Learning IS Social. It Just Is.

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. ((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.))

And all learning, all of it, as near as I can tell, comes from language and how we use it. ((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.))  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 technology ((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.)) 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. ((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?))

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.  ((But you probably are.  There is nothing new under the sun.)) 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.  ((You might fail.  But you might not.)) 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.

35 thoughts on “Learning IS Social. It Just Is.

  1. Do you think that some of the arguments stem from the fact that the word, “social,” often is regarded as a negative? How many times has a teacher told a parent, “Susie is a quick learner, but she is a little too social in class.”

    In undergrad, “socials” were parties where there was a lot of dancing, some drinking, and probably more extra-curricular activities. It all took place on the campus of a learning institution, but most of my professors viewed those social opportunities as drawbacks to learning.

    I’m just thinking of my own experiences in teaching PD classes about social learning through networks. So many blockers in the room, because to them, “social” meant something negative.

    Personally, I agree with you. We’re social beings by nature, and I can’t think of anything I’ve ever learned that wasn’t somehow communicated to me by someone else. Great thoughts… thanks.
    .-= Michelle Baldwin´s last blog ..I THINK =-.

  2. john patten says:

    I agree …but to add to your points, when we are talking about “social” and communication in a learning setting, if the receiver of that message does not behold value in the messenger, the communication is not going to be effective. In a classroom where the messenger (verbal and non-verbal/environmental, etc.) is likely to be the “teacher” it’s important that value is always conferred to the teacher (either by attitudes, what we do, our environments, trust, etc.) more examples here: http://edutonica.blogspot.com/2010/02/value-in-teacher.html Learning is social and it consists of communication of one type or another, but value in the messenger is many times more important than value in the message…unless of course it’s a life-threatening message like “Fire!!!!” and in that case who cares who the messenger is 🙂

  3. wrtngtchr says:

    Great post with lots to consider when creating learning environments in our classrooms.

    If we embrace the inherently social nature of learning, and if learning is measured in isolation, then we sing the song of collaborative learning and dance to the song of competition–at the same time.

    We encourage students to work together, to engage in their own learning, and to seek answers. Then we give them a test–no talking, no consulting notes or other sources of information, no extra time to explore an answer further.

    Learning is social, testing is not. Learning involves, applying, connecting, evaluating, revising, and creating just as testing does. But learning involves sharing; testing does not.

    I’m writing this to discover why I think this topic is so crucial for understanding the teaching/learning phenomenon. I could write exactly the same thing in a private journal. But the sharing part connects me in a social network of readers and writers who are also thinking about the validity of an assertion: learning is social. The social part influences how and what I write.

    Like yesterday in class. My students are writing researched arguments. We circled up and they read each others’ drafts, then they talked to each other about the reading and writing. It was so cool. Invigorating, in fact, because it is a class of independent thinkers who respect each other despite their blatant differences of opinion.

    There will be no test–only an 8-page accounting of their position on a controversial issue presented in a way that convinces someone who disagrees to at least consider another point of view.

    That’s why I love teaching writing. No test, just learning about how what we think we know affects how we function and relate to a community.

    John Donne: “No man is an island entirely of itself” or something close to that. Learning without sharing? I don’t think so.

    1. Paul Left says:

      wrtngtchr said ‘Learning is social, testing is not. ‘

      I can’t agree – any form of assessment (including testing) relies in some part on communication and language. So if we accept the broad definition of ‘social’ as per the original post, assessment is also social in nature.
      .-= Paul Left´s last blog ..Dana Karem joined the group Learning Communities =-.

  4. I agree tenfold with your thoughts here, and I need to ponder it more than my quick read (at work right now). I am currently working on a brief presentation I will do for a district on student engagement. I think there is a significant connection here – learning IS social but we do not allow for that type of learning in schools to any meaningful degree. Imagine if we did – how engaged mught our students be then? Hmmmm….

  5. Kevin Crouch says:

    Very thought provoking and fun to read. I completely agree that learning is predominantly social, and as a teacher, I would argue qualitatively that motivation to learn and learning itself improve when it is done peer to peer rather than solely from a book or website.

    Now I am neither a psychologist nor a guru, but I think we’re leaving out a significant portion of important human learning experiences in both the physical and metaphysical realms are either not social or language-based.

    There is a lot of social learning that does not involve language. Heck, young kids learn an incredible amount just by watching other kids and adults in their actions.

    What about the lone naturalist that observes the characteristics of a plant in the wild (notice I chose plant, and not animal, because it could be argued that learning from another animal is also social). This is neither social, nor language based. Especially if he/she doesn’t write it down.

    What about the photographer who, fiddling with his camera that doesn’t have instructions or proper menus, solves a problem and learns from it. It is a big leap to say that simply because another human designed that camera that it qualifies as social learning.

    Last but not least, I live in India where for a select few individuals with powerful meditative abilities (there have been around 32 million of them since records have been kept), wisdom, and hence learning, can be derived by connecting their own energy with the energy of the cosmos. You can call it social if you want, but I call that some serious ‘outside the box’ thinking. Either way, it helps to consider some other powerful definitions of learning out there that may not neatly fit into our teacher/student/professor scenarios.
    .-= Kevin Crouch´s last blog ..Three Great Typing Tools =-.

    1. Bud Hunt says:

      But, Kevin, that lone observer IS using language to process those observations in his or her brain. They don’t occur in a vacuum, but in the context of previous experience. And book or website learning is social, too. Someone made those texts.

      I’m not saying that reading is less important than peer conversation. It IS conversation, but of a different sort. Still social. Worth recognizing that.
      Thanks for your thoughts.

      1. Kevin Crouch says:

        OK, I’ll give you that one. Lets take the language thing out of it, purely for exploration sake, because I agree with you on most of your points.

        When my daughter was a few weeks old she did not possess language, or at least I’m pretty sure. Yet, she learned that if she crudely thrust her arm in front of her there was a chance she might make contact with that shiny object. It didn’t matter what anything was called to her, she had to learn the basic laws of physics on her own.
        .-= Kevin Crouch´s last blog ..Three Great Typing Tools =-.

        1. Bud Hunt says:

          But how did she remember and recommunicate that learning to herself the next time she needed it? How did her future experiences and experimentation change her knowledge?

          1. Ettina says:

            Language is not needed for memory. You can simply visualize what happened last time.

    2. john patten says:

      Great stuff! It would appear to me that through the replies we are talking about different types of learning. There is learning that takes places through experimentation, but if we’re talking about that learning taking place in isolation there would be limits I would think on what that levels of competencies that individual could reach. In order to increase the chances of reaching the individual’s full potential, you need the social component. Philosophically we all understand we can learn through non-social interactions, ie exploration, but realistically in our field of helping children achieve to their full potential, we need the social/communicative, valued mentor/teacher components to make that happen.

  6. Brain hurts. And I agree with much of what you lay out here. But I wonder if learning HAS to be social. If we take it to the extremes, and someone mentioned this on Twitter though I can’t remember who since Twitter is a crappy place for conversations, what about a feral child (not probable but possible), one who may not have a “language” embedded in his brain, but who still learns when that hot yellow flame burns his skin. That is learning, but does it have a social context? And I know that at the end of the day, who really cares in that example. But if we’re speaking in absolutes as in “Learning IS Social”, is it?
    .-= Will Richardson´s last blog ..PLP: We’re Expanding =-.

    1. Bud Hunt says:

      It was George. I’ve a footnote to that point. Isn’t the communication of that learning, if it is remembered and recommunicated to one’s future self (call it recall, if you’d like), the same, or at least terribly similar to, the example of writing a note to your future self?

      1. John says:

        Is muscle memory a socially-constructed tool? While I completely argue that nearly all of teaching (and learning from others) is social, I think it might be too far a stretch to suggest that the “recommunication” of a memory of burning is equivalent to a note from a former self. I’m pretty sure that nerve memories (burning) aren’t coded and stored in the same part of the brain as language and other socially-constructed processes. Those are lower, in the reptilian part of the brainstem, no?

        1. Bud Hunt says:

          Yeah. Might’ve painted myself in a corner there.

  7. David Noah says:

    All learning takes place in a gravitational field. Therefore learning is essentially and inescapably about gravity. For ‘gravity’ substitute ‘social’.

    1. Bud Hunt says:

      Not sure how this is a helpful statement. I know that socialness seems obvious to many – but it isn’t. I’ve a short podcast that I’ll be posting soon where i elaborate on the importance of posts like this one. Sure, gravity influences teaching and learning. But it isn’t hidden. Or is it?

  8. Martha says:

    I followed a bit of this debate on Twitter last week, I think. At that point, you were debating with others whether all *writing* is inherently social. Is that right? Or am I mis-remembering.

    At that time, I thought the answer to this is all in Bakhtin — writing is always social, even if you have no intended audience beyond yourself because language exists in a social ecosystem. When we write we can’t divorce ourselves from that ecosystem.

    And, more broadly, (and more pertinent to what you’re discussing here), I think that when we define “social” we focus to much on what comes *after* and not enough on what comes *before*. That’s an understandable (mis)focus. We value our place, as individuals, in most activities. So what matters to us is what *we* affect — we think a whole lot less about what has affected us.
    .-= Martha´s last blog ..Here at Five =-.

    1. Bud Hunt says:

      Yeah. That’s just it. We want to have influence – but not to admit previous influence, perhaps.

  9. Jon Dron says:

    I like David Noah’s point very much – there’s no point in over-reducing or subsuming unless it adds value to or changes what we do. There is no learning without breathing either.

    But there *is* learning without social interaction. Here are some things that I think I learned outside of any social context:
    – the pavement hurts my feet when it gets hot on a sunny day and I wear no shoes
    – some greens are really nice colours
    – it is a really unpleasant sensation to try to breathe underwater
    – snow is cold and tastes great if you eat it
    – turning too fast makes me dizzy
    – aeroplanes are noisy and block out other sounds.

    I think it is at least conceivable that, had I never met anyone or anything in the world and yet had miraculously survived the experience, I might still have learned these things and/or an indefinitely huge number of things like them. I might not have the same labels, might find it hard to express and the nature of my knowledge would be totally different but, when I recognised that hot tarmac I would have avoided it.

    There are surely many ways that my thoughts, and feelings that relate to them might have been affected and coloured by socially situated things: we are evolved to be inherently social beings that could not survive for long without others (what would be the point of a smile if there was no one there to see it?) so it is not surprising that our constructed realities include socially situated elements as part of the richly woven fabric. I’d not go so far as to suggest that we are the sum of all the things we have been, but it certainly makes a big difference! But the flip side of that is that, especially as kids, we learn a huge amount of stuff about ourselves in relation to our environment that has no social element at all. A lot of that is totally fundamental stuff on which we base most other things, stuff that relates deeply and intertwinedly to our selves and their physical and emotional relationships with the world.

    I think this implies that, while there *may* be a social element in most learning, especially when we do it intentionally, and I have no doubt as to the value of other people in most formal and informal learning, it is not a necessary condition and it is a million miles from being a sufficient condition.

  10. I believe learning can be “social “but it is not necessarily “social” meaning requiring the presence or influence of other people to take place .
    From my point of view learning as the act of grasping a concept, allowing the learner to relate it with his previous knowledge , can take place in different ways: in a classroom due to the interaction of the minds of the teacher and the learners or in the quiet of a room where just the learner and a piece of educational material are interacting. Learning in isolation this way could also imply “social” learning like in the case of a learner and a computer , learning is social if the learner is allowed to consult a number of sources related with the concept he is studying. When a learner is left with a computer he is left with the possibility of accessing multiple resources including forums, for example, that would make learning in isolation as social as when in the classroom. Online courses make sure to always include forums though most of the times they are not that much visited.
    However learning can perfectly take place in isolation: no educational resources or teachers that make learning easier, just the learner and the subject of study like in the case of a true vocational scientist, for example. Deep learning can require isolation to be able to remove yourself from distractions and really focus.
    I prefer myself social learning in the traditional sense of being surrounded by the minds and the bodies of the other learners and the teachers. The energy that arises from that scenario, real time learning is so much more powerful. I think no virtual experience can match it.
    .-= Estrella Gancedo´s last blog ..Cursos CPR: semana del 10/05/2010 al 16/05/2010 =-.

  11. Creating a social learning environment is the goal for most of my general English classes… learners learn better if they are comfortable with their surroundings and ‘want’ to use the language skills they have acquired to communicate. Is it as possible on the internet is perhaps a different matter, this is a totally new form of society (well, relatively new) and it is one that is still developing its norms and accepted avenues – so social tools for learning: YES. But which ones is still an answer I think that is yet to be decided.

  12. I have enjoyed following this debate. I am fascinated by all of the thoughts and perspectives shared here. I guess what I am thinking is that I can accept that there are times certain types of learning are not technically social experiences. But even if they are not what is the purpose of that learning? Maybe the experience or the time spent alone reflecting and learning or survival types of learning are not considered social but they certainly have a purpose of allowing us to interact better in our social world. I spend time alone meditating and there is learning that comes from that experience by myself. But it helps me be a better person in my relationships with others. There is a social purpose. Reading a book by myself (even though I agree with Bud that this is still social interaction with the words, the author etc) broadens my world view, opens me up to new perspectives and that allows me to be a better social being.
    And so as we ponder these perspectives about all learning being social or not, what are we saying about the learning our students should be experiencing in our schools? Or beyond schools? What is this debate telling us about how kids will learn best and what we should be doing about it?
    .-= Liane Benedict´s last blog ..Mackenzie rocked the dock today! =-.

    1. Ettina says:

      Learning not to touch a hot flame benefits you in ways that have nothing to do with social interaction.

    2. Ian L. says:

      Social intelligence is true intelligence. Yet I have often felt like I was lacking in that department as I have been sort of envious of people who are. Some of my best friends have been major extroverts, but I am not.

      On the other hand it might be socially intelligent for some to spend more time alone. Meditating is one of those things I have to do (amongst others to maintain balance) otherwise my mind can go astray and negative thought patterns can creep in which won’t help me socially.

  13. Dan Magyar says:


    I have to disagree with two of the premises of your post: “my contention is that learning is communication, and that communication requires language, and that language is socially negotiated”

    Learning is Communication – as Jon pointed out there are all kinds of learning that have nothing to do with communication.

    Communication Requires Language – if a Japanese woman slaps me across the face, trust me, she has communicated even if we cannot speak a word of the other’s language.

    Education is Social, Learning is Individual

  14. Some of my core beliefs have been realized through reading, especially things I read as a teenager when I was deciding who I wanted to be. I was able to share my thoughts with my father who read the same books I did. So I guess that the learning process was social on two levels.

    Now as I am older and more “experienced” I have called into question a lot of what I believe. I wonder if I had been able to have true “conversations” with the authors of those books I would have come away with the same beliefs. Maybe there is an inescapable flaw in learning from reading, the lack of the ability to discuss or even debate the ideas put in writing that makes the writing less valuable, maybe even a little dangerous?

  15. Ettina says:

    If a child is standing by himself at the top of a flight of stairs, throwing random objects down the stairs to figure out how they fall, they are learning something, even though no one is interacting with them.
    Learning is not communication. Learning is figuring out contingencies. The child can figure out contingencies in both social and non-social situations.
    Seriously, I don’t get why you would even think that learning has to be social or is synonymous with communication. That’s just not what the word ‘learning’ means.

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