May 7, 2006

Social Learning and the Diffusion of Knowledge

The Sydney Opera House, depicted in this photo, is among the most recognizable and beautiful structures in the world. The Syndey Harbour Bridge, which is the world's largest - but not the longest - single arch bridge in the world, overlooks the Opera House ... and from the top of the Bridge one can get a awe inspiring vista of the Harbour. The technical expertise required to build these structures was not developed in isolation but rather from the cumulative knowledge, skill, and cultural beliefs of the society that created them. It is through social learning that communities and cultures develop. It is through social learning that technological advances are diffused and adopted by a population, a profession, or a discipline.

Albert Bandura is perhaps the best known for articulating social learning (or social cognition) theory. While behaviorism postulates that learners are shaped by consequences (e.g. rewards and punishments) and constructivism theorizes that learners "construct" meaning from their personal experiences as they relate to previous experiences, social learning theory states that learners are largely shaped by observing other people in a social context. No single theory can explain (exclusively) how we learn. Clearly behaviorist and constructivist strategies both work. But I am intrigued by the power that social learning can have in shaping professional norms of behavior.

I think it is vitally important to read widely outside one's own discipline (including fiction!) to develop a greater understanding of the world. It is usually through my readings of these "tangential" materials that I have made surprising discoveries that have furthered my understanding as a teacher and health care practitioner. This alone is a strong argument why all professionals should have a liberal education - not merely a technical education in their discipline ... but I digress. I recently subscribed to Scientific American and I stumbled across an intriguing article in the April 2006 issue about social learning among orangutans in Sumatra (Why Are Some Animals So Smart? by Sarel Van Schaik pp64-71). Apparently the orangutan is not a particularly social animal and rather docile. Most orangutans do not use tools to forage for food - even though there would be a significiant advantage to adopting such a strategy. However, unlike their brethren throughout South East Asia, orangutans in the Kluet swamp of Sumatra are sophisticated tool users. Why? Researchers postulate that the use of tools is a cultural phenomena where the knowledge and skills necessary to use tools is perpetuated through social learning. Orangutans in the Kluet swamp are found in unusually high numbers (due to plentiful food and natural boundaries that prohibit their movement to other locations) - and this forces far more social interaction than most of their peers in other parts of Asia. It is through these social interactions that the brightest orangutans share their knowledge and skills with other members of the community (but not necessarily in an overt, intentional manner - they are orangutans after all!) . Most orangutans are bright enough to adopt tool use while they are in capacity when trained by humans. So intelligence can not explain the unique behavior observed in the Kluet swamp orangutans. Perhaps orangutans in the Kluet swamp have a great need to use tools? After all, necessity is the mother of invention - right? Doubtful - because food is generally plentiful in the Kluet swamp ... and orangutans in other areas have not adopted tool use in times of famine. Why hasn't the knowledge and skills needed to use tools diffused to other orangutan populations? Geography! There is little or no contact between the Kluet swamp population and other orangutan populations. Indeed, orangutans that have been displaced from the Kluet swamp loose the ability to use tools over time - presumably because the behavior is not reinforce by the community.

So - what are the implications of these findings for humans? Learning is a social (cultural) phenomena - and our collective intelligence sustains our development. The greatest achievements of mankind (as well as our tragic failures and exploitations) are not the result of a single great person or intellect – but rather the consequence of the cumulative knowledge perpetuated and expanded over time as well as the collective wisdom (or ignorance) of a particular society and culture. Great teachers know how to harness the power of social learning!