Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons user ArtaxerxesMost of us remember many lessons we learned from others in our early childhood, both in the home and outside. We then started school and learned from teachers, but also by watching, playing, and talking with our friends. As we grew, lessons in school became more complex and required more time for homework. It may have been done alone or with others, but the social connection was still strong: teachers directed and facilitated the learning, and we often shared answers or talked about homework with peers. It may even be difficult to remember any single childhood milestone that didn’t involve someone else pointing the way, showing us how, sharing insight, or encouraging us.

This is not to say that everything we know or can do was learned socially. We may read a book and strive to find our own meaning. We may follow a manual to effect a repair we’ve never attempted before. And there’s little doubt that most of us would learn survival skills if stranded on a deserted island. This is experiential learning; in these cases it’s happening without deliberately interacting with others.

Learning by experience can be quite effective. Applying what we learn, when we need to learn it, and learning from inevitable mistakes helps make that learning, “stick.” But while effective, it isn’t terribly efficient on its own. Returning to the examples above, what we glean from reading alone is based on our own understanding and in the context of what we already know. Discussing with others brings different backgrounds, broader perspectives, and deeper meaning. Following a manual to make a needed repair, there’s still trial and error involved. Having someone more knowledgeable about the task at hand would provide a master-apprentice situation and a better outcome on the first attempt. And if stranded on an island, we may eventually learn how to catch fish without tools or that the green berries make us sick, but we will experience much discomfort. Would we not prefer to have someone by our side on the island to show us how to fish, or to warn us that the green berries are poisonous?

But then, learning is an inherently social activity. Learning alone may be effective, but very inefficient. That’s not just my opinion, it’s shared by many and is the conclusion of volumes of research.1-4 Dealing with the concept of the social mediation of individual learning, Gavriel Salomon and David Perkins concluded:

Far from social learning being a questionable appendix to solo learning, solo learning itself is a suspect phenomenon. Thus, as some would argue, in reality there is no solo learning to speak of. Virtually anything one learns, according to the socio-cultural view, comes deeply embedded in a cultural context, involves culturally informed and laden tools, and figures as part of a range of highly social activity systems, however alone the learner may be at particular moments.4

The trouble with a lot of workplace training

A lot of workplace programs were based on the, “university model.” Instructor-led sessions conveyed knowledge from “experts” and were supported by slides. It’s a familiar and comfortable approach, but did we fail to recognize this was not representative of the complete university learning experience when we adapted it for the workplace? When professors finished their lectures, the real learning began in study groups and teaching assistants’ office hours. When students ran into trouble with homework, they asked others for help. When we were unsure of our paper, we’d ask someone else to read it.

512px-Study_in_group_in_the_HHS_libraryThe trouble with much of formal workplace learning isn’t so much that we forgot to include social activities in programs, but that we didn’t recognize that prolonged social interactions surrounding shared problems were actually the “special sauce” that would make programs efficient and effective. The classroom experience itself is social, bringing together students who want to learn with the experts they can learn from. But workplace training often begins and ends in the classroom. After connecting with other employees, each participant returns to his or her work. There is often no homework and no shared problems to solve with others. The result is the converse of learning alone: it’s social but not experiential. It’s efficient in some ways, but it’s not effective.

Elearning products have the potential to be far worse when they virtually eliminate social interaction entirely. They are, however, standardized and consistent. By reaching employees at their desktops without need for travel, they are also quite efficient from a business perspective. From the employee perspective, however, their very nature makes them inherently inefficient and ineffective. Developing good elearning programs requires great finesse to mitigate both issues, a challenge met by only the best designers.

Is this an unfair indictment of Learning and Development organizations?

To be fair, I’ve made several generalizations about workplace learning. The reality is that some organizations have developed exemplary social learning programs. As a loyal Starbucks customer, I see their barista training as one such example. Nearly twenty years ago, I saw how employees (“partners”) were sent to off-site, week-long barista training. As technology improved, making the operation of the industrial espresso machines easier, training moved into each store. Today I regularly witness employee training in action using a master-apprentice model. It seems to be both effective and efficient at transferring skills, knowledge, and even attitudes about the Starbucks customer experience.

I’m also aware of many social activities and experiences being added to workplace training programs, but they seem to be few and far between. Online training products are increasingly surrounded by social media to allow employees to interact, but this is often an afterthought and not purposeful. None of this really makes workplace learning more effective or efficient.

What we really need is to embrace the reality that learning is inherently social, that social activities help make learning more efficient, and experiential activities make it more effective. When we design new training to address performance needs, we must remember to embed relevant work challenges to be solved collaboratively by our participants. Done well, the implementation of that design can then be done in a number of ways (including elearning) to meet the needs of the organization.  As Clark Quinn says,

“If you get the design right, there are lots of ways to implement it. And, as a corollary, if you don’t get the design right, it doesn’t matter how you implement it.”5
~ Clark Quinn

Social interaction with application and experience must be an integral part of the design.

Thanks for reading!

  1. De Vries, R. “Piaget’s social theory.” Educational Researcher, 26(2) (1997): p. 4-17
  2. Lave, J., & Wenger, E. “Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation.” Cambridge, UK; New York, Port Chester, Melbourne, Sydney: Cambridge University Press. (1991).
  3. Bandura, A. “Human agency in social cognitive theory.” American Psychologist, 44 (1989): p. 1175-1184
  4. Perkins, David, and Gavriel Solomon. “Individual and Social Aspects of Learning.” Review of Research in Education 23 (1988).
  5. Quinn, Clark. “Learnlets | Clark Quinn’s Learnings about Learning (The Official Quinnovation Blog).” Learnlets » Shiny Objects and Real Impact. N.p., 9 Jan. 2015. Web. 21 Jan. 2015.


I Believe that Learning is Inherently Social — 1 Comment

  1. Very glad that I ran across this piece. It really is true that learning and social interaction go hand in hand, and the big challenge is selling that concept to powers-that-be when the time comes to OK the expenditure. As a trainer and a learner both, I’ve seen repeatedly that real understanding flares up when students start developing their own examples and methods of performing the task being trained and they start teaching each other, while the trainer at the head of the table stops and observes. We just don’t get that kind of performance doing solo learning, and rarely doing distance learning.

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