The Failure of Asocial Learning

Our tour of the Decatur Summer Camps ended at the Thomas Jefferson School Building in a classroom of twelve students who had “failed” seventh grade. They stood in teams of three at tables displaying complex paper roller coasters that rose three feet above the tabletops. As we visitors walked from table to table, we were as impressed with their poise as with their constructions. They spoke up with confidence and self-possession, articulately defining what was unique and valuable about their creations.

That the marbles actually rolled as they were supposed to was impressive, but even more impressive were their stories of what they learned in the process of solving problems together.

When the principal told us that collaboration was their biggest challenge because their elementary schools had given them very little practice at working together, I made him repeat it. “Yes,” he said, “Seven years of elementary school has very little collaboration in it. School has almost no activities that require cooperation.”

My experience agrees with his. Even though in many classrooms students might sit four to a table, any interaction with their partners is usually met with censure by the teacher. Traditionally, school is about “doing your own work” and striving to measure up to standards on your own.

No wonder these twelve young people had failed. School had failed them. School had failed at what could be its most important contribution to the education of our citizens—how to work things out with others.

Most—luckily not all—schools fail our children by thinking their job is limited to academics and that “the social-emotional” is the responsibility of the family and perhaps the church. “Behavior” lives in our brains as “morality” rather than intelligence that can be developed, educated and sophisticated.

With this failure we waste our most important asset: the genius of human beings. Kids come to school passionate about their social opportunities. This passion should cue us to the fact that their neurons are wired for complex social learning, straining at the gate to engage in social problem solving, instinctively knowing that being successful with others is necessary for an optimal life. With a few notable exceptions when kids enter kindergarten, they are still brimming with social capabilities that need developing.

Cooperative Learning GroupWhen school blunts this passion, it compromises brain development. Consider this: what is more mentally challenging, learning long division or solving a social problem? Social relationships depend on learning what someone else is thinking and feeling, double checking to make sure you got it right, comparing and contrasting that information with what you are thinking and feeling, considering what you want and comparing that to what the other person wants, deciding what to do with those similarities and differences, finding the words to express what would serve your purposes in this situation, getting it wrong, analyzing the feedback, making mental adjustments, making a plan for what to do next, and trying again.

This is a gross approximation of the complex social and emotional activity that is going on in our brains so constantly and naturally that we are usually only marginally aware of it. What we commonly call intelligence as tested in our schools pales by comparison. In real life, social-emotional intelligence IS intelligence.

Yes, our kids are graduating from high school unable to write. The root cause of this is the discontinuity between academics and situations with social and emotional meaning. Language development is intimately tied to social success, and every child knows it. When teachers get students emotionally involved in what they are writing, their students learn to write.

Schools and the cultural mindset in which they are embedded are failing our children by not even attempting to teach those skills that will help them make friends, get jobs, keep their jobs, find satisfaction in their work, build harmonious families, resolve conflicts with their colleagues “across the isle” and find satisfaction in their lives.

Listen to the conversation in the teachers’ lounge: “I know Graham cuts his classmates off mid-sentence. I know he’s arrogant, but he’s a great student. Heck he gets straight A’s.”

Listen to the conversation at the water cooler: “I know Mr. Garfield tries to bully other people with his ideas and never listens. In know he does more harm than good. But the thing is, he’s so smart.”

Smart but selfish? No. Miseducated and stupid. School failed to teach Graham and Garfield how to sit in a group of four and work a calculus problem together.

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5 Responses to The Failure of Asocial Learning

  1. this work intersects beautifully with the action research of Clyde Gaw of New Palestine, Indiana. Do take a look at his blog–I have shared this article with him. He does wonderful work with the “bad boys”, and others.

  2. Rachel says:

    Exactly the reason I was so upset that my daughters kindergarten teacher took away her recess time when she didn’t complete her work. There was only 6 weeks left of school when we moved so she really needed the social time to help her adjust. They couldn’t talk during work time, either. Some schools have rules that the kids can’t talk during lunch time.

  3. Elisabeth A. de Smedt says:

    Wonderful article! Thank you for sharing your ideas.
    I am convinced that proces evaluation stimulates the motivation of all students, creates a “common goal feeling” and enhances the relativity of the “self”.
    Let’s hope that within 10 years all schools are stimulating the growth mindset ( Thank you Carol!)
    My deepest regards.
    Elly – Belgium

  4. Sheryl Morris says:

    Balance, please!
    I agree whole heartedly that social learning is a must and is sorely lacking in most educational classrooms!
    It’s a personal imperative for me to speak up for the introverts among us, however. Please make allowances for those who need to work alone before melding their ideas with others, e.g. Albert Einstein, Steve Wozniak, and Theodor Geisel (Dr. Suess).
    I reference “Quiet” by Susan Cain. Thank you!

  5. Rick says:

    Sheryl, Each of us is unique, and each challenged by other people and social situations in our own way. It is important in every group for a person’s right to be alone for a while to be respected, whenever that person needs it. “Treat each person the way THEY want to be treated” should be a rule in every group. In my book, respect for others also includes not labeling. It’s not that introverts should be allowed–anyone should be allowed. It’s not “work alone before melding,” it’s “work the way you need to work in order to make the best contribution you can make.”

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