Sunday, January 16, 2011

Mental Dwellings

What is learning and how is it influenced?  Is instruction valid if it consists only of the obtainment of skills, but does not relate to how the learner values or connects to such information?  How do learners process information?  Do we teach this process or is it intrinsic?  What effect does the environment, experiences, and social interactions of the learner have on their success as learners?
The above mentioned questions are my mental dwellings for the week. Not exactly a light load, but I am not a light load kind of person.  I have been in school, as a student or a teacher, since I was four years old.  I love school. I love to learn new things. I love to talk about the things I have learned. I have taken classes on everything from cake decorating to geology, and just about everything in between.   I come from a loving family, but one that had never held higher education in much regard. My mother still refers to my first day of college as the day I ran away from home.   My initial interest in school and all things to be learned may not have come directly from the environment in which I was raised, but I do think that it came as a reaction to my environment.  Social interactions can influence learning and the motivation to learn.  Had I not had high school friends who all planned to go to college, I may not have gone.  I have never thought about what influences set me on this academic path, in as much detail, as I have recently.    
It was not until recently, and due to requirements of an online class’ discussion group, that I had to start writing and reflecting on my own education and learning styles.  It was this practice that got me thinking about how social interaction via a web-based discussion group could influence my learning, my perceptions of how I learned, and my own self evaluation of whether or not I am actually growing as a learner.  The fact that I am sitting here writing a blog entry about the learning process, problem solving, and how social interactions effects the two, would indeed lend credence to the fact that I am growing as a learner.  Good for me.    
As part of this blog assignment I was to research, read, and respond to two resources based on this week’s topics: the brain and learning, information processing theory, and problem-solving methods during the learning process. Because I seem to be intrigued by the discussion group concept to extending and relating to learned material, I started with a search on social interactions and how they effect learning.
The first article I found was Do your friends make you smarter?: An analysis of social strategies in online information seeking by Brynn M. Evans, Sanjay Kairamand, Peter Pirolli.  The article itself can be found within the Information Processing and Management Journal at  I liked the title so I proceeded to read the study. The purpose of the study was to document the methods and outcomes of using social resources to help with exploratory search tasks (Evans, Kairam, and Pirolli 2009).  The idea was to see how participants would react to different venues of information searches and whether social interaction, like social networking sites, would positively or negatively effect learner outcome.  I felt there was some basis to relate this study to the concept of discussion groups where information is disseminated, questions are asked, and support is given.  From reading this research article I learned your friends can make you smarter.  Of course this depends on who your friends are, and how much you value their input.  In essence, we do learn from each other.  We learn through interaction and relating to others on a specific topic.  One barrier to learning that was discussed in this article relates to Self-Efficacy, a personal belief the one can perform a task. Knowledge does not always transfer to proficient performance (Bandura 1997). In addition to Self-Efficacy, Albert Bandura (1989) writes that social interactions can effect learning because sufficing outcomes can act as a barrier to learning.  My perception of this, in reflection to what I read in the research paper and online, is if the learner finds a solution to a problem or values the information obtained via social interaction, he or she may take it at face value and stop the inquiry.  I figure that is why most post in our discussion group seems to end with a question, as to not make it impossible for the inquiry to end.  I think this research article answers some of my mental dwellings for the week by addressing how social interactions can influence learning.  I also think that it reinforces the importance for such task, as discussion groups, as a means for relating information learned and creating an environment where higher level learning can take place. 
When asked this week what problem solving techniques did I use when faced with a problem, I was able to go into to great detail how I tackle problems.  I consider myself a thinker and a planner.  I process the details of a problem, seen as the big picture, and them break apart and tackle the needed tasks to be done to solve the problem.  Am I a thinker?  Are my problems solving techniques what I say they are or just my perception of how I solve problems.  More fodder for my dwellings.  I decided to complete an online problem solving style questionnaire.  My results from problem solving style questionnaire (PSSQ) showed I was a thinker.  I use more thinking skills than any other skills to solve problems, though I scored nearly as high in intuitive and feeling skills.  What does that really prove? Nothing.   So sticking with the social interaction dwellings I mentioned earlier, I wanted to find out if problem solving techniques could be taught through social interactions.  This inquiry leads me to read a few articles on problem solving.  First I read Techniques of Problem Solving by Gray Pilgrim (2010) which stated that real learning was the ability to solve problems by thinking independently.   Through the reading I learned problem solving by means of independent thinking is separate from solving a problem independently.  He goes on to list what he considers the best problem solving techniques, including ‘break and conquer’, my personal method, and ‘brainstorming’, where groups of people work together to solve a problem.  So social interactions do play a part in problem solving skills, but can you learn problem solving skills from other people?  This led me to the article, Do We See Things Clearly? By Diane Chinn.  This article discusses the importance of obtaining the perspectives of others when problem solving.  She writes about how in 1999, NASA’s Mars Polar Orbiter burned up on impact with Mars’ atmosphere at a cost of 125 million dollars.  The group involved with this expedition did not share basic assumptions or operational definitions (Chinn, 2010) which led to a drastic error in translating measurements.  Chinn believes that interaction with others plays an important part in obtaining good problem solving skills.  She believes that sharing, participating in open discussions, and accepting constructive criticism all lead to the acquisition of better problem solving skills and more effective problem solving. 
Lesson learned.  Had I just read New Social Interaction Tools for Online Instruction by Patti Skank (2004) first, then I would quite quickly have learned that the importance of social interaction in learning has been documented repeatedly. Her article, which I will keep for later discussions, greatly details the need for online learners to participate in an environment that allows for discussion, reflection, help, and support from others throughout the learning process. 

This assignment was an exercise in finding authentic text that confirms the practices I use every day in my own classroom.  I teach in a highly social environment.  I am a Responsive Classroom teacher who believes that the social curriculum is as important as the academic curriculum.  Though I whole-heartedly embrace this as a teaching style and for years have seen my students flourish within such an environment, I am new to it as a student hence the choice in articles to review for this assignment. 

Bandura, A. (1989) Social cognitive theory. In R.Vasta (ED.). Annals of child development six theories of child development (Vol.6, pp. 1-60) Greenwich, CT JAI Press.
Bandura, A. (1997). Self-Efficacy: The Exercise of Control. Freeman: New York (212-258). , Retrieved from
Chinn, D. (2010, February 18). Do we see problems clearly? Retrieved from
Evans, B. M., Kairam, S., Pirolli, P., (2010). Do your friends make you smarter?: An Analysis of social strategies in online information seeking. Information Processing and Management, 46, 679-692. doi:10.1016/j.ipm.2009.12.001
Pilgrim, G. (2010, March 6). Techniques of Problem Solving. Retrieved from
Shank, P. (2004, December 28). New Social Interaction Tools for Online Instruction. Learning Peaks, LLC, Retrieved from

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