#ocTEL week 3: the unsociable learner

I come from a long line of unsociable learners. The writer James Hogg, a distant relative, taught himself to read and write alone by candlelight in an Ettrick farm cottage. My own father is teaching himself Gaelic; in the 1980s, he built our garage and rebuilt the engine of our Morris Minor purely by studying books from the library.

When writing essays for my first degree, I sought out information in the library rather than dissecting Beckett or Scott in the company of my classmates. This was partly because of my personality as an 18 year old. (I thought everyone was pretentious except me, which looking back was in itself quite pretentious.) But also I was trying to find something original to say, or at least combine existing ideas in a semi-original way, and I thought that learning socially meant learning by groupthink.

So the statement in Savery & Duffy that ‘the social environment is critical to the development of our individual understanding’ didn’t sit easily with me at first. The social aspect of learning is the norm these days, but people have self-taught for thousands of years. Are we dismissing this as a learning style? In my work setting, many of our MBA students learn in complete isolation, working their way through the course materials and only rarely taking up the opportunities to interact with faculty and other students. Are we saying that these students’ understanding is inferior to that of their peers who converse regularly, either in person or online? Their exam performance would seem to refute this.

I enjoyed getting my teeth into the principles of constructivism this week, and most of all I liked that relevance and ownership were key to the development of learning activities by constructivist principles. (While on a management development programme in the mid-2000s, the frustrated tutor started calling me ‘Mr Relevance’ because every time he introduced an activity I asked how it was going to help me when I got back to work. I still think that’s a fair question.)

I liked the example of problem-based learning where medical students were presented with a patient’s symptoms and left to come up with their own diagnoses in groups. One of the questions we’re asking ourselves at my institution is how we can help students bring together what they’ve learned in their MBA and apply it in a work context. So I can see how this approach could work: students could be presented with a failing business and tasked with devising a new strategy; they could be shown a set of accounts and left to figure out what has gone wrong and why.

This is the type of problem they will come across in their jobs; they have to take responsibility for how they solve it, who they talk to and what resources they consult. They can study the theories and case studies as much as they like, but in a work context they will have to talk about a problem, consult experts, test out hypotheses and argue for the viability of their solution. Even I, the unsociable learner, can recognise this behaviour in my current practice.

How you translate that into the design of TEL activities is another question. But understanding the principles of what students need and how to engage them is a good start.

3 Responses to #ocTEL week 3: the unsociable learner

  1. Roger Harrison says:

    Hi, I’ve been having similar thoughts about the effect of students studying in isolation and particularly for their dissertation. I agree that this might not be reflected in their dissertation grade. But then, are we looking for the right assessment method/outcome to see what added effect group interaction might be at this level? I do think that students spend a lot of time on dissertations, within a study context, and that this could be enhanced by group interaction. For example, what learning might happen if we encouraged peer support and peer review throughout the process – both would learn from the group, as part this idea of rhizomatic learning. I also think it could be used to enhance their communication, team working, collaboration skills, all important in their subsequent employment.



  2. James Little says:

    Hi Stuart,

    I too feel a tension between learning in isolation and learning sociably.

    The tension is that for me to understand something deeply I feel a need to spend personal quiet contemplative time understanding.

    However, there is a danger that the benefits of learning with others (different viewpoints/challenging of own assumptions/correction of false assumptions) is missed out on when learning in isolation occurs.

    I like your connection to the reality of the workplace where actually a combination of personal understanding coupled with the realities of working with others in companies large or small (or even in academia) is not only the norm but necessary.

    So, when thinking about the ways that social learning can be considered when learning I often wonder how this can be applied at the more granular activity-level as well as generally throughout a programme of study. Interested to hear your ideas.

    • Stuart says:

      Hi Roger and James, many thanks for your insightful comments.

      James I completely agree that in study or in the workplace, quiet contemplation is needed in order to understand something deeply. I do wonder if the PBL model could be the missing link in our current approach: students could learn the basics independently and then come together for an online class where they’re challenged and interact with faculty and peers.

      Roger, you make a good point about assessment. We assess students via a 3-hour written exam, so our course materials are perfect preparation for that. But is that realistic preparation for the workplace? Possibly not.

      Obviously peer learning and peer support are valuable, but my main concern is about the accuracy/veracity of the support given. Some of the most active students on our forums are only too keen to advise their peers, but their advice is sometimes factually incorrect and a faculty member has to step in. So we still have to take responsibility for moderating/curating any activity that takes place ‘under our roof’.

      I wonder if facilitating student interaction outside our formal learning spaces – e.g. on personal blogs, social media – might be a good compromise. Students would be on their guard against inaccuracy on a personal space, whereas they could put their trust in an incorrect comment on our forums if it goes unmoderated.

      Thanks again for reading and commenting!

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