Social Learning by Dr. Kevin Currie-Knight

What makes a learning community like Pathfinder different than, say, homeschooling or unschooling? The key is its social nature. The way I like to say it is like this: imagine your child is learning what he or she wants to learn; now imagine he or she is doing it amongst dozens of other kids all surrounded by a lot of interesting stuff.

Sociality is important for a lot of reasons. The most obvious is that, well, we are a social species and have evolved to be parts of social spaces. (Even the introverts among us are part of cultural networks, for instance, when we read books and consume art created by others.)

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But here’s a benefit of learning in a social environment that is easy to miss. Humans, in addition to being social, are also natural social learners. On their surface, programs like Pathfinder don’t seem to have a lot of instruction in them. But dig deeper, and you will find that kids are picking up a lot from each other: sometimes they share information in conversation, and sometimes, kids just pick things up by watching and listening to other kids.

In “traditional” schools, the person students are allowed to learn from most of the time is the teacher. The teacher is either the one who imparts information or “controls the traffic” by calling on those who may speak. But that means that out of 20+ people in the room who all have bits of knowledge that everyone can learn from, only one person at a time is allowed to share their knowledge.

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Pathfinder and programs like it do what I like to call removing the “teacher bottleneck.” Anyone can share information they have, and anyone looking for information can go wherever they think that information exists. Really, this is the way knowledge looks in the 21st century, in the age of the internet and social networks. Anyone can share information, and everyone is free to look for information.

There are several education researchers, in fact, who’ve looked at how this ‘“distributed’ view of knowledge works in social networks. One of my favorite books on this subject is by Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown, called A New Culture of Learning. In one chapter, the authors look at what they call “learning in the collective,” how online learning communities (like discussion forums of people interested in a particular topic) generate and share information. This is how they describe these collectives: “Unlike a classroom where a teacher controls the lecture, the organic communities that emerge through collectives produce meaningful learning because the inquiry that arises comes from the collective itself.

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Everyone does their thing, sometimes individually and sometimes in groups. And each person in that network reaps the benefit: they can see different people doing different things, hear different people talking about the different things they are doing, and participate in doing things with any group willing to let them in.

The key to all this learning is that while each person is free to embark on an individual endeavor, they have the benefit of doing it in a social space where there are a lot of people to learn from.

Dr.  Kevin Currie-Knight is a Teaching Professor of Education at East Carolina University, and a member of the Board of Directors of Pathfinder.