Social Learning: from Learning About to Learning to Be

John Seely Brown and Richard P. Adler in their article:” Minds on fire: Open Education, the Long Tail, and Learning 2.0″, illustrate the importance of social interaction in learning. More importantly however, they introduce the significance of the distinction between Learning About and Learning to Be as in “acquiring the practices and the norms of the established practitioners in their field“.

It is of no coincidence that they refer to the architectural design studio as an example of such practice. The DS has been an exemplatory platform for learning in a social context as students do not simply revise their own work but instead contribute to the formation of their peers’ projects as well.

Two paradigms of experimentation with social learning retrieved from the articles footnotes

Uri Treisman

As a graduate student at UC-Berkeley in the late 1970s, Treisman worked on the poor performance of African- Americans and Latinos in undergraduate calculus classes. He discovered the problem was not these students’ lack of motivation or inadequate preparation but rather their approach to studying. In contrast to Asian students, who, Treisman found, naturally formed “academic communities” in which they studied and learned together, African- Americans tended to separate their academic and social lives and studied completely on their own. Treisman developed a program that engaged these students in workshop-style study groups in which they collaborated on solving particularly challenging calculus problems. The program was so successful that it was adopted by many other colleges.

Richard Light

Compelling evidence for the importance of social interaction to learning comes from the landmark study by Richard J. Light, of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, of students’ college/ university experience. Light discovered that one of the strongest determinants of students’ success in higher education— more important than the details of their instructors’ teaching styles—was their ability to form or participate in small study groups. Students who studied in groups, even only once a week, were more engaged in their studies, were better prepared for class, and learned significantly more than students who worked on their own.6

Richard J. Light, Making the Most of College: Students Speak Their Minds (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001). For a summary of Light’s research, see Richard Light, “The College Experience: A Blueprint for Success,” <;.

Full article available here

© 2008 John Seely Brown and Richard P. Adler. Text illustrations © 2008 Susan E. Haviland. The text of this article is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license (

EDUCAUSE Review, vol. 43, no. 1 (January/February 2008): 16-32

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