On Social Learning

I’m participating in a MOOC called Exploring Social Learning offered by some very kind folks out of the UK, and powered by a range of technologies, including HT2’s Curatr platform.

A discussion has sprung up there about the definition of social learning.  I tend to go back to my freely admitted preference for social constructivism as the most effective idea set for designing education.  I did some work around this some years back, and still appreciate the fine work of the late Dr. David Jonassen.  His focus, while on the notion of problem-solving generally, informs us today on the roles technology can play in enabling socially constructed meaning.

Here is the quoted text from Jonassen’s work, with some additional linking thoughts / references from me for each point:

Learning environments should emphasize the qualities below. That is, technologies should be used to keep students active, constructive, collaborative, intentional, complex, contextual, conversational, and reflective. What do these mean?

  • Active: Learners are engaged by the learning process in mindful processing of information where they are responsible for the result. In natural learning situations, learners and performers of all ages, without the intervention of formal instruction, can acquire sophisticated skills and advanced knowledge about what they are learning. For instance, before playing sandlot baseball, do kids subject themselves to lectures and multiple choice examinations about the theory of games, the aerodynamics of orbs, and vector forces. No! They start swinging the bat and chasing fly balls, and they negotiate the rules as they play the game. Through formal and informal apprenticeships and communities and play and work, learners develop skills and knowledge which they then share with other members of those communities with whom they learned and practiced those skills. In all of these situations, learners are actively manipulating the objects and tools of the trade and learning by reflecting on what they have done.
  • Constructive: Learners integrate new ideas with prior knowledge in order to make sense or make meaning or reconcile a discrepancy, curiosity, or puzzlement. They construct their own meaning for different phenomena. The models that they build to explain things are simple and unsophisticated at first, but with experience, support, and reflection, they become increasingly complex. As we explained earlier, we believe that it is impossible for learners to know what the teacher knows. They can only know what they know, so they should be supported in the process of coming to know.  (see also Lev Vygotsky and Social Constructivism -sm)
  • Collaborative: Learners naturally work in learning and knowledge building communities, exploiting each others skills while providing social support and modeling and observing the contributions of each member. Humans naturally seek out others to help them to solve problems and perform tasks. Why then do we in schools insist that learners “do their own work” and if they don’t, we accuse them of cheating. Individualized, reproductive methods of instruction cheat learners out of more natural and productive modes of thinking.   (also think of Bruce Tuckman’s stages of team work -sm)
  • Intentional: All human behavior is goal directed (Schank, 1994). That is, everything that we do is intended to fulfill some goal. That goal may be simple, like satiating hunger or getting more comfortable, or it may be more complex, like developing new career skills. When learners are actively and willfully trying to achieve a cognitive goal (Scardamalia & Bereiter, 1993/1994), they think and learn more. Learning environments need to support learners in articulating what their goals are in any learning situation.  (also brings to mind Abraham Maslow and the hierarchy of needs – sm)
  • Complex: The greatest intellectual sin that we teachers commit is to oversimplify most ideas in order to make them more easily transmittable to learners. In addition to stripping ideas out of their normal contexts, we distill ideas to their simplest form so that students will more readily learn them. But what are they learning?; that the world is a reliable and simple place. However, the world is not a reliable and simple place. Problems are multiple components and multiple perspectives and cannot be solved in predictable ways like the canned problems at the end of textbook chapters. We need to engage students in solving complex and ill-structured problems as well as simple problems. Unless learners are required to engage in higher order thinking, they will develop oversimplified views of the world.   (see Bloom’s taxonomy, too – sm)
  • Contextual: A great deal of recent research has shown that learning tasks that are situated in some meaningful real world task or simulated in some case-based or problem based learning environment are not only better understood, but also are more consistently transferred to new situations. Rather than abstracting ideas in rules that are memorized and then applied to other canned problems, we need to teach knowledge and skills in real life, useful contexts and providing new and different contexts for learners to practice using those ideas.   (consider simulations or game-based learning – sm)
  • Conversational: Learning is inherently a social, dialogical process (Duffy & Cunningham, 1996). That is, given a problem or task, people naturally seek out opinions and ideas form others. Technologies can support this conversational process by connecting learners across town or across the world. When learners become part of knowledge building communities both in class and outside of school, they learn that there are multiple ways of viewing the world and multiple solutions to most of life’s problems. (consider social networking – sm)
  • Reflective: Learners should be required by technology-based learning to articulate what they are doing, the decisions they make, the strategies they use, and the answers that they found. When they articulate what they have learned and reflect on the processes and decisions that were entailed by the process, they understand more and are better able to use the knowledge that they have constructed in new situations.  (consider webinar follow-up meetings – sm)
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