For kids in classrooms and adults in a vast online world, learning and social relationships are inextricably connected.
It’s fall again, and our kids are making their way back to another year of school. From kindergartners to college seniors, it’s a new season for all of us. And while the experiences of the students we love will be varied—different schools, subjects, faculty, and extra-curricular activities—at least one question seems to tie them all together.
The first graders, clutching shiny new lunch boxes, ask it this way: “Mommy, who will I sit by at lunch?” The middle school kids wonder, “What if nobody likes me?” The high school kids worry about, “Who’s in my classes,” and, “Whose locker is next to mine?” And even our college kids sweat for months over who their roommates will be and what kind of social life they’re going to have. For many of our kids, the fundamental question of going back to school is not so much about what they’re going to learn but who they’re going to learn it with.
As parents, it’s easy for us to miss the meaning of these questions. Typically, we don’t associate “social” concerns with learning. But as we think about our own experiences of going back to school, we recognize there is a deep connection between what is required to make new friends and what is required to learn and do new things. There is a link between social malleability and capacity to change. Professor Daniela Kaufer of UC Berkeley explains: “The learning process, itself, is something that requires plasticity in the brain. It requires brain cells to talk to each other and to change. And the way that they change is by changing the connections between them.” (More from Professor Kaufer here.)
The change we experience in learning isn’t entirely a matter of involuntary brain function. In school and other formal settings, the desire and effort to learn—to change and to be changed—makes the decisive difference. When we learn, we intentionally open ourselves to receive what is new and willingly embrace the changes learning brings into our lives.
But the older we are, the harder it may be to choose “openness,” and the harder it may be to embrace change. Often, we have good reasons to be closed. The real disappointments and even injuries of life make genuine vulnerability seem risky and even reckless. Yet even self-assured adults can be liberated by safe learning environments.
So, we shouldn’t be surprised that social safety enhances our kids’ ability to learn as well. In fact, unselfconscious learning in a socially-organized education system utterly depends on strong, safe, social connections. Supporting those connections improves learning at school and throughout life. To wit: if our families, circles of close friends, and work groups offer us the emotional support and encouragement we need to truly learn, change, and grow, they become the most powerful learning centers of all.
Interestingly, there is one social circle that seems to impede learning. Ironically, it offers us an unprecedented learning opportunity, even as it undermines our social confidence and engenders social protectiveness and posturing. We’re talking about the virtual community that grows up around and through our social media channels.
In an age where information is more accessible than it ever has been, that vast cache of digitally formatted knowledge should be hastening our ability to learn. But we have to ask ourselves, “When was the last time I actually changed—fundamentally changed—because of something I learned online? When, in my digital life, have I engaged with something or someone that has caused me to change my perspective—the way I think; the way I live?” Many of us recognize that our digital culture is working against personal change and deep personal development.
If this is true, why is it true? While there are probably many answers, one is readily apparent to the tech-savvy observer: the social structure of online environments isn’t built for learning. When you think about your own networks, can you remember a time when you felt completely safe, secure enough to let your guard down? To express your innermost thoughts? To willingly receive the perspectives of others? Some of us have never felt that way online. And yet, think of the possibilities—the wealth of learning—that could occur, if we could cultivate online environments where real people could have real relationships, could share their hearts and souls, talk about what matters to them, and learn together!
In that kind of environment, there’s no telling what we could grasp about our world, our history, or our culture. But more importantly, what new and amazing things could we learn about one another and about ourselves? The very online platforms that currently broker hateful, divided misunderstandings, could, with determined effort, become close, intimate, safe circles where we could rediscover one another and overcome the misperceptions that divide us.
For now, this is not the norm in online and social networks. But it could be. Already, thoughtful technologists are exploring ways for the DNA of our digital tools to promote safety, invite authenticity, and support vulnerability. And we can all do our part in the way we use our current tools, now. To borrow a notion from author Robert Fulghum, we’ll take a big step forward just by remembering what we learned in kindergarten—when we first went to school: “To have a friend, be a friend.” “Talk less, listen more.” And, even, “If you want to be an amazing learner, surround yourself with true and trusted friends.”
As our kids go back to school, we go on to continued learning. Their concern over their educational social circles is a reminder that we all need to learn deeply and well in life. And if our circles can empower us, our learning will change us and change our world. So, who will you sit by at lunch today?
"Think of the possibilities—the wealth of learning—that could occur, if we could cultivate online environments where real people could have real relationships, could share their hearts and souls, talk about what matters to them, and learn together!"