Learning, according to Vygotsky is a social endeavour. It occurs as a result of our interactions with others, within our environment and through an accumulation of contextualised experiences. We learn by watching others, by the immediacy of feedback in social settings and from the modelling of learned behaviours that we experience. When we are young we learn through play, through exploration and experimentation. Learning is natural and there are few barriers to our explorations. As we grow we increasingly rely on others for guidance, as exemplars and for feedback. We move from relying on our parents as the focus of our social world to an increasingly enlarged and networked social landscape. Entering school brings a host of new opportunities and connections. Learning becomes formalised and control shifts away from us as the sole arbiters of what we attend to as we engage with externally set learning priorities. As the formal education we receive continues, so too does the informal social learning that we engage with and that shapes our identities and understandings of our place in the world. Our priorities for learning are in a constant state of flux between the demands of our formalised learning endeavours and our social learning as members of networked communities.
The social world in which we live has in recent years been transformed, expanded and exploded to a global scale. Where once our community was dictated by the scope of our physical connections, we today have the possibility to be connected on a near limitless scale. The opportunities for those who actively seek an expanded learning community are immense. Ideas generated in isolation may rapidly spread. Knowledge can be seamlessly shared, refined, expanded and distorted by the networks we create through our social circles. Our devices bring access to information on an unprecedented scale and we have the tools to add our voice to the collective wisdom. We are able to learn across borders, across oceans and cultures.
The challenges that this globally connected world brings are immense. We have access to so much information that our capacity to filter, process and respond is overwhelmed. We live in bubbles and rely on others to filter our world view by means we little understand. Our understanding of how to learn in this globally connected world is limited by our experience of learning. Our formal education has led us to believe that learning is something given to us. We are one step removed from the process of planning and regulating our learning for so much of our lives as learners that we become dependent on educators. We have powerful tools at our disposal and yet make poor use of them. Networks which should bring us closer together are used to divide and segregate. Instead of enhancing our collective understanding we are confronted by the challenges of alternate facts and fake news. We have an abundance of information but seemingly little wisdom and little understanding of who we may trust and how we may find truth. We need to be shown how to live and learn within the affordances of our globally connected communities and how to take charge of our learning.
Our students have never known a time when their social network was constrained by their physical locality. They take for granted mobile communications, social networks and ubiquitous access to the internet. In their social lives, they have never experienced the constraints of a land-line telecommunications system, never been restricted by long distance calls, never known a time without on demand media. They take Facebook and video chat for granted, watch YouTube not television, shop online and publish their thoughts to world rather than refrigerator door. Only at school in their formalised learning are they required to disconnect, switch off and learn in isolation from their extended network. It should then not be surprising that they grow up with a poor understanding of how to utilise their social networks as tools for powerful learning.
In place of asking our students to switch off we need to show them how to use their networked communities as a source of knowledge. To empower them as media critics and creators who use the tools as their disposal to effect change. Learning needs to be placed inside the social world in which our students live. At the same time, we need to provide them with the tools and cognitive resources to thrive in this world. Just as we learn to live in our physical communities through experience, through exploration and play we need to learn to live in our globally connected online worlds. Just as we have models for learning in the physical world we require models for learning in our digitaly connected worlds. We need the safety of the sandbox, the caring guidance of the “more knowledgable other” to show us the way around. We need places to safely make mistakes and missteps and the opportunities to learn from experience. This requires teachers who are social contractors with expertise and experience in navigating a globally connected reality.
Learning is a social endeavour. Schools need to understand that for our students the social landscape has changed. Rather than turning away from this reality we need to understand what it means and what our children need to know and learn to safely maximise the opportunities it brings.
By Nigel Coutts