#WorkingOutLoud on Social Collaboration in Learning

I’m sharing work on Social Learning this week, and as i prepare, am reminding myself that Social Learning is not simply a methodology for finding ‘the’ answer, but rather a developmental approach to finding many different answers, and the building of a diverse capability to do so. And in that understanding lies a hint as to the applicability of this learning approach: in some contexts, Social Learning adds great value, whilst in others it simply adds ambiguity or noise.

In some contexts, we know what we need. To stop a car you can apply the brakes. Or in a manual transmission you can change down and rely on engine braking. Or i guess you could hit a tree, which would also stop you. But in general, the answers are relatively known, and ‘learning’ consists of being told these, and perhaps trying them out (or avoiding them). Both experience, and conversations within a community, may help us to figure out which approach to use at any given time, but the core aspects of the ‘answer’ are known.

If i were driving in snow for the first time, i could look to read about what to do, to Google it, or i could just ask a friend who lives in Norway. I guess we could say that the activity, of stopping the car, is held within a context (whether we need to stop fast or slow, intentionally or otherwise).

Formal learning, where we capture and codify the ‘how’ can be good for building common capability. Social Learning, where we explore experience and context, can be good for building a more individual and generalised capability. If i talk to a group of rally drivers, who have experience of stopping cars in all sorts of environmental conditions, chances are that i will pick something up.

In this, we recognise further aspects of Social Learning: that it’s a social activity, and that ‘chances are’ is a vague phrase. ‘Chances are’ that i will learn if i have access, and the social capital necessary to earn the right. Social Currencies such as ‘trust’ and ‘belonging’ may come into place. If the drivers do not trust me, they are unlikely to share.

In this example, to stop the car, there are clear elements of the factual, almost mechanistic, at play. But in other contexts, this is less true, and hence learning may benefit from being more Socially constructed. For example: i learn more from talking to my friend at the Garden Centre about which plants are suited to my garden (and ability) than i do from Google. It’s not that i could not research and find the answers, just that i find it works really well as a dialogue over time. Dialogue is a natural form of our enquiry.

But both of these examples have, to a degree, related to knowledge and specific skills, as though the ‘purpose’ of learning is to unearth a hidden treasure. In fact, learning can be viewed partly as the ability to explore: we learn, in quite a pragmatic sense, to learn. We pick up strategies for collaboration, we figure out how to reciprocate and share, we weave ourselves into social structures, and we learn how to access this tacit, tribal knowledge that resides within them.

We earn our way into the social structures within which we learn.

So Social Learning can help provide contextual information around ‘facts’ (making us more effective), and it can help us develop our actual ability to learn through social collaboration (connecting us more closely to knowledge and capability).

But what else?

Whilst Formal Learning trades in knowledge artefacts and prescribed ways of acting, Social Learning can itself create knowledge artefacts as well as support the evolution of context in which those artefacts are held.

Or to put it another way: through Social Collaboration we can sway or adapt socially moderated aspects of the Learning Ecosystem, and it turns out that this is a broader domain than we may imagine.

One of the dominant moderators of individual action is the sense of social consequence from those who surround us: we tend to act in ways that conform and avoid activity that will invoke consequence from others in our tribe. To an extent this is good, in that it holds us together, but in other ways it’s bad, as we can avoid asking questions that need to be asked, or simply avoid the curiosity to take non standard routes through knowledge, or it may discourage us from a trans-disciplinary perspective, trapping us instead within legacy knowledge domains. Our very coherence may dampen down curiosity or, more specifically, curiosity outside the established frameworks. But established frameworks are not simply structures of excellence, they can be structures of failure too, as our broader ecosystem changes. If we do not fracture and adapt our modes of understanding, we will become ever more deluded as to what we need to learn.

Through dialogue, and diverse contexts of participants, and if we weave an effective structure of membership and belonging, with trust, then we may find the ability to explore alternate perspectives, and to hence prototype a greater range of ways of knowing the world around us. Not driving to consensus, but exploring difference.

This mode of knowing, of learning, allows for fewer hard and codified ‘truths’, so much as an ongoing narrative and dialogue of sense making and curiosity. It’s a lighter foothold on certainty, and hence will require us not only to evolve how we view learning, but also the assessment thereof. If we ‘own’ the truth, it’s easy to say that someone has it wrong. If we let slip our grasp of truth, or cease to see it as a singular artefact, then perhaps we need to assess more based upon the strategies and mechanisms of sense making, and quality of critical appraisal and thought?

About julianstodd

Author, Artist, Researcher, and Founder of Sea Salt Learning. My work explores the context of the Social Age and the intersection of formal and social systems.
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