Social Aspects of Learning

Normal brain development depends on social interaction, and the social nature of human learning continues throughout life, and deeper learning has social components. In recent decades, cognitive and learning scientists have converged on the conclusion that human cognitions is a strongly social phenomenon. Michael Gazzaniga (2008), a noted neuroscientist who has studied human brains for decades, concluded “the shift to becoming highly social is what the human is all about,” (emphasis in the original) and he continues, “our higher intellectual skills arose as an adaptation to our newly evolved social needs” (p. 111-2). It seems that brains and social interaction emerged together; we need our brains to build social connections and our social connections affect how our brains develop. Even as adults, social interaction is important to human learning, Wexler 2008) observed, “even when fully developed, the self-regulatory, self-direction of attention is far from autonomous, and social input remains a built-in feature of these mechanisms throughout the lifespan” (p. 106).

Human brains are born in a state of neoteny; our brains continue to develop long after we are born immersed in a social environment that we call culture. The culture that learners experience contributes to their views and perspectives; these become the criteria that are used to assess what and who is important. It seems humans follow the logic, “I need these people to survive, so I am going to do what they do, say what they say, and value what they value.” These cultural norms are developed very early in childhood, so when children enter school, these are deeply embedded. The authors of How People Learn II (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2018) make the effects of culture explicit, “Cultural norms and goals shape how and what people think. This is true even when a person is working alone or independently” (p. 29). Schools, of course, are created to reflect the dominant culture, so these influences continue as children become adolescents. Especially as regions become more culturally diverse, there can be conflict between the learner’s culture and the culture of school.

While culture influences learner’s expectations and their interpretation of knowledge and teaching activities, the learner’s social interactions and relationships while learning are important as well. “Individuals’ brains are critically shaped by social relationships, and the information they learn through these relationships supports both their emotions and their knowledge about facts, procedures, motivation, and interests” (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2018, p. 29).


Gazzaniga, M. (2008). Human: The science behind what makes us unique. Ecco.

National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. (2018). How People Learn II: Learners, Contexts, and Cultures. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

Wexler, B. (2008). Brain and culture: Neurobiology, ideology, and social change. The MIT Press.