Learning as Social Practice

Education is not about filling up a bucket, but rather about lighting a fire. In this digital day and age, all of the information anyone could ever want is at the touch of their fingertips. Say, “Okay Google,” or “Siri,” and a voice-over will even read you the answers to your desired questions. For that reason, confining learning to the old principals of teaching information for the sake of acquisition makes little to no sense. Learning has become more of an organic process through the use of social spaces and social interaction. This is a belief that I have had for a very long time as a learner and more recently as the result of being an expeditionary learning teacher. So when I started to read the article titled, “Social learning, ‘push’ and ‘pull’, and building platforms for collaborative learning,” I felt right at home with the message of “embed[ing] learning in activity and make[ing] deliberate use of the social and physical context [for learning.]” If you are new to this idea, the premise is that in order to make learning meaningful and transform students into life-long adaptive learners, teaching needs to move away from teaching abstract ideas with no context to providing students with authentic experiences in which to enhance the material being learned and which also provide students with opportunities to develop 21st century social and digital skills. How does this actually look in a classroom setting? It depends. To give you an idea of how this can look in my classroom setting, I will draw upon my own experiences teaching math in an expeditionary way. This past spring, I transformed my unit of functions, sequences, and series to include an artistic and a historical component. I taught students how to make beadwork using ancient and modern South African styles. While students were beading, they were also actively participating in the concepts of inputs, outputs, counting, finding and making patterns, and discovering the difference between algebraic, geometric, and exponential growth. On a weekly basis, I also brought in art historians to bead with us and tell stories about where the math behind the artworks comes from. It was a total social immersion for my students. They learned early and often that they could not work in isolation if they were to be successful in their work. They were provided real chances to fail, flail, and help each other find success at their own levels of learning. Students also learned to be adaptive in their thinking as they found ways to make their beadwork even more complex yet still follow the mathematics. Meaning making spiked for my students and in that their levels of understanding the math concepts also peaked higher than I’d ever seen previously teaching this unit with word problems and examples alone. This is an example of what expeditionary learning can look like, but also in many ways it is the kind of social learning that this article talks about.

An important thing to note about social systems of learning is that its not just about being around other people and engaging in activities together. It’s about being able to take on an identity within the system of social learning. Creating spaces where students can assume multiple roles and access the work through multiple modalities plays a crucial part in creating a successful social system. The article touches on this by stating, “It is difficult to understand your place and role within a system without the opportunity to take on an identity and engage in activity within the system. Nowadays the most important title a student can assume is that of an “expert novice” – an expert at continually learning anew and in depth. As the article states, being an expert novice requires “deep learning,” the kind that “can generate ‘real understanding, the ability to apply one’s knowledge and even to transform that knowledge for innovation.” This changing world requires adaptive learners and thinkers and social learning spaces is a way to get this to happen naturally.

Something that I really respected about this article that few articles are willing to admit is that while there is an incredible amount of potential for Web 2.0 platforms and services to create social learning, “it is important also to consider examples that are primarily face to face, local, and may presuppose little or no internet access whatsoever. These, after all, are the original spaces of social learning.” Social learning can be a digital adventure or a face to face. Either will be effective in creating the learning environment conducive to encouraging students to be adaptive thinkers and learners.

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