Barriers to Social Learning

Barriers to Social learning-Pen Waggener-scaledWe may talk about the importance of learning, but for the most part we do not practice it. Let’s start with schools. Schools tend to focus on weaknesses instead of strengths. They also focus too much on content dissemination. Our institutions have failed to foster the love of learning, and do not motivate students to learn for themselves – in many cases it’s the opposite. One problem is the continuing focus on subject-based curriculum. It separates education from reality. We do not live our lives in subject areas, and no workplace is subject-based, but almost all of our curricula are stuffed into category silos.

No one can master any content field any more. Now we see students having better access to information as well as connections to more people than some of their teachers. Students may be chatting online with their friends in Asia, while the teacher is covering Asian social studies in class. The student just checks with the online friend and gets the information in context. Which information is correct – the textbook or the online peer? It doesn’t matter. What really matters is that students are learning how to learn and how to solve problems. However, mastery of the curriculum (content) is what the school administration assesses.

Let’s look at business. Taking care of business should mean mean taking care of learning. If learning is everywhere, it should definitely be where the work is getting done. We should make it everyone’s job to share what they learn. But in many businesses, getting work done is more important than learning anything new. Short term thinking starts with quarterly market results and drives down to individual performance management. Learning hardly has a chance.

Consider how corporate e-learning is developed. “Let us put your content online,” some vendor will usually propose. We also have industry shoot-outs; to see who can convert PowerPoint content into e-learning courses. It’s all about content because it’s easy to build a course based on defined content since there are no messy, individual, radical learners to get in the way, only a fictional, generalized target population. In the past several decades, neither the public education system, higher education, nor the corporate training business have made any great achievements in facilitating learning.

Social Learning

We know that societies learn socially. We learn through observation and modeling. But promoting learning is not the same as promoting education and training. Individual and peer-to-peer learning is a key part of promoting learning on a societal level. Disciplines such as personal knowledge mastery (1) can be part of this. I have worked with several universities to include PKM as part of their curriculum, as well as companies who include PKM into their leadership programs or make it a core component of work competence. But practices like PKM are not enough. Systemic barriers to learning have to be removed.

Much of the workday in a professional office is organized around meetings, calls, and getting things done. This is often interrupted dozens of times each day, requiring a re-focus on whatever it is people were doing before the interruption. Work, like professional conferences, is composed of many non-related  discrete, time-based events, often with one directly following the other. This mirrors our children as they rush from class to unrelated class, focusing on nothing for more than one hour. Like school children, time for professional reflection is relegated to before or after work, but this is often taken up with commuting, squeezing some exercise time, and meeting household obligations. But being busy does not drive creativity.

“Visualize the workflow of a physical job: produce, produce, produce, produce, produce, produce, produce, produce, produce. Now visualize the workflow of a creative knowledge worker: nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, flash of brilliance, nothing, nothing, nothing.” – Jay Cross (2)

That spark of brilliance often comes from reflection. More and more production work is getting automated. As many traditional jobs get automated, new work will focus on creativity and dealing with complex problems. But this type of work cannot be optimized through sheer brute force or a focus on efficiency. That was for the last century. Today’s knowledge-intensive workplace needs to support experience, performance, and reflection.

Knowledge is the result of information (e.g. learning content) and experience. Knowledge is directly influenced by one’s own experience. Therefore there is no such thing as “knowledge transfer“. Performance is taking action on knowledge. It is not what we know that is important to our co-workers, but what we do with it. In the workplace, what we do with knowledge is usually in a social context. Reflection of one’s performance is an important part of the learning process and this is often in a social context as well. Learning from what others do is the foundation of Albert Bandura’s social learning theory (3).

“Learning would be exceedingly laborious, not to mention hazardous, if people had to rely solely on the effects of their own actions to inform them what to do. Fortunately, most human behavior is learned observationally through modeling: from observing others one forms an idea of how new behaviors are performed, and on later occasions this coded information serves as a guide for action.”

Creative work is not routine work done faster. It is a whole different way of work, and a critical part is letting the brain do what it does best; come up with ideas. Without time for reflection, most of those ideas will get buried in the detritus of modern workplace busyness.


A significant change is needed in how we conduct instruction and support learning at school and at work. People need to take ownership of their learning. But almost all of our practices and institutions work counter to this. Professors, teachers, and instructors rule, while students and learners do as they are told. Teachers may complain when asked, “will this be on the test?”, but they are part of a system that reinforces a culture of dependence. The construct of dependent learning will not help any organization manage the constant skills gap that all organizations will be facing very soon.

Whether it be in public school, higher education, or the workplace, teachers and instructors should be there to help. They should also be far removed from those who design or administer tests. Any tests should be judged as to their validity and reliability, and those who teach should be able to voice any concerns about them.  When, or if, people are tested, teachers should be advocates not judges.

By removing the role of assessor, we can do a lot to advance learning. This will not be a panacea, but it could give a new sense of purpose to many teachers and instructors. It does not require a wholesale dismantling of the system but is a pragmatic start while existing hierarchies come to the realization that the world is changing faster than their structures can handle.

In the network era, where work is learning and the learning is the work, anyone who has the privilege of teaching should not be allowed to test. Anyone who designs any tests should be publicly answerable to those who learn and those who teach. This might break the culture of dependence that stems from early school years and is copied by many training and educational bodies.

“The fifth lesson I teach is intellectual dependency.  Good people wait for a teacher to tell them what to do.  It is the most important lesson, that we must wait for other people, better trained than ourselves, to make the meanings of our lives.  The expert makes all the important choices; only I can determine what you must study, or rather, only the people who pay me can make those decisions which I enforce.” – John Taylor Gatto (4)

Shifting from external to internal assessment reinforces what we already know about social learning.

Self-ownership of our learning is our collective path forward.








2 thoughts on “Barriers to Social Learning”

  1. Dan S

    Hi, Harold. I enjoyed your article–you got me thinking. Can you expand a bit more on what you mean by “Shifting from external to internal assessment reinforces what we already know about social learning”? What does this shift look like in school settings?

    1. Harold J

      Once we leave school, we are suddenly left on our own to assess our learning. Learning how to gauge our learning and make sense of it is a skill that should be developed in school. Let the students decide if they have learned. It will take some time, but ownership over their assessment will make for empowered learners.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *