and wonder,” says Marcia Conner, TED Mentor and publisher of The New Social Learning. “It is inspired by leaders, enabled by technology, and ignited by opportunities that have only recently unfolded.”
If a culture is focused on service, she says, then the most pressing question is, “How can I help you?” How can one person help another succeed? How can you help another person ask strong questions, take wise risks, and deliver great content? How can you help them prosper? “Most importantly,” Conner adds, “How can I help you learn and make new connections? How can I help you serve the larger group, of which we are both a part?”
Yet in most educational settings, young people are prevented from helping each other learn and succeed. In some communities, concern for property values and yard maintenance outweigh assisting neighbors. In many companies, talk of competitors and departmental politics overshadow someone’s need for mentoring or gaining fresh perspective.
It’s the culture of social learning that helps us to see what’s really important, Conner says. Requests for help, feedback, and insight can be made without burden, without coercion, without fear.
“It takes time, though. You don’t simply announce a culture of service one day in the hope that everyone will figure it out.”
And despite the wide-spread dominance of individualism in education today, there are countless organisations and individuals already treating social learning as a top curricular priority.
Sarah Anderson teaches humanities and interdisciplinary studies in Portland, Oregon. Each week is filled with social learning activities. Every student is required to share something once a week. Both sharing and question-asking are part of the curriculum.
“We are practicing important life skills,” she says, “how to speak about our lives and how to show active interest in other people.”
Another essential element of Anderson’s learning community is a meeting. Twice a week, thestudents gathers in a circle. After going around and giving each other acknowledgements, a facilitator checks the agenda book to see if anyone signed up to have a problem addressed by the group. If someone did, they have a chance to explain their problem.
“We then go around the circle and everyone has a chance to offer a positive solution to the problem. A student scribe writes all of the solutions down in our log. The student with the issue can then choose from the list of solutions and we check back in with them during the next meeting to see if the solution helped.”
Anderson even works with community members to create authentic projects with real outcomes. Instead of just learning about water quality, students collected several samples from nearby urban creeks and presented their results to a panel of local scientists. Instead of just reading about the Civil Rights Movement, they researched how it impacted their city and produced an educational series of skits to teach other members of the community. Every spring, students participate in Project Citizen, where they identify a local problem, research it, and propose a policy-based solution.
“Over and over again, I have seen kids who came to my school as disinterested learners transform into actively engaged citizens.”
Anderson is just one of countless educators actively promoting social learning. But for those of us who might hesitate to implement it ourselves, let’s examine some of the benefits and methods involved.
1.) Confidence Through Collaboration
Many students simply enjoy helping their peers with their problems. Some of them spend their free time explaining difficult subjects to others and so it makes the process of learning quite fun. By tutoring others, users can acquire valuable skills and improve their self-esteem. Students are more likely to enjoy being taught by someone who is equal and does not look down on them.
An interesting thing happens when several users collaborate on a problem. Thanks to the community related functionalities available in many social media platforms, they may exchange comments freely and study in a group of friends given the proper framework and shared goals.
2.) Connecting the Disconnected
Maybe the most widespread and significant result of social learning, the ability to connect with people you wouldn’t otherwise connect with has changed the world in a constantly evolving but permanent way.
3.) Leveraging Technology
Dan Pontefract, head of learning and collaboration at Canadian firm Telus, has said, “Social media is a tool; social learning is an action.”
And online social technologies have enabled frictionless social learning opportunities. Technology has allowed us to collaborate more seamlessly with others, acquire knowledge and skills outside the traditional learning environment, curate information in an efficient and organised manner, and express our thoughts and ideas to a global audience. We’ve only just scratched the surface of this great phenomenon.
4.) Motivating the Aimless
Cathy Davidson, a professor at Duke University, regularly requires her students to post to blogs. Over the years, she’s found that some students perform much better in a more social medium. “The most elegant bloggers often turned out to be the clunkiest and most pretentious of research-paper writers,” she observed.
Recent neuroscience supports her discovery, indicating benefits specifically related to the social and interactive nature of social learning:
- At every age level, people often take their writing more seriously when it will be evaluated by peers as well as teachers;
- Blogs directed at peers exhibit fewer typographical and factual errors, less plagiarism, and generally better, more elegant and persuasive prose than traditional pen-and-paper assignments by the same writers.
5.) Accelerating Action
“The interconnected, interactive nature of social learning amplifies the rate at which critical content can be shared and questions can be answered, thereby accelerating the rate at which action can occur,” says Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach, co-founder and Chief Executive Officer of Powerful Learning Practice. It’s what helped propel relief efforts during the Haiti Earthquake and currently provides Kenyans with a way to check on the safety of family members during crises like the one at Westgate.
Patrick Meier of Ushahidi, a prominent crisis mapping organisation, explains that crisis maps “are to humanitarian crises what X-rays are to hospital ERs.” In major disasters like the earthquake in Japan, the power of social learning proved essential.
No one can deny the importance of nurturing your own personal learning goals and ambitions, but when it comes to the bigger picture, if we step back and examine the true purpose of education, social learning emerges from the fog and inspires us to do more.
About Saga Briggs
Saga has taught and tutored writing at the elementary, secondary, and post-secondary levels. Her educational interests include psychology, creativity, and system reform. She earned a B.A. in Creative Writing from Oberlin College and lives in Portland, Oregon, USA. You can reach her on Google+, @sagamilena or saga.briggs @ oc.edu.au.