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Can Social Learning Change a Classroom or a School?

Last updated: 07-30-2019

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Can Social Learning Change a Classroom or a School?

Nearly a half-century ago, educational theorist and researcher Albert Bandura coined the term ‘Social Learning Theory’ to describe the transfer of knowledge among students who learned not just from a teacher expert or a textbook but from each other. Even though all learners were at the same developmental stage, they observed each other, imitated learning actions and modeled them for others. Implicit in this practice are the attitudes and emotional responses to environments that are modeled and imitated as well. Social learning creates a social context. As learners adopt habits and attitudes, the atmosphere affects personality development and a social learning atmosphere helps develop norms, values, and attitudes that benefit everyone. This kind of learning is continuous and reciprocal; as long as peers are in the same environment, learning takes place in multiple situations and at multiple levels. Educators agree that Social Learning Theory is very important in child and adolescent learning development.

So what if the theory were also applied to teachers and professional development?

Teachers often work in a ‘vacuum’ environment. In spite of the numerous faculty meetings on any school site, many teachers share their school experiences — especially their first jobs — as periods of fear and isolation. They recount being handed a key to their classroom and told to ‘sink or swim’. They have to develop their classroom management methods. They muddle through curriculum requirements and benchmarks with little guidance or helpful feedback. Worse, they experience competitive and unsupportive relationships with colleagues. New teachers experience range from a lack of cooperation to outright hostility from veterans and search out a friendly smile in times of need.

But what is the point of such behavior? What does a teacher stand to lose by sharing lessons and modeling successful behavior in a learning environment? Bryan Goodwin writes about this for Educational Leadership Magazine(2012).He cites professional neglect as a reason teachers feel discouraged about entering the profession and in many cases leave teaching within five years. District-mandated PD can make this situation worse with outdated PowerPoint presentations, piles of photocopy handouts and no time for teachers to personalize the training they might receive.

The truth is that teaching is a profession of relationships. If a teacher does not have a network of people and practices that serve as a model and sounding board, he or she will not thrive in this job.

Here’s where Social Learning Theory comes in. In the same way social learning affects younger learners, it can provide a lifeline for new teachers and create an important professional bond between them and their veteran colleagues. Novices and veterans alike can benefit from observing and modeling behaviors that work to assist in the transfer of knowledge in the classroom. Teachers create professional relationships that include modeling best practices, observing them and offering honest feedback. They can talk honestly about cultivating empathy and having a safe place for learning and reflection. Educators who develop trusting professional relationships can honestly confer about the process of connecting with students while also reaching crucial learning goals.

But- here’s the rub: the process is never finished; it is ongoing and will alter and change over the course of a school year as you modify your practice. Don’t expect to meet all your goals. Expect to constantly and modify plans as you collect data about context — for students and for colleagues. Social Learning for educators has a more rhizomatic approach. According to educational researchers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, a rhizome, sometimes called a creeping rootstalk, is a stem of a plant that sends out roots and shoots as it spreads. This image describes the way that ideas are multiple, interconnected and self-replicating — in constant movement. Educators who form social learning partnerships expect the road to turn often, yet they still support their growth.

Here are a few things teachers can do — and administrators can support — that build a Social Learning environment at a school site:

Learn to create relationships during school PD meetings and begin to connect with educators from around the globe to grow your sphere of influence. Instead of handouts, Google Slides presentations and endless district policies, exchange lesson ideas and course schedules so you can sync up with another teacher on either a lesson or to make time to go and observe another teacher. Consider building these relationships with experts you admire. Chances are you can befriend them on social media and bring them into your learning tribe.

Come up with a list of questions that guide your social learning practice? Consider making your own learning goals and outcomes the ways students might. Then, begin to find educators who will help you meet your learning goals. Track these goals and show them to the administration so they can see how this type of learning is so valuable.

Look for ways to connect with other educators to find encouragement and to offer the same to them. Treat the partnership as a journey on which spontaneous learning and creativity will occur. Find ways to check in with each other — and to offer advice and when you can via a short video call.

If your school district refuses to compensate you for this type of valuable PD, do it anyway- rewards go far beyond the paycheck. But principals should take an active role in finding ways to encourage this — even if just a longer lunch hour to let teachers know this is valued and appreciated. Maybe a “Social Learning Award” once a month with a gift certificate for a free lunch or dinner.

But remember: Teachers often make the mistake of refusing to work without direct compensation, and they stick with methods that do not work and blame students for not meeting objectives. Building valuable professional relationships provides the support teachers need to maintain a healthy outlook on their jobs.

The above suggestions do not need to be generated by a district or even by school site administrators. Teachers can venture outside their classrooms and invite others in for support and inspiration. This is great news- you can actually decide to create for yourself a supportive work environment!

Social Learning Theory asserts that community is built by modeling behaviors-teachers have to venture out and make connections. Develop a purposeful and career-defining professional network at your school. Make your school community and culture successful and thriving by cultivating relationships that matter, and transform your practice and the lives of your students. I am personally looking forward to seeing how will help encourage all of this in our near future — it doesn’t launch until October 2019 but go check it out and become part of the beta experience.

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