On Social Interaction in Learning

The concept of the “blank slate” has been discredited among philosophers, psychologist, and other scientists for several decades, but many educators continue to assume students arrive in classrooms with no relevant experiences and that students need only pay sufficient attention to learn the information teachers tell them. Educators with a more sophisticated understanding of learning and learners recognize both social and individual factors affect how and what is learned in their classrooms and they recognize reiterating information is not the same as knowing.

Human brains are born in a state of neoteny; our brains continue to develop long after we are born. That development occurs in a rich social environment, and normal brain development depends on social interaction. Wexler (2006) observed, “even when fully developed, the self-regulatory, self-direction of attention is far from autonomous, and social input remains a built-in feature of these mechanisms throughout the lifespan” (p. 106).

If we assume our brain and its ability to learn is the adaptation that allows us to survive, and it we as educators seek to influence what is learned by that brain, then we should understand how it learns. Scholars are recognizing that the social environment, the nature of the individuals and groups of people with whom we associate are among the chief determinant in how we learn. Michael Gazzaniga (2009), a noted neuroscientist who has studied human brains for decades, concluded “the shift to becoming highly social is what the human is all about,” (emphasis in the original) and he continues, “our higher intellectual skills arose as an adaptation to our newly evolved social needs” (111-2). It seems that brains and social interaction emerged together; we need our brains to build social connections and our social connections affect how our brains develop.

Brains arrive in the world immersed in a social environment we call culture. The culture that learners experience contributes to their views and perspectives; these become the criteria that are used to assess what and who is important. It seems humans follow the logic, “I need these people to survive, so I am going to do what they do, say what they say, and value what they value.” These cultural norms are developed very early in childhood, so when children enter school, these are deeply embedded. Schools, of course, are created to reflect the dominant culture, so these influences continue as children become adolescents. Especially as regions become more culturally diverse, there can be conflict between the learner’s culture and the culture of school.

Scholars from many fields have studied the question of what makes humans different from other creatures; I recognize the bias that is implicit in that statement. Presumably these scholars are interested in what makes humans “better” than other animals at cognition. These scholars do recognize that humans are a relatively weak member of the primates and that our brains seem to have been the one aspect of our biology that has allowed us to survive for as long as we have and to dominate the world to the point when we may well cause out species to go extinct.


Gazzaniga, M. S. (2009). Human: The Science Behind What Makes Your Brain Unique. Harper Perennial.

Wexler, B. E. (2006). Brain and culture: Neurobiology, ideology, and social change. MIT Press.