Learning is most definitely social. But I think it has to be.
On Twitter this week, Ben has pulled me a couple of times into the question of whether or not learning is social. And both times, one time in conversation with David, and another time, earlier today, in conversation with Dave and George and Claudia and Rob and Will and some other folks, I had to say that, yes, it is. Allow me to explain, as Twitter is just not the place for such extended thinking.
As best as I can figure, we’ve got to start with some definitions. Let’s start with social. I think Wikipedia’s definition is a fine place to begin:
The term Social refers to a characteristic of living organisms (humans in particular, though biologists also apply the term to populations of other animals). It always refers to the interaction of organisms with other organisms and to their collective co-existence, irrespective of whether they are aware of it or not, and irrespective of whether the interaction is voluntary or involuntary.
In the next paragraph, the article, at least as it exists today, pretty much makes my entire case:
In the absence of agreement about its meaning, the term “social” is used in many different senses and regarded as a fuzzy concept
See, my contention is that learning is communication, and that communication requires language, and that language is socially negotiated. By that, what I mean is that words are just sounds. Sounds that convey meaning. And they are arbitrary. We call cups “cups” not because they possess any inherent cupness, but because, over time, and due to popular usage, the word “cups” came to be linked with the concept of a particular kind of container that you put things, usually liquid, but sometimes cakes and other things, into.
Words gain their meaning through social processes. Specifically, when people, enough people, use them to mean certain things, then they have that meaning. Without that social negotiation of their meaning, they mean, well, nothing.1
And all learning, all of it, as near as I can tell, comes from language and how we use it.2 If language is social, and it is, then any use of language to convey meaning that results in either a transfer of that meaning, or a new understanding of the thing you’re trying to learn about, is social, at least to some level.
So when David asked me the other day about how he can go, by himself, into an office and read a book and think about it, and if that’s social learning, my answer, even though he was the only person then in the room, is yes, that was a social experience. Let me elaborate further.
A book is a recording of someone’s thinking about something. To record our thinking, we use language. Writing, a set of symbols that we use to represent words (which we use to represent ideas), is a technology3 that works with language to convey meaning. As I write this blog post, I’m locking my thoughts into words and putting those words together to, hopefully, convey something. Just what I’ve conveyed is a little bit up to me and a little bit up to you. More on that in a minute.
So, working from the Wikipedia definition above, of social as an interaction between organisms, reading a book and thinking about it involves (at least) two individuals – the author and the reader. It’s a social process. Actually, it’s much more complicated than that, as the words the author used were negotiated during the time of the author’s writing, and perhaps even the author was attempting, through brute force, to change a meaning of a word or words. The reader, too, exists in a social construction of language that might be different, or very similar to, the author’s – but it’s not the same. Our interactions with language and with each other color and shape our interactions with words. I think of a house as the first house I lived in as a little boy, a yellow, ranch-level house. You might think of something different when you think of the word “house,” but there’s enough overlap between our two conceptions of the word – a place with rooms and probably a kitchen and a place or places to sleep – that we can have a reasonably meaningful conversation about houses.
Heck, in the example of reading alone in one’s office and thinking about one’s reading, there’s another set of social forces at work, too. As I wrestle with an author’s ideas, I’m filtering them and my own thinking about them through my previous experiences – with the concepts being discussed, with my teachers and their thinking, and with my own previous wrestling with the particular topic that I’m reading about. That side of the learning – my thinking about the reading – is a social process, too. Saying it’s not isn’t a true thing to say.
George argued, a while back, that learning isn’t necessarily social. I think he was wrong, largely, about that. It’s terribly social. He wrote:
As well, a primarily social view of learning also overlooks many of the affordances of technology. I can learn (learning defined as actuated or actionable knowledge) from a computer program, an intelligent software agent, or a contextually appropriate learning resource (i.e. when I need to do the task, the learning resource is mediated by technology).
Each of those items that he’s giving as examples of ways you might learn, are things, like books, that were made by other people. Someone wrote the computer program, or the intelligent software agent, or the resource. Those items, like books, were created in and of a social process. People make technology, or learning objects, or what have you, whether they’re putting words on pages or building hardware. These items are a conversation, to a degree, between author and reader. George is a smart guy, and a good teacher, but I wonder if he forgot that when he wrote that post.
Many smarter people than I have written extensively about how reading is a social process. Folks like Louise Rosenblatt, who popularized the concept of the transactional theory of reader response, is one of them who I think about a lot. She postulated that a reader takes from an author an experience that is colored by the reader’s experiences as well as the context in which the reading occurs. Reading is social. Writing is social. Learning is social.4
Mikhail Bakhtin, too, is worth mentioning here. He wrote about the idea that language is a response to other language. He used bigger words than that, but basically, he argued that language exists in the context of the language that has come before. Unless you were the first person to ever speak, then you are to some degree influenced by what was said before you spoke. You might be responding to one of those previous utterances, and you might not. 5 You are, whether you are aware of it or not, influenced by what came before.
What about writing a note to oneself? Is that social? This is where I get confused and curious.
Suppose I write myself a note, say a reminder to do something in the future. I’d say, at the time of the writing, that my present self is the author. I write myself the note so that I can keep track of something at a future time. When I return to the note, I am approaching it as my, from the perspective of the note-writer, future self. As a reader, I am reading a note from my past self. Even then, I think, if I am the only audience for the note that I wrote, I am participating in a social process. For one thing, I’m using language, socially constructed language. For another, my self has changed in a number of ways since I wrote the note. I’m a little bit older, I know different things, I might be reading the note many years later, in which case the changes might be much easier to see and identify. But even if it’s a few minutes or hours later, I am reading a communication from someone else – my past self. And I am reacting and responding as my present self. Perhaps the conditions in which I wrote the note have changed – I don’t need to do the thing that I was reminding myself to do because I’ve since realized that it was a silly task, perhaps, or I no longer need to do it because it was done by someone else. But my present self is reacting/responding/interacting with my past self. I’d argue that’s a social process, too. The idea that we can communicate, in this way, with ourselves, is pretty interesting. And social.
Well, if you’ve read this far, then you might be asking yourself, “So what?” I wonder that, too. Let me speculate as to why such questions of learning and sociality are important. For one thing, perhaps we could move on to more interesting questions. Instead of “Is learning social?’ might we ask “How does my choice of language or text change the conditions for learning?” Or maybe instead “How does language change over time, and how does that affect policy discussions about teaching and learning?” How does the illusion of non-socialness perpetuate hierarchy? Who gets to frame conversations about teaching and learning, and how do they do so? Just a few of the questions that I am thinking about lately. You probably have better questions. But let’s move past this “Is learning social” question – because it is. And it’s essential that we understand that.
What place does an individual have as an agent of his or her own learning since learning is a social process? Each individual, while shaped by and working within social constructs, has the ability to shift the conditions of that sociality to support their own learning. You can argue for a redefinition of a word, for example. 6 Or suggest a different frame in which a particular type of learning can and should occur. The fact that learning is social doesn’t lessen the impact or importance of any individual. It actually makes individuals more important. Our individual actions, aggregated and amplified by the actions of others, shape the “socialness” of an experience. That’s important. Worth thinking about.
This is, clearly, first draft thinking on my part, but I think it’s worth getting down while it’s still fresh on my mind, not so much to say that I’m right, although I believe that I am, as to try to push past this question, which, to me, is a pretty obvious one, and begs some really difficult and important ones. Those questions are more worth our time, perhaps.
I’m eager to hear your thoughts about the socialness of learning. Learning is social. And that’s worth talking and thinking about. Together.
- If you don’t believe me, then think about the word “Google.” It used to represent a really big number. Then a company. Now an action. Language changes over time as people use words differently. I find that fascinating. [↩]
- George mentioned feral children on Twitter today. “How do they use language to learn?” was his question. I’m still thinking that there’s a language piece there, on some level. But I’m still thinking. [↩]
- Writing is one of my favorite technologies, and the one that I find the most fascinating, be you a writer with an iPad or a pencil or a keyboard or a telephone or whatever. [↩]
- Turns out, according to folks like Rosenblatt, that rereading a text results in a different transaction every time you reread. Because you’re a different you when you read the text again. Isn’t that interesting to think about? [↩]
- But you probably are. There is nothing new under the sun. [↩]
- You might fail. But you might not. [↩]