Which first- social media or social constructivism?

Blogging, wikis, collaborative documents, all of these tools are allowing teachers and learners who ‘get them’ to work together to construct their knowledge and understanding. Those who do not are sometimes depicted as being behind the times or anti technology, but is the technological element masking a wider attitude towards social learning?

In the last few weeks I have been involved in a pilot group for developing the use of social media in Birmingham schools. Our first meeting saw us sharing examples of things we are currently doing, and discussing what directions we might take to pilot the next steps in our own schools, and to encourage development of the use of these tools across the city.

We covered some really interesting issues, from the problem of branding an initiative in terms of ‘social media’ with the connotations of potentially inappropriate Facebook contact, to the transformative potential of blogging for children with ASD and communication difficulties.

One thing that came across to me was the keenness for sharing. Despite, or perhaps because of, coming from a variety of different settings, we felt that sharing what we were doing with social media and debating the pros and cons was worthwhile. We were learning from each other, and were excited for the potential opportunities for the learners in our schools doing the same- contrasting, comparing, and learning from the shared experiences of others.

To me, the social media tools we were looking at seem an ideal way of extending this kind of learning in our classrooms, but an important question was raised: how many teachers are valuing this type of learning in their practice already? It was suggested that far from these tools extending a social view of collaborative learning, they may actually be introducing it as something of an outside concept.

How many primary teachers see conversing, debating, sharing a contrasting points of view as the mainstay of the cognitive development of their pupils? How many instead see what these pupils have written on their own, in their individual books, with an ethos of ‘no copying’, as the real focus of their learning?

Perhaps there is a different issue to be discussed here which has little to do with technology. I wonder if, before investigating the technical tools, we should be exploring how much or how little teachers actually use social constructivist notions of learning to underpin their work. My gut feeling leads me to suspect that those of us evalgelising social uses of technology might be quite surprised that the resistance to them lies not just in arguments around the actual technology, but also in a difference of opinion of how integral social connections are to learning.

Perhaps we should sort out our collective understandings of this first, or could we come at it from a different tack? Could these social technologies serve to make explicit the links between social interactions and learning? Could pushing their use drive a more fundamental shift in thinking towards the influence of other learners in building a collective understanding as more important than the authoritative wisdom of a teacher?


Lots of questions, few answers. However, this has made me wary of taking for granted the notion that social directions for learning are universally seen to be valuable. As ever, it’s not about the tools, it’s about the thinking. I am left wondering whether this thinking should be addressed before evangelising tools, or if the tools themselves could be a good vehicle for starting conversations about a more fundamental shift in practice.







19 responses to “Which first- social media or social constructivism?”

  1. John Putt Avatar

    I quite agree with the point you make about people ‘getting it’. In my view the only way to ‘get it’ is to use it.

    The learning that has come to me from using Twitter, reading blogs, wikis and to some extent, creating them, and engaging in # chats and attending TeachMeets has been mind opening. My continuing professional development has become continuous professional learning.

    Ultimately though it has been the ‘social’ bit that has mattered the most & the technology has helped widen my ‘social learning’ PLN. It has led to more discussion and sharing in school as well. More & more colleagues are on Twitter.

    The challenge now remains to convince and convert others so that they can benefit from these shared learning experiences. I have shared my experiences of Twitter & that of a colleague for CPL with over 70 heads, senior leaders and a handful of policy makers in Wales.

    By us learning in this way we will realise of the potential it has for our learners in schools.


    1. oliverquinlan Avatar

      I am sure there must be teachers participating in this kind of social learning online who are not doing so in school, whether dut to culture or to colleagues not seeing the value of sharing.

      Sometimes I think the technical image of something like twitter can put off those who would actually be interested in sharing, but sometimes it can provide a model for how we could be benefitting from the experiences of each other. It’s an interesting area to explore.

  2. Lara Avatar

    I certainly feel that the concept is as much of an issue as the technology. Some teachers appear to feel that once children are discussing their ideas together they as teachers no longer have any control over what is being said and I believe that it is this lack of control that hampers them, not the actual concept of social learning.

    1. James Michie Avatar

      Agreed! Almost every time I have observed certain teachers I end up discussing and recommending a more student centred approach such as ‘to include more group discussion’ or ‘to try a student-led plenary’.

      However, when I return to observe many of these teachers later in the year the lessons I see fail to include any of these things. In many cases, they have observed me or colleagues deliver lessons with these sorts of activities; they have attended CPD on student centred learning, but their lessons have not changed.

      I believe that Oliver could be right. Perhaps there is a deeper issue here and that is whether or not they actually value/believe in this sort of collaborative learning, and as Lara suggests – maybe even fear it.

      I think this needs to be unpacked with many teachers before considering collaborative or social technologies. Pedagogy should always come first.

      1. oliverquinlan Avatar

        It is interesting that teachers express lack of control in these situations as a reason for not pursuing this type of learning. I think when you are tightly leading learning in a didactic way it is easy to get a false sense of control. Just because you are channelling information at the children doesn’t mean it is going in in the way you intend. It’s all down to their interpretation, and misconceptions can still enter into things even when you are supposedly in control- the problem is it is all to easy to miss them and mistakenly think that learners are understanding things in the way you intend.

        It is interesting what you say about pedagogy coming first. I can see the arguments for that, and agree in many ways. However, personally I only really ‘got’ the value of sharing and collaborative learning when I engaged with it through technology. Sometimes the technological structures make visible the processes of certain types of learning, and in making them explicit instead of implicit make their value obvious. I have certainly experienced that in my own use of social media.

  3. José Picardo Avatar

    You are right: there are many who still don’t get it. But this is largely because many teachers work in an environment which is designed to promote and value other types of learning. The vast majority have not even considered using these tools in their classroom.

    A few have experimented with these tools but still remain unconvinced about their pedagogical potential. Fewer still have persevered and are developing the foundation of good practice.

    Our understanding of the potential of learning socially using the tools that current technology affords us is shaped by this practice – good and bad. Only by using them can we understand and, therefore, help others get it.

    One aspect you have not touched upon is whether students get it. Do they see social networks as a learning tool or their own private space? Do they therefore welcome teacher intervention? Does the initial engagement and enthusiasm wane when the tools become yet another way for schools to dictate what happens in their lives?

    My own views about the potential of social networking in education are here.

    1. oliverquinlan Avatar

      Thanks for sharing your views Jose. You are so right, we need to explore learners interpretations of tools as well. I think it is all about ownership. If we are not giving learners ownership of their learning then when the shine wears off any new tools we will be back to square one. I think encouraging, modeling and providing a range of tools and then allowing them to use them as they see the need and benefit is the ideal here. There are of course lots of practical implications in trying to achieve this ideal!

  4. Hannah Jones Avatar

    Like you Oliver I just assumed that others ‘got’ what we have discovered for ourselves, that we learn more when do it with others.
    The technology is just the enabler and can be an obstacle to the uninitiated.
    Sharing has some really powerful multiplying magic.

    This learning became explicit for me in 2008 when I experienced the power first hand.
    I has just starting blogging about my learning and you can read for yourself what I learnt here http://j.mp/kLUR44.

  5. Keith McNeill Avatar
    Keith McNeill

    Hugely important question Oliver. The entire debate and discussion that surrounds social networking has, I believe, this question at it’s core.

  6. John Weir Avatar
    John Weir

    Enhancing social dialogue through the use of new or emerging technologies as a means of developing understanding is great, but resources aside, a curriculum that fails to provide the freedom for children (and adults) to learn and develop; and one that fails to encourage self-expression and creativity, is I feel, a greater obstacle to engaging children in learning and enabling them to develop their individual talents to the full.

    The biggest strides in my learning have occurred when I have been able to bring my experience to a problem and have been presented the opportunity to use this experience to solve the problem for myself. However, I am able to do this not just because I have ‘knowledge-experience’, but because I have ‘metacognitive-experience’; I understand how I learn best and I am able to set about solving my problem in a way that is likely to be successful for me.

    Social technologies can provide the interaction for the development of knowledge-experience, but can they also encourage children to identify how they learn best? We need to be prepared to facilitate a far more personalised approach to learning within the classroom. No one approach is best and we should resist the temptation to imply that technologies are ‘the’ way forward when in reality their emergence has just widened the breadth of approaches available; albeit in a very exciting and relevant format. Some may learn best in relative isolation, while others as part of an ever widening social community. It is possible to share what has been developed in isolation as well as that which has been developed in partnership.

  7. Richard Stephenson Avatar
    Richard Stephenson

    There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that the main barriers to using technology lie beyond purely technical issues. Time and time again, the implementing of many kinds of ICT solutions exposes deficiencies in leadership, community and educational philosophy that should underpin current classroom practice let alone provide the necessary platform for embracing the current technological possibilities.
    It is these issues that really need the effort and time – and technology is a wonderful catalyst to open them up for development!

  8. Leon Cych Avatar

    Oliver, this is exactly why I set up Social Media for Schools as an organisation.

    To find out exactly how people are using Social Media within education if at all. What the attitudes are – if they are positive or negative – if it is being used successfully – in what form is it being used and how could that impact on different communities.

    I doubt any two communities are the same in terms of their dynamics but if there is a common thread then we intend to find it. I suspect it will be process driven rather than any one toolset.

    I am driving all over the country to film people this July and would like to catch up with you on several fronts and talk about this process at scale?

    1. oliverquinlan Avatar

      Leon, I am enthusiastic about what you are doing and happy to help out! Let me know about your plans for the videos and I am sure we can arrange to meet up.

  9. Steve Philp Avatar

    I agree with you that constructivism is at the heart of the matter, and that is why I wrote: How the learning platform could become the new worksheet some time ago (which I’m sure you’ve already read!). The fact is that even given best intentions, we can get so focussed on outcomes to do with display and presentation, such as nice handwriting or double-backed artwork, rather than outcomes to do with cognition and the whole act of making children smarter.

    It is ironic that we are working on a pilot to produce guidance for teachers on using social media in a form that will be fixed, on a static website. Will people get the whole ‘pipe is more important than the contents of the pipe’ thing talked about by George Siemans in his paper on Connectivism?

    1. oliverquinlan Avatar

      I read that post when your first wrote it and agree with the sentiment. We really do need to keep linking theory and thinking to practice with these new tools, lest they simply functionally replace the ‘old tools’ in a way that is of little benefit.

      Ruben Puentadora’s SAMR model referenced here has really helped to shape my thinking on this: http://www.edjournal.co.uk/about

  10. Piers Young Avatar

    I think you’re right. It’s easy to assume lack of take-up us due to digital illiteracy. At the same time, I know teachers who happily use Facebook and iPhones but steer clear of social media in their classes.

    At least, some social media. Many will use youtube, for instance, but they use it as a source of free content rather than a social media tool. The clincher seems to be the leap of faith where you let students take some control. Wikis, their own blogs.

    What would be interesting is to see if we could find software that chimes with their pedagogies. I wonder if they would take the computers then?

  11. Chris Seymour-Smith Avatar

    Hi Oliver, missing you in the meetings! I do realise that perhaps the chicke-egg question is rhetorical. I was reflecting, though, on why I find the social media project exciting (yes I know I’ve branded it by tool and not by thinking!).

    I realise that I really wanted to work with this project simply because I believed that using the tool would lead to the social learning behaviur that some/many teachers are not achieving in the classroom.

    In essence, the transformING nature of social networking tools lies in the powerful social learning it supports, but – and this is the bit that I like, cos it’s sneaky! – the transformATIVE nature of social tools is that it changes the teachers using it. When they watch what happens when their pupils interact through blogs, for example, they see something valuable and have to work out what that value is – all social learning.

    So, in my head anyway, social media allows teachers to ‘get’ social constructivism, value it in a way that previous cas e studies or roles models failed to do so, and then actively seek out social media to deliver future constructivist learning experiences. Iterative, not linear, as is life.

    I like sneaky change change management 🙂

    1. oliverquinlan Avatar

      Interesting idea Chris. Perhaps part of the problem with communicating social constructivism is it’s abstract nature. It doesn’t exactly have a structural model people can follow.

      Social media tools do, interactions with them occur within the framework of the tool, allowing people to ‘see’ the structure of their interactions and perhaps visualize a social constructivist set of communications.

      In my own experience, my use of MySpace to promote my band helped me to figure out the nature of a highly network based industry (in music). Through using this structured tool, I learned how networks work and that has undoubtedly influenced me when I moved into a different community (education).

      It’s a tricky balance, I guess what matters is that we are having these conversations and seeking the clearest way to communicate with teachers and learners the potential for transformative learning, whatever order we do that in.

  12. […] saw me join a team developing social media in Birmingham schools, wondering whether it was the tools or the thinking that are most important. I continued to develop my thinking around independent learning, and was offered a new job at […]

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