Adventures in Learning: Is Almost All Learning Social?

Previously, I had talked about the nature of wisdom as being centrally located in the realm of the social and less in the head.  Again, as Merriam et al explain, "Moreover, wisdom seems to consist of the ability to move away from absolute truths to be reflective, and to make sound judgments for the common good related to our daily existence, whatever our circumstances" (Pg 356).

As we've delved into thinking about learning, I can't help but think about learning as almost entirely social in many capacities.  I do believe a child left to its own devices (only given the necessary food) is likely to make some sense of the world (i.e. learn) but I tend to think that its sense-making is significantly diminished without the social element.  After all, if we have these mirror neurons, they are very much there in part for us to learn and understanding the world by watching others. Human babies, compared to many other species, are born prematurely without the innate knowledge much of the animal kingdom seems born with.   Thus, much of their learning is socially constructed.

Ok, some will think, children and adults still get to a point where their learning is self-directed and derived within.  Yes.  But is it really?  The baby turns into a toddler and eventually a full fledged adult.  All the while, the learning continues to be mirroring those around from smiles, to sounds, to walking.  Would a child ever learn to walk if it was not surrounded by upwardly mobile adults--witnessing 1000s of times humans practicing the act of standing up in the 1-2 years it takes the child to develop the strength and determine it.

But as the child develops there's a continual social context in which it learns.  In fact, it takes a witness for proof that a child has learned something (talking/walking only count when an adult is present).  However, it's when the child begins to learn language that it truly descends into substantive social learning.

What is language: a means of communication between two or more entities (real or artificial; we have human languages and also computer languages).  Language is grounded in the social space between two entities.

Social Learning and the Child

Back to the child.  The child learns and integrates that language system and it becomes a fundamental way of making sense of the world--so much so, that throughout the lifespan of that child, it will continue to use language as a central part of its thinking process (to be clear, I know we don't just think in language, but a substantive portion of our thought process is language based).  Every time, we engage in language internally or externally, we are invoking the social world.

This is not just an abstract, convenient, or interesting way to think about learning and the social realm.  Language is the means by which we categorize and make sense of the universe.  Certain languages privilege certain words (more adjectives than adverbs), relationships (the ways words can be constructed in relation to one another), tones (emphasis and accents on certain words change meaning) and even ideologies (languages that create a pronoun system based on gender).  Language shapes thought--we cannot necessarily think of (make sense of or recognize) things that are not connected to a cohesive use of language.   Thus, even when we are in our own heads (for instance, while reading this post), learning and making sense of the world around us--if we are using language, we are relying on our social relationship to learn.

"But no one hears me when I use words in my head" might be the protest.  But you're still engaging in dialogue with yourself.  That is, it can still be social in nature even if that dialogue is internal.  We see this happen all the time--we debate ourselves (some even play themselves in chess), we compete against ourselves (Tetris--ohhhh, Tetris), and we engage ourselves.

So if language is a social construct and we're constantly using it, isn't most learning social in nature?  If words are transmitting of thoughts, who are we transmitting to when we use words in our head?



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