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April 24, 2018

I Am Active in My Learning Community: Socially Embedded Learning

Colleen Broderick, VP of Learning

AltSchool’s VP of Learning, Colleen Broderick discusses five elements of learner-centric education and shares how each element guides AltSchool’s pedagogical vision and development of practices and software. In this fourth installment of five, she talks about socially embedded learning.

Read the rest of the series:
I Learn According to My Needs: Enabling Competency-Based Education
I Drive What I Learn: Enabling Learner Agency
I Develop a Strong Sense of Self: Making Learning Personalized, Relevant, and Contextualized
My Learning Transcends the Classroom: Creating an Open-Walled Education

In the first three elements in this series on learner-centric education, we’ve focused on how teachers can support individual students. Teachers do this by creating a competency-based environment where a student is working at his or her “just-right” level, enabling learner agency through sliding the “controls of personalization” toward the learner, and helping a learner develop a strong sense of self.

But learning isn’t just between a student and their teacher. Learning has a social element, where a student relates to his or her peers, family, and other members of the community. Capitalizing on the benefits of a socially embedded learning model is another key element of crafting learner-centric environments.

A socially embedded learning model has anintentionally created community that gives each person (students and teachers) a deep sense of belonging. For students, this means building healthy, meaningful, and sustained relationships with peers and adults, emphasizing the social nature of learning. It also reflects a commitment to cultivating a network where students can build connections to expertise and opportunity.

Read more from Colleen Broderick: Amplifying Goal-Setting with Technology

Socially Embedded Learning Starts with the Learner

An intentional community starts with a deep understanding of the student, which a teacher then uses to determine how each individual fits into the learning community as a whole. The learning community includes other people in the classroom, such as peers and educators; it also includes families, adult mentors, experts, and other community members. In order to create opportunities for these relationships to flourish, a teacher must truly know a student’s abilities, challenges, passions, background, and more. Generally, this information is held in a learner profile.

The information in a learner profile is useful for much more than the social aspects of learning. In any competency-based environment, a student’s existing knowledge, abilities, and challenges inform learning experiences. For example, teachers use the learner profile to ensure students are always working at their “just right” level. In socially embedded learning, a teacher also uses this information to structure learning experiences involving other people, whether that’s working with peers at similar or complementary levels or communicating with parents about a student’s needs and what “just right” support at home looks like.

Learn more about Our Vision for Lab Schools.

The learner profile also includes information about a student’s personality, background, and interests. This clearly relates to contextualizing learning experiences and making them personalized and relevant. In a socially embedded environment, a teacher also uses this information to create opportunities for a student to connect with peers, other professional educators, or experts in the community. In order to enable these meaningful connections, a teacher must have a deep understanding of the student as a person. What is the potential role this learner can play in our larger community of learners?

Social Capital Outside the School Community

Beyond the immediate school community, students can greatly benefit from extended networks of experts and mentors. Recent research cites exposure to a wider network as a way to close opportunity gaps: Children were more likely to become innovators (patent-filers) if they had high exposure to innovators as children and young adults through their parents, their parents’ colleagues, people in their neighborhood, and their college communities. Currently, such exposure is largely correlated with family background and socio-economic status, but we may be able to close this gap through intentional development of learning communities. Educators should craft learning experiences with such exposure in mind, such as visits from experts in a variety of fields, access to mentors and role models, and programs that expose children to less visible career paths.

Opportunities for expanding learning communities abound with digital communication technologies, from  connecting with other students and experts from the local community or around the world to accessing  information more easily. In my post on learner agency, students receive the tools to become lifelong learners, able to drive all of their own learning. Students don’t leave formal education knowing everything they need to know, but they do acquire the skills to discover how to learn more. This applies to a student’s lifelong learning community as well—a socially embedded education enables students to continue building their learning community. So, even if they don’t know the answer, they can think creatively about where and to whom they can turn for help.

Discover 5 ways goal-setting can be a powerful driver for learner agency.

Learning Communities at AltSchool

At AltSchool, we structure our schools to maximize the potential for learning communities. Our schools are intentionally small, with no more than 120 students per site, to enable personal relationships between students and adults outside of each student’s immediate classroom. Students develop multi-year relationships through mixed-age classrooms, with teacher continuity wherever possible. Small schools also enable other adults in the school community, like heads of school, PE educators, and personalization leads, to know each student personally.

An Example of Socially Embedded Learning from Our Lab School

This past trimester, Foundational Elementary students at AltSchool Yerba Buena engaged with their learning communities in a project called “In My Family’s Shoes.” Students learned about their families and other families around the world, expanding their understanding of their local and global communities. They started by brainstorming research questions as a group, which they used to conduct interviews with family members at home. They then visualized what they found through graphs and maps to explore similarities and differences. Each student synthesized what they learned about their own family in a “how-to” book in which they listed and illustrated instructions for being a member of their family.

When their final drafts were ready, they took a field trip to the Bookbinders Museum, where they used Industrial Age equipment to bind their final products for display at their Yerba Buena Learning Exhibition. Here, families and fellow students visited the Foundational Elementary classroom to hear the books being read aloud and learn about their process. Here are a few of our favorite excerpts:

  • “If you want to be in my family, you have to take care of animals and wild animals.”
  • “You need a Baba from Iran who speaks Farsi and English.”
  • “You need to know how to sing. We sing songs in French and English.”
  • “You need to celebrate Chinese New Year like my mom.”
Read the rest of the series:
I Learn According to My Needs: Enabling Competency-Based Education
I Drive What I Learn: Enabling Learner Agency
I Develop a Strong Sense of Self: Making Learning Personalized, Relevant, and Contextualized
My Learning Transcends the Classroom: Creating an Open-Walled Education
Learn more about our lab schools and our partner school program.

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