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Our social nature

An intriguing tension in education is that it includes deeply personal, individual dimensions as well as essential societal ones. On the individual level, learning is the process of making ideas our own, not merely metaphorically but quite literally: as our neurons register new insights and knowledge, and activate new connections, learning changes us, physically and cognitively. Learning, though, is a process that does more than connect neurons: it also connects us, as individuals, to others and to society. The societal dimension of education may be the most obvious for educators, but the ultimate “success” of education is determined by its effects in the individual dimension, one individual student at a time. It is important to reflect on how we deal with this tension as we consider the expanding range of instruments and technologies we can employ in our teaching.

The societal dimension of education is the most salient, not only for the university’s educators, but usually also for its students. Many aspects of this dimension are explicitly incorporated in the objectives of our degree programs and our individual courses. For educators in a particular discipline –the vast majority of university teachers– this dimension includes the “society” of the discipline itself, and disciplinary program goals certainly include, at a minimum, mastery of concepts, methodologies and critical understanding of theory that graduates need to function in the specific field. Successfully acquiring this knowledge connects an individual learner to the larger society of her discipline (at a minimum), to its core questions, its context and its culture. In other words, it transforms her into a participating member of (disciplinary) society, one who can contribute to its discourse, take critical positions on its issues, and act on those to help steer its future (educational ambitions can be bolder and broader than the discipline alone, but that is a subject for another day).

The challenge for teachers, then, is to facilitate cognitive changes in the individual learner that will allow her to connect successfully with the larger societal context. An important channel in this is social contact: after all, both student and teacher are social animals. There is plenty of evidence, both anecdotal and scientific, that a human being’s social nature plays an important role in motivating learning, and a wealth of scholarly literature on education develops this idea: social engagement is an avenue to intellectual growth. The examination of any meaningful list of attributes of effective teachers (see, for example, a published list originally proposed by Milton Hildebrand in 1971) demonstrates how important the quality of social contact is to teaching. This idea is also embodied in this year’s winners of the UU teaching prizes, Maarten Prak and Marc van Mil. Presented at the Onderwijsparade, the jury’s assessment emphasized the social dimensions in the teaching practice of both: van Mil is impressive in his ability to help his students make links between education, research and society; Prak is exceptionally appreciated for his engagement with his students and the attention that he gives to them as individuals (read both full laudatios here). The underlying generalization is that students learn more when their teachers succeed in engaging them as social individuals.

Our social nature is, in essence, a portal between the individual and society, one we can –and do– use effectively in education. Making good use of it may, in fact, be a necessary condition of successful education. As we consider the merits of instructional tools and technologies –from rubrics to blended learning – let’s also remember to make good use of the powerful forces for learning that our very nature provides.

Jocelyn Ballantyne is senior tutor at University College Utrecht and Teaching Fellow 2013 – 2015. 1403 jocelyn ballantyne
Ballantyne, J.C. (Jocelyn)
14 March 2014

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