Natural Pedagogy and the Social Classroom

“Place our social natures as human beings front and center in the learning process”

Eyler, Joshua. (2018). How Humans Learn.

In his book How Humans Learn (2018), Joshua Eyler devotes one chapter to each of five attributes he says are key to human learning:

  • Curiosity
  • Sociality
  • Emotion
  • Authenticity
  • Failure

In a couple of previous posts, I’ve attempted to digest his most significant takeaways on curiosity from chapter one. Now I’m turning my attention to chapter two: sociality. For our purposes, sociality refers to the depth and extent of human social interactions that have the potential to help or hinder learning inside and outside a classroom.

Eyler opens chapter two with a circumspect discussion of primate social traits, evolutionary biology, imitative learning, and mirror neurons. This builds up to the crux of the chapter: the biological underpinnings of social learning.

Natural Pedagogy

Csibra and Gergely (2009) put forth the idea of natural pedagogy to explain the human facility for knowledge transfer. More so than our primate relatives, humans are capable of rapid and efficient skill transfer through observation and imitation. Not merely imitative, however, human learning is facilitated by overt communication, which Csibra and Gergely call “ostensive signals”. According to Csibra and Gergely, evolution has bestowed on us a keen sensitivity to these signals. Natural pedagogy, in their view, is a unique human adaptation for social learning. Ostensive signals accompany the observed behavior such that the observer gains some generalizable knowledge about the world. Natural pedagogy has become a highly cited idea in the social psychology of learning.

Some scholars, however, including Amy Skerry and colleagues (2013), have been cool to the supposition that evolution specifically selected for natural pedagogy. They consider more wide-ranging and disparate explanations for humans’ adeptness at social learning.

Regardless, whether it stems from a singular adaptation or arose through multiple factors, our predilection for social learning remains readily exploitable. In Eyler’s words, the debate over natural pedagogy underscores “the significance of teaching as an augmentation of our sociality” (p 76).

Social Pedagogies

Eyler suggests that, as the social realm precedes the pedagogical realm, all teaching and learning takes place within a social context. Teaching, therefore, is subordinate to sociality. A classroom’s social dynamics can help or hinder learning, so we as teachers must be mindful of those dynamics.

He refers to the work of Bass and Elmendorff (2011) on the subject of social pedagogies, which they define as “design approaches for teaching and learning that engage students with what we might call an ‘authentic audience’ (other than the teacher), where the representation of knowledge for an audience is absolutely central to the construction of knowledge in a course” (2017).

Elements and Goals of Social Pedagogy by Randy Bass and Heidi Elmendorf

This definition echos many of our themes in Tackling a Wicked Problem, such as the authentic challenge component of project-based learning.

Eyler adds to this definition, saying social pedagogies “would include those strategies that maximize the characteristics of sociality” and “place our social natures as human beings front and center in the learning process” (p 83).

Since all teaching is intertwined with and dependent on social factors, Eyler exhorts us to foster what he calls a social classroom. A social classroom is comprised of three elements:

  • Sense of belonging
  • Classroom Management philosophy that privileges community building
  • An instructor who models intellectual approaches

According to Eyler’s reasoning and the studies he adduces, when each of these three elements is strongly present in a classroom, social learning can thrive. He says, “without first building a social classroom, it will be more challenging for any of the other teaching strategies I’ll be discussing to take hold” (p 83). I will explore the meaning and evidence behind Eyler’s idea of a social classroom in my next post.

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