I was chatting with a friend recently, bemoaning my struggles to “be different more authentic, true to myself, putting my beliefs into everyday action. And I was describing how distant I often feel – that despite connecting with some fantastic mentors and surrounding myself with people who are modeling what I aspire to, I still felt really lonely at times…

He thought for a moment and said “don’t forget that you don’t just need your personal truth and wise teachers, you need community too…” He then went on to explain that the foundations of Buddhism are the “Three Jewels” – the Buddha (the wise teacher), the Dharma (the teachings) and the Sangha (the community).

I’m not going to go off into a discussion of religion at this point, but this chat got me thinking about how we learn and what the dimensions of social learning need to include. It got me thinking about how I would design a system to support all of those dimensions? Because we all need a balance of all three to learn most effectively!

To start with, I believe that learning is learning is learning is learning…

In other words, what we want for students is ultimately no different than what we need to provide educators in terms of professional development opportunities, or what we need to help parents experience as they support their children’s learning. It’s an idea I’ve espoused for quite a while and it’s showing up for me now as I look at how to leverage what we know about learning in order to create a supportive technology infrastructure for all participants in our education system?

So, I believe that there are three dimensions of “social” in “learning”:

  1. We “learn from…”
    • This is our “expert learner” network. I like to think of it in these terms because it really emphasizes that we are learning together – but that “experts” will arise from different places. Traditionally, this would be the teacher in a classroom, a mentor or coach when we’re looking for assistance with business or personal growth. It could be a leader of your religious community or your grandma. In less traditional terms, this is anyone who holds a level of experience and wisdom beyond the crowd and is willing to share that with others. It could be one of the students in a classroom. It is often our children, teaching us about using Facebook or how to win at Wii Mario Kart…
    • We all need time with our teachers or mentors because they offer us the perspective of someone who has “done” what we’re trying to do. They look at our efforts objectively and can give us feedback that we can’t see ourselves because we’re too close. They help us by knowing the questions that we don’t even know enough to know we need to ask! And they have a view that allows them to “push” us to develop in ways we don’t know we need because we don’t have the experience of completion or success yet…
  2. We “learn with…”
    • These are our “peer” networks. For a student, it’s their classmates. For a teacher, it’s their fellow educators. For most of us, we have several communities we participate in (local, virtual, centered around our hobbies, interests, charities, work, sports, etc…). Twitter is probably my favorite peer learning network – oh the conversations we have and the depth of learning I experience there!! *contented sigh*
    • When we learn with our peers, we struggle together. Learning that contains some struggle to figure things out, and ends in the creation of meaning, is a powerful thing! We’re all in the same boat, in this case. No one has the “answers” and the process is what we’re after here. How do we work together? How do we ask questions and get curious? How do we scaffold off each other’s ideas or thoughts – creating something greater than we could have done alone?
    • This might be group projects for students. Maybe it’s teachers coming together on inquiry based learning teams. It might be parents talking over coffee about the trials of puberty and having tweens! Often, this works best when we figure out how to be a “team” (incorporating a variety of skills that are used to complement each other), not just a “group” (two or more humans interacting together). And the larger the team/group, the closer we come to being a “network” (enter George Siemens and “Connectivism”)
  3. We “learn about ourselves…”
    • This is the “personal” part of learning – though I don’t think this is what we mean when we talk about “personal learning networks” or PLNs. What we learn this way is what drives the formation of our PLN, but they are two different things, in my mind.
    • This is the time we spend self reflecting or thinking about what really matters to us? Who am I? What matters to me? What am I good at? What would I like to be better at? What causes me grief or pain (and therefore, warrants my efforts to change)? And what do I want to develop in myself?
    • Often, my interactions within groups or comments that my mentors make will help highlight things personally. My patterns, my beliefs, etc… So they’re definitely linked.
    • In terms of the Buddhist model, this is my “personal truth”!

Without a teacher, our learning is incomplete. We quit because we simply can’t imagine that achieving our goals is possible. We lack the wisdom to even know what we need to learn…

Without our peers, we struggle to “Do it all” by ourselves. We feel isolated. We lack all the skills to accomplish the things that we want to do. We get tired of struggling alone – of feeling like we’re “the only one”…

Without time to learn about ourselves and examine who we are, we stay in reactive mode. We trust outside voices rather than our own gut feeling. We lack direction. We’re unmotivated. We make poor choices about what to do or how to do it (since we don’t understand our own strengths and motivations).

As we plan our training efforts, our classroom activities, our professional development programs – are we considering all three of these dimensions? Because they all contribute to a rich learning environment.

And if you’re tech planning, make sure you incorporate all three in the methods or tools you provide…