The Six Imperatives of Social Learning


Note: I’m sorry that this post is longer than usual. If you stay with it till the end, it means you’re probably interested in the subject matter. Please leave a comment at the end – it will really help me during the next phase of writing.

In the book I’ve almost finished, (The Open Learning Revolution, available from all good online retailers later this year) I highlight the growing divide between the motivations to learn we have in the social space, and the  frequently less engaging learning environments we encounter in formal education and at work. My argument is that we – the learning professionals – need to recognise the drivers to learn when people are doing it because they want to, and incoporate those into the learning situations they find themselves in because they have to. Look Outside-In.

I call them the six imperatives of social learning, aka as the six ‘Do Its’:

Do It Yourself (Autonomy)

The desire to take initiative and responsibility in the social space is key is what has made social learning so compelling. We are waking up: realising that we don’t have to wait for those who govern locally or nationally to act on our behalf. There’s a lot we can do for ourselves, and it makes us feel better about ourselves, and others, when we do. It’s where self-determinism meets collaboration, accelerated by social networking tools. Clay Shirky predicted, in 2008, that we were just seeing the early impact of ‘organising without organisations’. In the years since we have seen people everywhere engaging in not just collaboration, but in taking collaborative action together.

Perhaps the two most widely-cited examples of DIY are the creation of open source software, Linux, and Wikipedia, by like-minded communities. In both instances there was, and continues to be, a freedom to contribute knowledge, irrespective of rank or status, which is then built-upon, critiqued, or corrected by others. Both produced outstanding products which the world has gratefully used, at no cost. More recently DIY is attempting to create widespread behaviour-change. We Are What We Do is a good example of the latter. Arising from a Christmas checkout book, Change The World For a Fiver – a collection of simple actions which can have social or environmental impact – We Are What We Do was, initially, an online hub, where individuals could post ideas for others to act upon. ‘Start a car pool’, ‘learn more, do more’, may not be as dramatic as protesting in Tahrir Square, but such actions have, at the time of writing, led to almost 5 million ‘actions’. We Are What We Do is now a not-for-profit ‘behaviour change company that creates ways for millions of people to do more small, good things’.

Do It Now (Immediacy)

Lillian Katz, a distinguished early childhood educator, highlights the link between immediacy and one of the most contentious labels in formal education: ‘relevance’. Katz coined the term ‘horizontal relevance’, to suggest that learning is most powerful when the learner acquires a piece of information to solve an immediate problem. This is Just-In-Time learning. It’s opposite, according to Katz, is ‘vertical relevance’, when the information might be needed at some unspecified point in the future. This form of learning is ‘Just-In-Case’ (it comes up on the test paper). Vertical relevance still determines most teaching, or work-placed training. Bored learners would sooner call it vertically irrelevant, since they often fail to see the point of what’s being taught.

There’s nothing guaranteed more to raise the hackles of a traditionalist than the R-word. They argue that we can’t always predict what we’ll need to know, and therefore how relevant it may be. They also equate a responsibility for making learning relevant with ‘pandering’ to students.  I could, and frequently do, argue all day with traditionalists about immediacy and relevance, but this in itself is irrelevant. Because what’s happening when people learn informally is that everything they seek out is horizontally relevant, whether it’s the guitar chord you want your elder brother to show you, so you can play your favourite song, or the video of how to cook chicken chasseur for tonight’s dinner. 

There is, however, another reason why the power of now matters. Research in neuroscience suggests that every time you post a request on Twitter for a particular reference, or news report you missed, and you get an immediate response, you get a little dopamine hit . It turns out that finding information that provides a quick solution to a problem, helps ‘stamp’ the memory in our brain and ‘attaches motivational importance to otherwise neutral environmental stimuli’. In other words, Just-In-Time learning is more likely to stick, while Just-In-Case learning is Teflon-coated.

For those who’ve always delivered learning in orderly, sequential, blocks, and who yearn for acquiring knowledge for its own sake, the random ad-hocery of the Do It Now imperative is a pretty tough pill to swallow. However, we have to change, or face irrelevance as leaders of learning. Because, out there, in society’s global learning commons, learners are frolicking around, being delighted by the learning power of now. And they’re increasingly expecting those dopamine hits in the classroom, or training room, too.

Do It With Friends (Collegiality)

Formal education and training likes to frame learning as an individual pursuit. This is sometimes because it’s easier to measure it that way, and we only value what we can measure. So, collaboration is still called ‘cheating’ in many schools, training happens in silos in organisations. It’s also the case that the historically preferred method of transferring knowledge, from the expert to the learner, has always been one-to-one, individual tuition. In the global learning commons, it’s a very different picture. We have followers, friends and ‘personal learning networks’. We read daily online newspapers, ‘aggregated’ by people whose knowledge we admire. Learning here is networked, linked-in and highly social. 

While we may never meet the people we now learn from, it’s wrong to dismiss these relationships is make-believe, or imaginary, friends. Communications may be geographically stretched, but they’re far from distant. Sharing what we know is always embedded in conversations of care. It’s appropriately called a social network. My initial perception of Twitter was that it little more than electronic attention-seeking. And, if one was simply to judge it by newspaper regurgitation of celebrity tweets, such prejudices would be confirmed. My fairly limited personal learning network was transformed, however, once I started using it. And I’m not alone. Millions of workers now consider it an indispensable, if not primary, source of professional development. Fluid learning communities regularly come together for ‘hashtag meet-ups’, where issues are debated with no one person able to hog the conversation, due to the now iconic 140-character limit. People learn stuff, but they also share the small talk of friends.

Do Unto Others (Generosity)

In ‘Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age’, Clay Shirky highlighted the desire we have to do ‘stuff that matters’, in our spare time, rather than simply consume. Shirky’s argument is that we now have the tools to take collaborative action in the pursuit of doing good. When one looks at the explosion of autonomous groups now forming to  help others in recent times, it sometimes feels like we were sedated into believing we were bad people, and that an awakening is starting to take place.

I know that last sentence sounds like it came from the musical ‘Hair’, but consider this: if, in a pre-internet age, someone proposed that we should open our houses up to complete strangers and that these visitors would expect us, not simply to feed them, but to escort them around our cities, they would have been given pretty short shrift. Yet that’s exactly what hundreds of thousands of people are doing, with no guarantee of reciprocity, on hospitality exchange sites like, Hospitality Club, GlobalFreeloaders and BeWelcome. Despite some flaky verification systems, instances of generosity abuse (or worse) are extremely rare. It turns out we’re not so bad, after all. Who knew?

Dan Thompson launched ‘We Will Gather’ in 2012. It is a way of connecting people with free time and a desire to volunteer, with actions in their area. All that is needed, according to the website, is ‘a good thing that needs to be done, a place for people to meet up, and a date and time’. Although many of the actions are small – cleaning civic spaces, or fixing up gardens – the intentions behind them are profound. We were supposed to be driven by self-interest, encapsulated in Margaret Thatcher’s famous quote, ‘There is no such thing as society, only individual men and women’. Poor Maggie, she just didn’t get it.

Marcia Conner, co-author of ‘The New Social Learning’ highlights the impact that social media has upon the spirit, and acts, of volunteering: 

‘Social learning thrives in a culture of service and wonder…accelerated when we give our attention to individuals, groups and projects that interest and energize us. We self-select the themes we want to follow and filter out those that feel burdensome, all with impunity.’  In other words, we’re no longer likely to face a knock on the door, asking for help from church or community, to carry out actions which fail to inspire us. Now, there are now so many projects and causes looking for help that we can surely find ones that we can identify with and commit to with enthusiasm, rather than through a sense of duty.

There has been a long tradition of ‘service leaning’ in North American schools and it usually makes for memorable learning and motivated learners. As schools have become more like enclosures, however, the opportunities to connect with the learning commons have shrunk, at precisely the same time as such opportunities are exponentially growing in our social spaces. We learn best when we do it with passion and purpose. Doing unto others as we’d have them do to ourselves provides a powerful motivation to learn.

Do It For Fun (Playfulness)

Conditioned by years of dreary rote-learning, most of us developed low expectations of the pleasure to be found in learning. Yet, this was ever only true for formal education. When we’re with friends or family, there’s simply no point to learning if we don’t enjoy it. Having fun is the primary driver. Does that mean that the learning taking place is somehow inferior?  I don’t think so. Some of the most important life skills we master are achieved only because of the pleasure derived along the way. Learning to swim, or to ride a bicycle, are good examples. 

But fun without challenge is usually an unsatisfying experience. I’ve played golf most of my adult life. I enjoy playing, but I probably enjoy practising even more. Why? Because no-one ever masters the ability to hit a golf ball consistently well, not even the best pros. Understanding the physics, and biomechanics, involved in bringing a club head to hit a golf ball perfectly square to the target line, at just the right angle of elevation, and at the optimum point of acceleration…well, it’s a lifelong challenge. But the feeling of hitting just one pure shot, that seems to fly effortlessly off the club face, out of maybe twenty scrappy ones, is enough to keep me working at it.

It’s what the MIT professor, Seymour Papert, calls ‘hard fun’: the potent mix of challenge and enjoyment.  Papert’s concept of hard fun arose from the words of an 8th-grader:

“A teacher heard one child using these words to describe the computer work: “It’s fun. It’s hard. It’s Logo.” I have no doubt that this kid called the work fun because it was hard rather than in spite of being hard” 

Society has an often contradictory relationship with the enjoyment derived from computers. On the one hand, we (the concerned parents) understand the importance of computer competence in our children. But we also exhibit a kind of protestant prurience when we think they may be spending too much time having fun playing video games. In 1981, British Labour MP, George Foulkes drafted a bill, “Control of Space Invaders (and other Electronic Games) Bill” out of concern for Space Invaders’ addictiveness and potential for causing ‘deviancy’. The bill was defeated by only 20 votes. I’m not making this up.

To be fair, there have been  deaths caused by exhaustion or cardiac arrest, due to video gamers in China and South Korea playing video games for 50-hour stretches. These, however, are isolated cases, and the challenge for learning professionals is to harness the self-discipline and resilience shown in a gamer striving to complete a game, to more conventional learning situations. Enter ‘serious gaming’.

The most striking example of serious gaming is FoldIt . Devised by the University of Washington, FoldIt enables thousands of gamers to solve science problems specifically relating to ‘protein folding’, predicting the shapes which amino acids will form in HIV Aids, Cancer and Alzheimer’s. Zoran Popovich, one of FoldIt’s creators says that the game has shown ‘that it is possible to create experts in a particular domain purely through game play’. One of its leading players is Scott Zaccanelli, a massage therapist from Dallas, Texas. Players are ranked according to their ability to figure problems out. Zaccanelli himself plays for a couple of hours every evening and, at the time of writing, is ranked 12th in the world:

“Everybody’s got their motivations for it. Some do it for the camaraderie, others for the competition.(I’m just) happy that science is being done.”

If you’re new to video gaming, this might all seem a bit nerdy. Maybe, but you should know that one of FoldIt’s 2012’s puzzles was to identify a protein structure, made by HIV monkeys, which had eluded scientists for 15 years.  Scott’s team were able to work it out in 10 days. 

Does that sound like fun?

Do It For The World To See (High visibility)

The global learning commons allows one insight to be shared among millions.  In April 2012, Martha Payne, a 9 year-old student from Lochgilphead , Scotland, began blogging about her school dinners, posting a daily photograph of her lunch. Martha intends to be a journalist, so was encouraged by her father to write about her food. Because some of the portion sizes were shockingly small, word soon spread of Martha’s blog, NeverSeconds. Celebrity chef and food campaigner, Jamie Oliver, tweeted Martha’s blog and virality ensued. Six months later, NeverSeconds  had reached almost 9 million page views and Martha’s first book had been published, with the proceeds from each book providing a daily meal for 25 children in Malawi.

It’s an extraordinary story, but one which has become rather more commonplace, due to the irrepressible rise of citizen journalism. We’re losing our inhibitions, and discovering that publishing what we think, feel or know, deepens our learning. Podcasting, blogging, tweeting – we’re all journalists now. And it can be intoxicating – if you tweet it, they will come. On a November evening in 2011, Tim Pool, with nothing more than a cell phone, live streamed the Occupy protesters eviction from Zuccotti Park in New York. This was a key moment in the Occupy movement, and over 700,000 viewers – myself included – were able to see what was happening live, unedited. To put that figure into perspective, that’s about three times greater than any hourly news bulletin on the BBC news channel.

My point here is that self-publishing, in any format, may often seem, to the cynical observer, to be another symptom of the millenials’ quest for shallow exhibitionism. But it can also transform their motivation to learn.

So, these are the six imperatives which propel motivation in the global learning commons. I should stress that these ‘Do it’s are morally neutral. Some, for example, would see the activities of ‘hacktivist’ organisations like Anonymous or LulzSec as either fighting for all our freedoms of information, or irresponsibly putting internal securities at risk.  And while these motivations can be used for harm as well as good, it should be apparent that, overwhelmingly, people who are learning socially, outside the workplace and formal education, do so out of a sense of altruism. The technology provides the tools, but it’s the power of personal connections, informal learning and displaying generosity to one another, which creates the imperative to learn, and act, collaboratively.

The global learning commons is at its most powerful in the social space, and the illustrations I’ve chosen – community activism, play-based learning, online collaboration, serious gaming, tacit and informal learning, and self-publishing – do not even begin to represent the ingenuity, innovation and optimism out there. The question which underpins my book is whether the richness and vibrancy of learning approaches , which we see socially, can be brought into more formal arenas. And if so, what are the environments we need to create, and the values and actions we need to foster?


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2 Responses to The Six Imperatives of Social Learning

  1. Dave Lee says:

    I was with you right up to the end. But then you conclusion:

    “The question which underpins my book is whether the richness and vibrancy of learning approaches, which we see socially, can be brought into more formal arenas. And if so, what are the environments we need to create, and the values and actions we need to foster?”

    Threw me. I don’t see the goal of looking at social learning as another channel is about co-opting what we see to bring it into formal settings. Rather we should be learning the ways of the social environments people are networking in. The challenge isn’t to co-opt the spaces, but to learn how they are learning and build experiences that draw upon those skills, gambits, and processes.

    I like your six imperatives, but I think the Do Unto Others (Generosity) isn’t well focused the way you have it. I would think that in Social Learning (vs simply being social in the world) generosity is about sharing what we know, have learned with others.

    • David Price says:

      Thanks for leaving a comment. I think we’re saying the same thing! Would we not want to bring some of those six motivations into schools and colleges? I fear that if we don’t do something to bridge the gap between social and formal learning, fewer and fewer students will want to be there (engagement levels are already chronically low). I’m not suggesting we co-opt the spaces, but learn from the learning that happens there. If you read my book, you’ll see that I quote the original motto of the World Wide Web (“Let’s Share What We Know) as being the cornerstone of a new approach to formal learning.

      THanks again for sharing your thoughts – much appreciated.


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