Despite its drawbacks, social media can teach us about the power of social learning
Stephen Anthony Guerriero taught middle school Social Studies for 20 years and is currently a visiting lecturer in Classical Studies at Brandeis University. He is also the social media wizard and marketing director for the Centerpiece Flower Shop, named Boston Magazine’s 2022 Best Florist. Read more about Stephen, below.
In the past ten years, social media has had a transformational impact on the way we interact with one another, and that has been even more pronounced among our students. In classrooms, teachers have seen an increasingly online population of young people whose worldviews and social skills are affecting, in part, the way they learn. These changes can be concerning1 when it comes to students’ attention spans, resilience, feelings of inadequacy, or even just the amount of time spent on social platforms. It can be easy to dismiss social media as a negative force on our students, but I think a deeper look can reveal specific, positive implications for our teaching practice.
What is so powerful about social media is the social piece―the dynamic of connecting a person to other people through a shared experience―whether that’s in conversation, over images or videos, music, or anything else that serves to create a sense of community. While these specific interactions are happening online, they illustrate the power of community as a learning environment. Creating caring, welcoming, and engaging communities of learners in their classrooms is nothing new2 for educators, but the methodology and intentionality have changed in practice. The shared experience of social media is what attracts and keeps kids engaged on specific platforms in a way that creates a shortcut between kids’ innate need to feel accepted and connected. While some have even labeled this as an addictive3 element of social media, teachers know that learning cannot happen unless students feel those very same things: being connected to their teachers and peers, and accepted by those around them.
Social learning has always been a part of the classroom
Since at least the 1930s, the idea of how social interactions foster and support learning has been a key concept in education and in psychology. The foundational work4 in this field by Lev Vygotsky demonstrated that students could learn more, and more deeply, when they were working collaboratively with peers than they could on their own. The dynamic Vygotsky illustrated was that one student would push the other’s thinking in a way that drove them both to learn. He popularized the idea of a “zone of proximal development,” meaning that to reach the next level of understanding a concept existed in a gray zone between what students know and what they don’t. In this zone, social learning is paramount because the interaction between and among students brought all of their understanding to a higher level. The development of collaborative learning structures and even that of project-based learning (PBL) owe a great deal to Vygotsky’s research. So does the rise in prominence of social and emotional learning (SEL)5.
Like many teachers, I view work in SEL as fundamentally linked to our academic goals for our students. Research has long shown that when students aren’t available for learning, their academic performance suffers. The disruptions we saw as a result of the pandemic underscored6 how important the social aspect of school was for our young people. While students were already experiencing something of a crisis in mental health―feelings of anxiety, depression, isolation, and behavioral challenges―the last three years have seen that crisis rise to the top of teachers’ concerns. We know that students not only need interactions with their peers to foster learning, students also need a welcoming, engaging environment that encourages growth, learning, and friendships. Now, teachers are making purposeful, concerted efforts to intentionally design those kinds of social learning7 environments with greater urgency.
How Can We Leverage the Best of Social Media?
If we can isolate some of the best elements of our students’ social media experience―the feeling of community, shared experiences, and connectivity―then we can design classrooms and lessons that foster social learning. To be clear, the goal isn’t to recreate the classroom as a space that looks like someone’s TikTok feed although I will say that the occasional injection of a little dancing and some upbeat music can have their place in our practice. Instead, teachers can think through some of the elements that translate to better practice with a group of students that are saturated in the social media experience.
You may be skeptical, so I will share some concrete examples:
1. Short-form video
One of the essential elements of all social media platforms is the propagation of high-impact, short-form video8 clips. Students are accustomed to watching and scrolling through this form of content at great length. Incorporating this medium as part of a lesson can boost engagement and access. The most significant difference is that instead of an endless stream of mind-numbing content, teachers choose videos for their quality, content, and relevance. To do this, we must ensure that teachers have access to curated video content that is standards-aligned, highly engaging, and easily integrated into a larger lesson plan. Ideally, these video clips should only be a few minutes or less and have direct links to the educational goals of the lesson, and be inserted at strategic points throughout the activity.
2. Collaboration through shared experience
One of the greatest drivers of social media engagement is the idea of a shared experience. Think about the comment section of a cute video of puppies tumbling over one another to get to their breakfast, or a cooking video that breaks down how to make one of your favorite pasta recipes. The conversation has an immediate focal point, as the participants are all in tune with the original piece of content. Now, replace the cooking video with a short clip explaining a math concept, a historical event, or even the reading of a poem. Because each student comes to the conversation with their own perspective, background, and reaction, the learning experience is a heightened amalgam of all of their diverse contributions. Scale up this dynamic and you can see how project-based learning9 can turn this discrete moment into an entire unit lesson plan.
3. Creating for an audience
Just like content creators on social media, students need to be able to identify and speak to a specific audience10 with their work. Traditionally that audience had been their teacher, who was the ultimate arbiter of the quality and outcome of their learning activity. Now, though, we want students to be able to communicate their thinking to teachers and their classmates. This helps students to “read the room” and articulate concepts and analyses supported by evidence. Then, as audience members for their peers, students get to see a variety of styles and evaluate what is effective and what isn’t. We need to give teachers time to create and plan interactive lessons that offer opportunities for students to talk about their work and their learning. This includes providing teachers with high-quality, proven lesson plans that address specific strands of their curriculum. It also means that teachers need ways to interact with their students through online activities, share resources, and connect students in a safe, moderated format.
Social learning supports social skills
Many teachers have noticed that a combination of increasing amounts of time spent online and the disruption of the pandemic have resulted in deficits related to social skills, emotional regulation, and behavioral impulses. We have known for a long time that social skills could not be learned through osmosis alone. Students need explicit11 instructions and strategies for how to interact with classmates by showing empathy, understanding, and curiosity. This might include giving students the vocabulary necessary to accurately explain how they’re feeling, or structured ways to approach conflict resolution or misunderstandings. These lessons are just as integral to a classroom as any academic subject and allow for the facilitation of greater learning through positive social interactions. Not all teachers have access to the resources or lesson plans they need for this kind of learning, yet there are many great resources out there. Just like our students, educators also need time to collaborate and to push one another’s thinking to scaffold our learning. Putting in place the systems and tools to allow for this kind of collaboration is critical.
Finally, one last lesson we can take from social media and apply to social learning is the critical importance of data. Social media could not exist in the form it does without collecting and evaluating vast amounts of data. Setting aside myriad privacy concerns for another conversation, the power of social media platforms’ ability to collect and use data cannot be overstated. In classrooms, data is also critical to make sure that students are learning and reaching the goals we set for them both academically and in terms of personal growth. Unlike complicated algorithms or platforms with entire teams devoted to data analysis, teachers have only a finite amount of time to do this part of the job. We can help our educators by having in place systems that capture useful data about student progress and bring that to teachers in a comprehensive way without overwhelming them. A few really accurate, useful12 data points are so much better than having troves of quantitative data sets. We want teachers to have actionable information that improves lessons almost immediately.
The future of social learning
One last point to consider is that the social media landscape is constantly evolving, and our students are evolving with it, in the way they consume media, interact with one another, and view the world. Social learning in our classrooms should keep pace by adapting lessons that harness the power of social interaction―a sense of community, belonging, and acceptance―to create even more powerful learning experiences. Even now, new technologies13 like ChatGPT are showing us what this might look like in the future. Students will be able to access generative conversational information to support their learning in ways we might never have imagined even a few years ago. [See Learning Explorer 4 Ways Teachers Can Harness the Power of ChatGPT.] In that vein, our lessons will adapt as we teach kids how to evaluate sources or the limitations of this kind of generative technology. No matter what the classroom of the future looks like, the fundamental role of the teacher as curator of resources and facilitator of learning will be there. Students will succeed to the extent that their teachers are well-prepared and have the right tools to help them do their job.
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1(n.d.). Teens and social media use: What’s the impact? Mayo Clinic Health System. Retrieved January 29, 2023, from https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/tween-and-teen-health/in-depth/teens-and-social-media-use/art-20474437
2Johnson, C. S., & Thomas, A. T. (2009). Caring as a Classroom Practice. National Council for the Social Studies, Social Studies and the Younger Learner, 22(1), 8-11. https://doi.org/https://www.socialstudies.org/system/files/publications/articles/yl_220108.pdf
3Johnson, G. (2023, January 8). Seattle schools sue tech giants over social media harm. AP News. https://apnews.com/article/social-media-seattle-lawsuits-mental-health-965a8f373e3bfed8157571912cc3b542
4Mcleod, S., Ph.D. (2022, August 18). Vygotsky’s Sociocultural Theory of Cognitive Development. Simply Psychology. https://www.simplypsychology.org/vygotsky.html
5(n.d.). What is Social Emotional Learning(SEL): Why It Matters. National University. Retrieved January 29, 2023, from https://www.nu.edu/blog/social-emotional-learning-sel-why-it-matters-for-educators/
6(n.d.). School During the Pandemic: Mental Health Impacts on Students. National Alliance on Mental Illness. Retrieved January 29, 2023, from https://namica.org/blog/impact-on-the-mental-health-of-students-during-covid-19/
7(2020, May 15). How Social Learning Theory Works in Education. Western Governors University. Retrieved January 29, 2023, from https://www.wgu.edu/blog/guide-social-learning-theory-education2005.html#close
8Knowledge Motion, Inc. (2022, September 29). Short Educational Videos Are Better for Learning. Boclips.com. https://www.boclips.com/blog/short-educational-videos-for-students-are-better-for-learning
9George Lucas Educational Foundation (n.d.). Project-Based Learning (PBL). Edutopia.org. Retrieved January 29, 2023, from https://www.edutopia.org/project-based-learning
10Hietanan, C. (2012, November 29). Creating Authentic Audiences for Student Work. George Lucas Educational Foundation. https://www.edutopia.org/article/creating-authentic-audiences-student-work/
11Bierman, K. L., & Sanders, M. T. (2021). Teaching Explicit Social-Emotional Skills With Contextual Supports for Students With Intensive Intervention Needs. Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders, 29(1), 14–23. https://doi.org/10.1177/1063426620957623
12(2020). How Educators Can Use Student Data to Drive Instruction. LSU Online. https://doi.org/https://online.lsu.edu/newsroom/articles/how-educators-can-use-student-data-drive-instruction/
13Ferlazzo, L. (2023, January 3). ChatGPT: Teachers Weigh In on How to Manage the New AI Chatbot. Education Week. https://www.edweek.org/teaching-learning/opinion-chatgpt-teachers-weigh-in-on-how-to-manage-the-new-ai-chatbot/2023/01
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Stephen Anthony Guerriero, M.A., M.Ed., is a visiting lecturer in the Department of Classical Studies at Brandeis University. He was a twenty-year Social Studies educator at the middle and elementary levels with Needham Public Schools and previously Dedham Public Schools (Massachusetts). Stephen received a Master of Arts in Ancient Greek and Roman Studies at Brandeis University; a Master of Education in Curriculum and Instruction at Boston College; and a Bachelor of Arts in International Relations, Italian Studies, and Latin at Boston University. Stephen is a contributing writer for Learning Explorer; his opinions are his own.