Back to school - so what role for social learning?

US National Archives Lady Bird Johnson Visiting a Classroom for Project Head Start 1966 
In between teaching classes, interesting posts about Ed-Tech float past me on the web and sometimes something hits a nerve. At the moment I am teaching in a school that has been going through a two year process of improvement and professional development, so I get to reflect a bit on things when I read.

I feel like I have been priviledged to observe and learn from this process as a contract member of staff. One of the key issues for example that we have identified recently as a problem for the school is the danger of breeding passive learners. We see too many kids come in from Primary, hitting adolescence and struggling to engage in school. This is not a new problem and it is not just our problem at all. So, I have tried to reflect on how we work around this, how we can try to tackle it when it comes to technology.

I recently read an article on this topic via InformED - arguing that social learning not more social media was what schools need. In the article from Open Colleges it suggests that a certain ideal of individualism is growing as a trend in society in general and has slowly worked its way into our education systems. This is not a new argument. In fact it is also one put forward in comparative education debates. The unshakable emphasis on child-centered learning within Western education projects often set in developing world contexts, tends often to foster ostensibly more 'Western' forms of education which often may not be as successful in those contexts.

The link between individual or private benefits to education vs societal ones has also been more sharply brought into focus with recent editorials from the Economist. In 'America's New Aristocracy' and 'An Hereditary Meritocracy' the writers argue that increasingly this is damaging social mobility in America. As the importance of intellectual capital grows in the knowledge economy, priviledge has also become increasingly heritable. The children of the rich are now more than ever increasingly well-suited and more likely to be earning more. There is also an interesting commentary on these articles in Hacker News.

The article however by Saga Briggs, titled 'Social Learning Is More Than Just Social Media: Crafting An Effective Strategy' reflects simply on the notion that education in America in her view is becoming 'more índividualistic'.

Saga is clear in tracing this issue back to Western philosphocial roots, refering to Rousseau and Locke and quoting Hargreaves' 'Sociological Critique of Individualism in Education', in which he suggests that:

“The child-centered movement in education stemming from the work of Dewey, buttressed by a psychology grounded in Freud or (more often) in Piaget, is merely one floriferous branch of a sturdier tree.”

She goes further to point out the scale of the problem from the point of policy-making refering to some evidence from the USA, which shows that a clear majority of those interviewed in 49 in-depth interviews with Americans from New England and southern California agreed on three points:
  1. The purpose of education is to serve individuals.
  2. Individuals and families are responsible for educational outcomes, in the form of both successes and failures.
  3. Learning occurs through individual interactions with teachers.
It then goes on to explain what it refers to as the 'individualist fallacy' that is ubiquitous in many Ed-tech and online learning spaces. This it opposes to the ideals of social learning refering to Bandura's work, and develops an argument around 'building a culture of service'.

The article then goes on to mention how we need to focus on designing social learning with technology, instead of designing more ways to use social media in education. The point may seem subtle but it is key. The writer, Saga Briggs suggests a number of outcomes that she attributes to 'social learning':

- Confidence Through Collaboration
- Connecting the Disconnected
- Motivating the Aimless
- Accelerating Action

My gut reaction is at first to agree, in part at least.
Einstein put this fairly succinctly - insanity, he said: "is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results". For me the only fault in this well-argued piece is the fact that all the examples given in the article for the outcomes of social learning simply refer us to how more social learning can occur with technology. I think that more social learning full stop is a good idea, whether is involves technology or not.

My take-away here seems to be the suggestion that we use more technology to solve the problems being created by..... technology? Accepting Saga's point made from the beginning that we should point the finger first at the 'índividualistic fallacy' that is driving education technology in the wrong direction, she is suggesting we should not blame the technology itself. Schools may lag behind technology, but it is not simply up to them to adapt to the technology - designers need to create useful things that we actually need for learning.

So is it true that individualism has worked its way into our schools and technology is to blame? Isn't it more true to say that we are pressuring schools and teachers to do this anyway, and the technology is just a part of that wider process? To what extent has the 'individualistic fallacy' worked its way into schools in the UK via technology? This is all very debatable and depends on the context and how the technolgy is being used.

I think there is every reason to believe the opposite in fact could be true and that those driving forward the 'individualistic fallacy' will find that schools are used to dealing with this pressure from outside. If you look at current debates in the UK around the hollowing out of the NHS by private business and the clashes between communities and academy trusts administering their schools - questions appear to be looming on the horizon. In short, my point is that this is probably a wider issue than just a couple of Ed-Tech companies driving sales or a misplaced use of social media in schools.

How can we celebrate the ability of schools to resist this trend? Schools are a place to go if you want to better understand the tensions created by the 'individualistic fallacy' in societies. In schools by and large we do not inculcate youth to measure themselves by Facebook, and all over the world we still teach them as groups and not as individuals. Schools frankly have not changed a great deal in a long time in some senses, while the orgnanisation of learning on the other hand certainly has.

In schools we still get to play out the dilemmas posed by our values (democratic or otherwise) - our roles as citizens and in short we replicate a vision for society. So our students in the UK learn to recognise how their opinions are being shaped by the media, how the world is also driven by power and influence, and they seek to learn values that will hold them together and support their success. They do this together in class and online. This does not require that they first quantify themselves into isolated 'personalities' in a void on social media, or that we denigrate or hollow out values of collaboration, self-reliance and respect in the process. Any attack on this process it is an attack on the ability of schools to transfer knowledge and values to the next generation which is a key role and function for them in society.

The danger of this resistence might be that in the process we are failing to adapt - we are engaging students with too few of the tools they need to succeed in the future, which risks being vastly different to how we live today.

Internet Archive "The dancing mouse : a study in animal behavior" (1907)

It's not individualism - It's behaviouralism, silly.


The article features a leading image which states that 'Learning Is Not Purely Behavioural, It is a Process That Takes Plance In A Social Context' - I assume that this point is one that someone wished to hold up and place on classroom wall somewhere at some interjecture. Saga Briggs however seems to be suggesting that we are slipping back into a kind of 1950's retro-comeback for behaviouralism, referencing the work of Skinner in the article.

Behaviouralist thinking is not so much in evidence in schools these days, but we do all seem unwittingly have become the lab rats of behavioural science more broadly. If you accept for example the ideas of the writer of a new book called 'Social Physics' by Alex Pentland at MIT which suggests that in a 'data-driven' society we need to build a predictive, computational theory of human behavior in order to engineer better social systems.

What is more true for schools is that in this new 'data age' we do have to compete in practice with the diversity of sources for student motivation, the demands for greater efficiency and the scientific analysis of behaviour and outcomes. It is true that we spend plenty of time thinking about how to engineer better learning. This is also necessary because we need to keep up with how learning is changing in its social and cognitive aspects.

We often will fail to reach students with old methods of teaching, when students are moving towards new ways of learning. The idea of a fixed zone of proximal development has dramatically shifted in a context for learning that is blended between the online and real world. There is another dimension to my social learning that develops when my classroom and my friends are in locations all over the planet, when I could ask any question to an expert for help via twitter / google in seconds.

Similarly, we mold machines to adapt to the brain and to learn alongside us, tailoring learning to our personal needs and strengths. This is a challenge, and a gap between learning in schools and the reality outside of schools. If schools are filled with inflexible systems for delivery that ignore the sources of intrinsic motivation and challenge, then individuals struggle to find their own spirit to be part of a society that cares and that deals with shared responsabilities. We breed passivity and students will not engage.

The counter-argument is possibly in fact that we need more individualism, more characters - but not the kind of atomistic individualism that society everywhere is pushing on us from the outside. Some might suggest we need to teach different ideas about individuality and independance, and support students to learn different values in the process. We certainly need to avoid simply forcing people to fit their own ways of learning into our tiny boxes, as this will not resolve the problem. This is really just another way of selling damaged goods, offering people a broken choice between either becoming disengaged drones or entrepreneurial selves in order to adapt to the society of the future. So the solution should be to adapt to be inclusive of more diverse solutions which do allow schools to find their own ways of crossing this gap.

Police Dog - State Library of New South Wales

Are we even listening ?


My worry here is in fact when faced with this gap, we fail to listen. None of the arguments above are in any sense new or original. Most of this has been said before and the same arguments seem destined to be repeated until something gives.  

There is a gap between what people are asking for and the kinds of solutions offered to schools by Ed-Tech companies. Governments seem to make policy on education without designing it in the interests of any kind of social movement for change, without clear inspiration behind them from teachers and students and senior leaders of education. At least in the UK we have allowed schools to make large investments in a very broad and diverse range of technology in partnership with large corporations. But I personally do not see much consulation with the end-users, and that is a problem.

An interesting post that dealt with this recently at the same time was this one from Jeff Dunn which contains a neat visualisation of a survey of 100 North American and European teachers into major trends currently being used or contemplated by teachers and education experts. It shows quite clearly that many teachers are not particularly interested at this point in hearing about interactive whiteboards, digital games or mobile learning. This is most likely to be because most have been using interactive whiteboards for years, digital educational games are not necessarily new, and mobile learning is out of the question in schools where students are not allowed to use mobile devices.

The striking thing for me is what it is that teachers agree they are most interested in:

- Web-based tools for Educational Purposes
- Online Educational Resources
- Digital Literacy

I would hazard a bet that most of those teachers chose these answers because they reflect their real needs, areas they perceive as important for their practice as teachers. I would also hazard a bet that these choices also reflect a demand for better and more accessible forms of social learning with technology. Not more gadgets.

In fact I think that there is plenty of evidence to say that social and emotional learning is one of the key 'technologies' that teachers can leverage in order to help students to cope with an increasing sense of isolation as they venture into the social void of disembodied online independent life-long learners. At least this is one of the core strategies that Edutopia, a charitable foundation in the USA dealing with Ed-Tech has set out for its future work.

Finally making a similar point but in a different way, Jackie Gernstein Ed.D in her recent blog post places this same discussion into the context of psychology with reference to Maslows hierarchy of needs - discussing ways to link these with technology. Her diagram of this below also simply suggests that most of all we need to stop and think about what we are designing technology for and how it is being used. She suggests that:

"When technology is integrated intentionally with foresight and with intention of addressing specific growth-oriented goals, it increases the potential to help students learn, develop, and grow in unique ways"

Creative Commons License Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs CC BY-NC-ND
Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs by Jackie Gernstein Ed.D -