In thinking about the benefits of adding social to formal learning for a presentation I’ll be giving, I realized that the main reason to extend social activities into formal learning is for the additional processing it provides. While there is processing individually, social interaction provides more opportunities.
The types of learning processing that matter for learning are personalizing, elaborating, and applying. All of this can be done individually. We can: restate what we understand, write up what the content means to us personally, write up how the concept could be reconsidered, and apply the knowledge to solve problems. Our goals are retention over time ’til the learning is needed, and transfer to all appropriate situations. Applying it is the most useful, but it’s a probabilistic game. We work to increase the likelihood that the learner will succeed (even with criterion-referenced approaches, some may not make it).
Those forms of processing are useful, but feedback is better. Diana Laurillard, in her book Rethinking University Teaching had a conversational model where the learner articulated their understanding after performing and then the instructor could provide feedback. This doesn’t always scale well, however. Are there other things we can do?
Well, how about if we require learners to put out their thoughts to each other, and then have them comment on the other’s thoughts? There are additional processing benefits here. First, learners are listening to other, possibly wrong or different interpretations, and they have to review their understanding of the material to provide feedback. Internalizing that monitoring of the concept is really useful to create a self-improving learner! So, just having them comment on each other is a first step.
However, having them having to negotiate a shared understanding is better. Having learners work to create a shared definition or response to an extension question means that they can’t just ‘agree to disagree’, but have to work to a compromise. That knowledge negotiation is a very powerful tool to get them to reprocess the concept and refine their understanding. Thiagi, for example, has a whole suite of training exercises that are specifically design to get learners working together to reprocess information.
And, if we are after meaningful skill shifts (and we should be), then having them actually apply the knowledge to solve a problem or create a response to a contextualized performance should be our ultimate task. Here, learners have to work together to determine not only their understanding, but how it applies to a particular circumstance, committing as a team to their solution. With the right amount of ambiguity in the process, learners will have to wrestle with the issues to create a response.
The outcomes from social learning extend and augment individual processing in ways that make the material more memorable. They not only have to create a response, but they have internal cycles of feedback and refinement that are more than any realistic cycle of assignment and formal feedback can provide. And, typically, the only cost besides social media is the ability to develop meaningful tasks.
Look, we know that information dump and check doesn’t work. Processing does. Processing together is more engaging and more effective, and usually quite cost effective. What more do you want?
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