Two types of learning – which one is best?

types of learning

Evolutionary biologists think of learning as being either social or asocial. Social learning is essentially copying – what is everyone else doing? – whereas asocial learning is accrued by interacting with the environment through trial and error. All learning is either social or asocial; we either learn through mimicry or experimentation, innovation or observation.

When thinking about how to teach, it’s worth considering the role of evolution in shaping the way we have adapted to think and learn. In our distant past, learning was a costly strategy – time spent learning was time we couldn’t spend eating and reproducing – so it makes sense that we will have evolved to learn as efficiently as possible.

Both types of learning have associated advantages and disadvantages. The advantage of asocial learning is that you get accurate, up to date, first hand information about what works and what doesn’t, but the cost is high. You might waste a lot of time on strategies that are minimally effective or, worse, you might try something that turns out to be fatal, like eating that delicious looking mushroom, or being bitten by that interesting looking beetle.

The advantage of social learning is that it’s easier, safer and more likely to result in productive survival strategies – after all, you’re not going to copy something that doesn’t work. Human beings, like many other species, operate in groups, and so it makes sense to copy the strategies others in the group have adopted; after all, if everyone around you is getting on well, why would you risk trying something different? The downside is that you’re relying on other people’s experiences of what’s most likely to be effective, when environmental conditions rapidly change or a new predator is introduced, the old strategies stop being effective.

It used to believed that the numbers of social to asocial learners in a group would be fairly even balanced – that environmental change would favour asocial learning, whereas stability would favour social learning, but it turns out that social learning forms the basis for the remarkable growth and success of human culture. This might seem counter-intuitive: surely new innovations gleaned from asocial tinkering must be the most important driving force in human ingenuity? The thing is, although we do need a minimal amount of asocial learning, most people get on most of the time purely using social learning, and that’s because we copy strategically.

Only the most successful ideas get passed on and spread throughout the group. Each new generation hones in on optimal solutions and, as long as there’s a little bit of experimentation going on – either through asocial learning, or through copying errors – culture accumulates and is ever refined. In the modern world, we support a very small number of people – scientists and the like – to spend a small amount of their time on asocial learning. The rest of us spend our lives copying those around us directly or accessing the vast accumulation of human culture through books and the internet. Pretty much every moment of every day is spent engaged in tasks which are directly or indirectly copied. If we choose to engage in a brief bout of asocial learning, we do it for fun and because we’re safe enough not to worry about it going to far wrong.

Obviously, when the zombie apocalypse comes, asocial learning will come in very handy; those who work out how to survive in the new paradigm fastest will have an enormous advantage over the rest of us. But then, if humanity is to survive, it will be because we copy these new ‘good tricks’ and begin the fightback against the undead.

So, what does all of this have to do with education? Simply this: while we might enjoy a small amount of asocial experimentation, almost everything we learn – and almost certainly everything useful – will be due to our ability to observe and emulate. A school curriculum that favours a trial and error approach to reacquiring what’s previously been discovered as the result of several millennia of iterative copying is fighting against biology: we’re just not fitted to learn that way. By far the most effective way to pass on the fruits of human culture is to share what has already been discovered and invented as clearly and as explicitly as we can.

This gets to the heart of what we believe schools are for. Are they a giant play pen in which we allow children to tinker about at the margins of human culture, maybe discovering something useful for themselves, but probably spending most of their time feeling frustrated and confused? Or are they, as Michael Young has said, places that “enable young people to acquire the knowledge that, for most of them, cannot be acquired at home or in the community”? The first choice really is a Darwinian jungle in which those who have won the genetic lottery and those fortunate enough to have wealthy, educated parents will thrive and the devil take the hind most. If you believe in social justice and giving children a fair chance to escape the constraints of this lottery,  prioritising effective social learning is the only option.

All of these thoughts are much more clearly and elaborately made in Kevin Laland’s extraordinary book, Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony, this post is just my clumsy attempts at social learning.


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