Learning with and from Others

learning from othersMy editor here on the Litmos blog, Samantha Lang, commented that she had been hearing quite a bit about “group versus individual learning” the previous week at a learning conference, and wondered whether I had anything to say on the subject.

When have I not? Not least because it’s been rattling around in my brain of late, for reasons having to do with learning experience design.

The issues are several. First, what is social processing? How does it work? Then we want to explore how to do it. What sorts of activities can tap into this power? Finally, we want to explore when does social learning make sense. Is it all the time or are there constraints? So…

Social processing

When we are presented with learning material (hopefully as part of a learning experience), we process it. In one way. That is, we create an interpretation of what we have been exposed to. Our minds are wired that way.

We create mental models that explain the world. And, for things that are tied to our existence (what David Geary calls biologically primary), our system works pretty well. But much of what we need to learn these days is biologically secondary – things like economic systems, mathematics, legal policies, things that have been artificial constructed – and our instincts aren’t necessarily accurate.

And, importantly, once we’ve created models, they’re really hard to extinguish. When our models are proven wrong, rather than toss it aside, we’re more likely to patch it. And we have a high probability of a multiply patched but still wrong model.

When we’re interacting with others, however, we have the chance to see other interpretations of meaning. Particularly while it’s still formative. Anyone who’s ever taught has probably had the experience of finding interpretations that they never could have imagined! When we see others’ interpretations, however, we have a chance to reframe.

If we express our viewpoints, and others respond, we’re seeing their viewpoints. When we process those in light of our own, we have the chance to reflect on theirs versus ours. Such reflection provides an opportunity to enhance our interpretation. “Oh, I hadn’t thought of it that way.” It’s more like a different model we can adapt to.

If we’re collaborating, trying to mutually develop an output, we have to go further. We need to create a shared understanding of the approach to develop a shared output. Here, we need to share our different ideas, actively reconcile them, and then use that collective approach to solve the problem. That’s even richer.

This is the cognitive story. The next question is how we tap into this systematically.

How social learning works

Both approaches, just getting feedback and collaborating, are true for both informal and formal learning. In the case of informal learning, if you create a working community of practice, a learning community, you’re naturally getting these outputs. People will engage. Similarly, if you assign a team to a problem, you’re likely going to get the outputs. But not auto-magically.

A necessary component is a “culture of learning.” People won’t contribute if they don’t feel it’s safe to contribute. They’ll hold back. If you have a Miranda organization (where anything you say can and will be used against you), people aren’t likely to provide their more wild ideas. Amy Edmonson, in Teaming, talks about how you need to couple accountability with safety to optimize outcomes. With the appropriate culture, however, the benefits of such learning can flourish.

From there, your informal learning is likely to flourish. If you couple safety and accountability with a true appreciation of diversity, minds open to new ideas, and time to reflect, learning can happen. (Note: when you’re trouble-shooting, doing research, designing, etc, you don’t know the answer when you begin, so it really is learning!) From there, we want to think about how to capitalize on social learning for formal learning.

A classic approach (I’ve used it myself), is to pose a discussion question and ask learners to respond to it. Then, and this is an important component, each individual has to then comment, substantively, on another’s response. A very good feature of systems for this, by the way, is for the system to not allow anyone to see anyone else’s submission until they’ve generated their own. It’s really important for learners to have to process the material individually first, for them to have formed an interpretation, before other viewpoints are valuable. Further interaction, such as responses and a full dialog, can further enhance this sort of action – or even debate formats.

A more powerful form of this, as we can infer from the discussion of collaboration, is a group assignment. Here, a team (of a reasonable size, research typically suggests 3-5 members per team, unless there’s greater task complexity or more diversity in skillsets is required) are given an assignment to generate an output. It can be in a variety of forms: a report, a presentation, a video, a business model, the list goes on. What’s important is the task is relevant to the topic, and the processing will enhance understanding.

There are problems with this, of course. Anyone who’s kids have had group assignments has likely heard complaints about fellow students who don’t carry their weight. It is important to ensure everyone’s contributing. Again, first having everyone think alone before joining together (which is true for informal group work too) is important. Then having everyone making sure they at least understand everyone else’s contribution is essential. Making everyone responsible for being able to answer questions about the solution is one possibility. Tracking contributions via a collaborative document or a conversation record is another. You can likely think of more.

When social learning works

The final issue is when does group learning make sense. Make no mistake, social learning often requires more coordination. You have to find time for people to interact, so it’s not really an asynchronous task; (I’ve posited creating faux participants, but I think it’s more trouble than it’s worth). When is it worth the effort?

I’ll suggest the major issue is the nature of the learning. If the interpretation is fairly unambiguous, that there’s not a lot of room for misinterpretation, it’s likely not worth it. Particularly if you can pretty quickly detect any misconceptions and address them (using, of course, a multiple-choice tool that actually allows different feedback for every wrong answer).

The benefits really occur when the situation is open to much interpretation, or has far transfer. If there are many situations that are more than your learning environment can explicitly cover, you want to support abstracting. I’ve suggested, rather than trying to get people to memorize the rules, having the learners spend time in groups interpreting situations with shades of grey.

And if it’s highly flexible, with situations that change depending on context, getting a rich interpretation suggests the benefits of social learning. Or if it’s complex, and there are many steps, it’s helpful to work together to break it down and gradually get on top of the situation.

Social learning is powerful, but there are overheads that are entailed. Carefully choosing when to use it provides a powerful tool in your learning toolbox. Use your power wisely!