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Social Learning

The title of this post is arbitrary. I am simply choosing two of the most frequent words in a long trail of thoughts shared in Twitter. I transcribed the tweets (as seen from my end @fceblog) in a wiki page for reference and context.

Several questions emerged in that Twitter exchange:

-Is all learning social?
-How can learning be not social?
-Is social learning mediated by language?
-Is reading a book an example of social learning?
-Do learning nodes need to be human?
-Is language social? Is language socially constructed?

This post is not about answers. This is a post about the roads my mind goes through when I approach thinking about these issues. I cannot offer definite answers. Truth is something we attempt to aproximate through different learning grids. I just hope to be transparent about what I bring, as a node, to my personal learning network.

Language and clarification of terms can reveal subtle hidden differences in the way we view our networked learning experiences. I think we cannot underestimate the importance of trying to be clear about terms. Having a blog, a will to share, a number of coincidences and lots of enthusiasm with the topic is far from saying we talk about the same things. We often assume shared basic knowledge. Perhaps this belief partially springs from being in contact with some people for so long. This might be the drawback of echo chambers and preaching to choirs. However, the bell makes a new sound every time we touch it.

For the sake of simplification as well as to getting started in conversation, we are naturally inclined to take for granted the meaning of words such as:
-social
-learning
-language
-connection
-conversation
-reading

The idea is not to be prescriptive trying to define them. The point to me has little to do with finding the best definition, but simply with identifying what we mean when we loosely conjure up so many concepts. I am interested in finding contradictions between what I claim to know and what I actually believe. I find these intersections are a fertile learning ground.

As a teacher of English as a foreign language, my learning grid has been influenced by studies of general linguistics, applied linguistics, literature and translation. I believe that good reading is very much like a conversation, whether the author is present or not. It is a kind of internal, unique dialogue where the reader is a co-creator of a text; that is, the meaning of that particular text. Widdowson, as cited by Bauri, resonates here:

"According to Widdowson, reading is an act of participation in a discourse between interlocutors. It is regarded not as reaction to a text but as interaction between writer and reader mediated through the text. This interaction is governed by the 'co-operative process', where encoding is a matter of providing directions and decoding a matter of following them. In this interactional exchange what is actually expressed is vague, imprecise and insignificant, it is satisfactory only because it provides the interlocutors with directions to where they can find and create meanings for themselves. Widdowson suggests that this kind of creativity is not exclusive to reading but is a necessary condition for the interpretation of any discourse. Spoken as well as written discourse, operate in accordance with this co-operative principle (Widdowson, 1979, pp. 174-175)."

The mention of learning happening in conversations or interactions is generally linked to social networking and the connectivist learning that occurs among nodes. However, to affirm that learning happens in conversations also points to the idea that learning involves some negotiation of meaning or object being learnt in aconstructivist fashion. Re-reading our Twitter exchange, I think I find a tendency to explain new phenomena with old terminology. There seems to be a stretching of a pragmatic definition of knowledge derived from conversation to explain learning as we experience it enabled by technology. This suddenly sounds to me as old things in new ways. We do not voluntary construct serendipitous knowledge, which simply emerges.

The crux of the contradiction is probably a confusion between constructivist and maturationalist views of knowledge creation. A reading of connectivist views quickly points to several analogies with neuroscience, not pragmatics. If learning happens within our brains, we cannot hurry to equal learning with social.


"Research (particularly in the field of neuroscience) is beginning to indicate that the primary learning component of our brains is pattern recognition, not information processing. Stephen Downes (2005) extends this concept by offering a challenging vision that learning is not a direct causal interaction between teacher and learner. Replacing the causal model of learning (need highlighted, instructional intervention planned, measurement enacted) with 'network phenomenon':

“But with online learning comes not only a much wider, more diverse network, but also the idea that (a) the network may be based on non-physical (or emergent) properties, (b) that the individual may choose to belong to or not belong to a network, and (c) that an individual may assume multiple identities or memberships in multiple networks. The theory of distributed representation has a profound implication for pedagogy, as it suggests that learning (and teaching, such as it is) is not a process of communication, but rather, a process of immersion.”

This explanation of learning in a digital age is far from equating learning with social. I would be inclined to think that what we broadly describe as social learning is simply not connectivist. To begin with, the concept of social is elusive. Before going to the web to find a definition that may help us prove a point, I think we have to examine first what we are actually saying. In our Twitter exchange, the term social clearly includes two components:
a) people
b) language use
We are unarguably saying social means interactions mediated by language.

The term learning is also tricky. Do we mean that only people (alive) learn? Then, books do not. Do we mean that cells in our brains learn to make new connections? Then, the social component of learning is a trigger but it is different from affirming that (all) learning is social.

We are leaving out of the discussion any learning that does not happen in contact with people talking to us. We are assuming that language -with its social exchanges- mediates all the learning. This is not true every time. We learn essential things like eating before we can actually utter a word or fully comprehend our parents language. What is important to bear in mind is that we have unawarely decided to limit the object of our talk. So the learning we are concerned with is one that occurs between people and mediated by language.

Connectivism seems to suffice its arguments leaving linguistic aspects outside the discussion. However, there are some similarities between what learn fromChomsky's studies on universal grammar and the notion of personal knowledge as presented by Downes in Buenos Aires, Argentina. According to Chomsky, no amount of talking and teaching can make a child learn the principles and parameters of language. The distinction between internalized language in the brain as opposed to a particular language in use is key. So is the notion of personal and social knowledge distinction in connectivism (Slide 17). Learning, though socially triggered, is not a social outcome. Performance in a test does not necessarily show learning evidence. Learning needs immersion and exposure to models. Learning uses something external to the self to build an internal capability. Learning is mediated in the conversation, by language in use. Learning is not an object socially negotiated, but rather a new capacity (neural connection) in our brains.

Bringing the concept of language into the picture does not make a good argument in favour of social learning, because language is not inherently social. What is the difference between universal language in the brain and a particular language (English or German)? The level at which the abstraction is made. Now, abstractions like these are made for a purpose. Teachers may disagree with the need to focus on unobservable capabilities in the brain and prefer to focus on observable classroom outcomes. In my opinion, the oversimplification that learning in a digital age could be analogous to being a foreign language speaker and going on to say there are natives and immigrants is a good example of not making abstractions at the right level.

In spite of all this, I will most probably continue teaching my students with the metaphor that we can have a dialogue with the text. It seems to be an effective resource for a purpose. The danger lies in confusing the map with the territory, or abandoning cartography because we are comfortable with one map (ours of course).

To me, more than arguing language is social, what is useful for a teacher to understand is that the capability to develop language use to the level of Shakespeare is simply within human reach. We all inherit that capacity. Teachers have power to hinder inborn capabilities or let them emerge and grow. Certainly teaching has been a systematic attempt at controlling the construction of learning in contexts rich with language use. The problem with formal teaching is that it overlooks the reality that within networks knowledge can emerge quite unplanned. Through teaching we can collect evidence that learning is social. What we cannot explain observing teachers experiences or conversations in groups is the amount of learning that happens outside those interactive contexts.

Teaching is definitely social. Learning is probably not.


Now I want to read how Bud Hunt challenges my thinking.

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