A Rationale for Social Learning

Intelligence has been perceived to be a cognitive activity originating the brains of an individual for generations. While there is surely a cognitive component, learning science is telling us that human brains evolved to learn from and with other brains. While methods that find students learning together continue to be contentious, it is clear that experience building knowledge in well-crafted lessons and activities is good for all brains.

Consider the situation in which I am the individual with the greatest expertise in the group. I am taking the lead in solving the problem the group faces, and my job is to convince the group that my solution is best. As I explain my solution, I must deconstruct it, then reconstruct it as I explain my solution to the group. This causes me to engage with it, strengthening my knowledge of it. If I am lucky, others will challenge me to clarify my explanation. If I am luckier, someone with less expertise than I have will ask me a question that arises from their perspective which I had not previously. Such challenges cause exerts to update their expertise to accommodate the others’ perspective, thus the individual with the greatest expertise benefits from social learning.

            Consider the situation in which I am an individual in a group who has the least expertise in the group. If As I hear and see explanations, I can make sense of it. If I ask clarifying questions, the experts fill in my gaps and they are modeling the thinking in which their solution is grounded. If I am lucky enough to be in a group that challenges the expert, I get to hear their perspectives and I see the value of asking questions.  

            Consider the situation in which none in the group has expertise in solving a problem. As the group begins the work of understanding it, it is necessary for an individual to find a connection with the problem. If I am lucky, the group will adopt a brainstorming strategy. We will benefit from each other’s’ ideas as we find similarity between the current situation and their past situation. If we are luckier still, we will have a skilled teacher who encourages our exploration, redirects misguided attempts, and helps us evaluate our solution.

            It should be noted there is no reference in this post to the “correct answer.” Some problems in the curriculum do have correct answers and presenting the best one is so that it is cognitively available is a task that is most efficient by teacher-directed instruction. Other problems require solutions to be proposed, developed, and refined, then evaluated. Those problems are the ones to study in social groups. Those are the problems humans have always solved together and they always will solve together.