Social learning – a good way to learn from others

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Learning in community can be a lot faster, and more motivating, than learning in isolation.  Photo by Vince Fleming on Unsplash

Humans are not built to learn by magic.  We are, biologically, built more for long periods of social habituation, balanced with occasional periods of intense focus.

Our normal patterns of concern are perhaps best seen in young children.  A young child does not learn to talk by locking itself away and spending three months of intense focus on its own.  More commonly, it learns by exposing itself to both older and younger children, as well as adults, mostly in play situations.  Things are learned, in particular, when there is an immediate need, and therefore an immediate reward for the knowledge.  Words are learned when there is a situational relevance, or benefit, to the learning.

ADULT LEARNING

As adults, we learn best in a similar way.  If you want to learn a new skill, then you are better off putting yourself regularly in a relevant context.  By habituation and simple presence with others, you will absorb much of the incidental knowledge you need.  True, you will occasionally need to bury yourself in a book to discover something relevant to your next step, but, mostly, you can simply hang out with others who do what you want to do.

Want to learn running?  Go where runners go, join clubs, watch videos, socialise with other runners.  This is how you will learn much of the art of running.  WIth ease, you will absorb dress codes, training patterns, running styles, pre-run and after-run rituals, etc.

Want to learn a language?  Go where people are speaking it or learning it.  Immerse yourself in the sounds, sights and rituals of the culture.  Yes, there are grammatical rules to learn; but children learn grammar intertwined with practical concerns – even grammar is culturally influenced.

LEARNING WISDOM

In the same way, we learn wisdom.  Wisdom is very hard to learn in isolation.  You will learn a form of wisdom, but it is likely to be very focused on your own nature, and when you try to reintegrate with society, you will find it hard to make the wisdom relevant.

It may be more effective to join a community which, over years or centuries, has explored the kind of wisdom you are interested in.  In Buddhism and some other religions, for instance, there is the ‘sangha’ – which one might loosely call a community of those who pursue the same goals.  In the Christian church, there is a similar community concept, sometimes used inwardly to refer to a coherent social group, and sometimes used outwardly to refer to a common mission.

DANGERS OF SOCIALISATION

There are, however, a few dangers to watch out for if you want to learn new habits through an existing community.

  • Firstly, the community might have developed odd habits which are somewhat hypocritical.  Thus, a religious community that professes kindness, might develop rules and rituals which inflict violence, mental or physical.  Even a sporting community which professes health may, sometimes, develop unhealthy habits – keen groups of sportspeople may abuse their bodies with drugs, or indulge in hierarchical behaviour not in keeping with their friendly outward appearance.
  • Secondly, the community might develop a sense of itself as the only possible community.  When you see the world a certain way, it can be very reassuring to enforce that view as ideally everyone’s view.  Several religions have developed hierarchies and power structures which are more designed to preserve the comfort of the incumbents, than to forward the aims of the organisation.
Because of these dangers, if you join a new community, you would do well to keep the independence of your critical mind, and some degree of social independence, so that you are useful as a contributor to the group learning process, and not just a passive absorber of it. 

AN EXERCISE

Think of joining some clubs, groups or associations related to what you want to learn next.

You may find this far more energising and supportive than hours and hours spent trying to motivate yourself.

However, it is wise to keep your own critical independence, as human social groups have a habit of becoming hypocritical and controlling over time.

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SUMMARY

Human beings learn well when they are exposed to other human beings with common interests.

There is an enormous amount of incidental learning that takes place in a relevant group or society, which is hard to replicate alone.

As well as learning skills by this group method, it is worth learning general wisdom in a similar way, seeking out communities that seem to you to have developed a high degree of common wisdom.

Although learning in a community can be enormously helpful, it is worth keeping a critical eye to make sure the community does not develop abusive, hypocritical or intolerant behaviours.  If you don’t feel everyone is respected, then challenge and contribute your view.

In general, social learning is a great shortcut to knowledge and wisdom, as long as it is balanced with critical intelligence.

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