Social Pedagogies


Designing for Difficulty: Social Pedagogies as a Framework for Course Design

Randy Bass and Heidi Elmendorf[1] Georgetown University



What are social pedagogies? Why focus on them?

The rise of Web-based participatory culture, social media, and networked information has put the realm of the “social” at the center of what it means to share and build knowledge in our culture. Yet, we have only begun to understand the ways that the “social life of information” and the social construction of knowledge can reshape the ways we create learning experiences in the formal college curriculum.  We believe though that the deepening role of social dimension in learning—which we take broadly to include all representational acts as constitutive of knowledge—is as yet very little understood, not only with respect to technology-enhanced classrooms but broadly across all learning contexts. That is why our approach is to look at a range of teaching contexts from those where digital media tools are central to the course design to those where no digital technologies are involved at all, and hybrid contexts in between.

With this in mind, we define social pedagogies as design approaches for teaching and learning that engage students with what we might call an “authentic audience” (other than the teacher), where the representation of knowledge for an audience is absolutely central to the construction of knowledge in a course. Social pedagogies build in iterative cycles of engagement with the most difficult material, and through a focus on authentic audience and representation of knowledge for others, help students deepen their understanding of core concepts by engaging in the ways of thinking, practicing, and communicating in a field.  Ideally, social pedagogies strive to build a sense of intellectual community within the classroom and frequently connect students to communities outside the classroom.

Our interest in the importance of focusing on the social dimensions of learning can be located at the intersection of three important discourses. On the one hand, social pedagogies are a way of understanding what is often referred to as authentic learning. Authentic learning activities have “real-world relevance,” set problems for students that are “ill-defined” and complex, provide opportunities for students to examine and address the task from multiple perspectives, and give students ample opportunities to collaborate, reflect on their learning, and integrate their knowledge in various ways.[2]

Secondly, we are interested in the specific learning traits that emerge from these “authentic learning” situations. In particular, we have long hypothesized that social pedagogies are particularly effective at developing traits of  “adaptive expertise,” which include the ability of the learner to use knowledge flexibly and fluently, to evaluate, filter and distill knowledge for effect, to translate knowledge to new situations, and to understand the limits and assumptions of one’s knowledge.  Equally as important is the cultivation of certain attitudes or dispositions characteristic of adaptive experts, including the ability to work with uncertainty, adapt to ambiguity or even failure, and to feel increasingly comfortable working at the edges of one’s competence.[3] Although these are considered traits of “adaptive expertise,” they are increasingly being seen as essential liberal learning traits and as such the kinds of skills and dispositions that we want to be cultivating in novice learners as early as possible in college. A focus of this project was to explore the ways that social pedagogies might be especially effective at cultivating traits of adaptive expertise with novice learners in contexts typical of general education and liberal education contexts.

These kinds of adaptive traits—however valued they may be in the academy in the abstract—are often invisible and elusive in the course design and assessment process.  Designing a course that promotes, supports, and perhaps even evaluates these kinds of traits students implies that they have to be ways to make these effects visible—through some form of communication. And making them visible means, as well, means being conscious of them and increasingly reflective about them. This is one of the primary ways we see representation (and the social dimensions of learning) residing at the center of authentic learning (in both process and product). Representation of knowledge for others—whether as an author or maker, a teacher, a discussant or maker of arguments—implies that a learner has to step outside him or herself, to think about audience, context, and impact. Acts of representation are not merely vehicles to convey knowledge; they shape the very act of knowing.

We also believe that this approach provides us a set of lenses for learning more about the function of learning in formal classroom environments that start to take on some of the characteristics of Web-based “participatory cultures” where members of a community of practice find strong support for sharing their contributions, where members feel a sense of connectedness to each other, or that at least there is a shared sense of investment in what is being created, and a sense that something “is at stake” in the work being produced, either individually or collectively.[4] These are characteristics shared by many informal learning environments. One of the salient research areas for higher education (and indeed other settings, such as organizational learning) is how to harness the effectiveness of informal learning in the formal curriculum.

In short, social pedagogies are ways of seeing how acts of communication and representation connect authentic tasks to learning processes, learning process to adaptive practices, practices to learning environments and intellectual communities, and how the constellation of these elements help students integrate their learning by connecting to larger contexts for knowledge and action.

What are the goals of the White Paper and Case Study Collection?

This White Paper is intended to be a synthesis of findings across a set of diverse pedagogies—digital, non-digital, and hybrid—by way of developing an integrative approach to thinking about higher impact learning in formal courses. In looking across these diverse practices, we hope to focus on three key areas of course design and deployment:

Design: Understanding better the design of effective social pedagogies (especially the constellation of elements that make them successful in transformative ways).

Scaffolding: A better understanding of how faculty have learned to support—in the process of the unfolding of the course—the stages and steps of developing understanding that enable students to take on authentic tasks characteristic of social pedagogies. Critical to these strategies are what we call “intermediate cognitive processes,” or “intermediate intellectual moves,” which are intrinsic to adaptive expertise. This includes both faculty structures and guidance as well as formative feedback and reflection (including metacognitive reflection) that students make visible to themselves.

Assessment: A more textured understanding of assessment criteria for student work, especially understanding better the connection between intermediate processes (and captures) of learning and summative assessment that might emphasize more traditional assessment criteria (content knowledge, formal argumentation, etc).

We believe that social pedagogies are particularly effective at engaging students (especially novice and intermediate learners) with the difficult dimensions of core concepts by asking students to position themselves as actors, building relation to knowledge in the context of audience and community. As such, social pedagogies are also effective at bridging cognitive disciplinary understanding with more embodied dimensions of learning. By embodied learning, we mean that social pedagogies open up a set of filters or conditions for student learning–such as prior knowledge, identity, difference–that can be ignored or suppressed through more bounded, traditional pedagogies.

We hope that this project can make several specific contributions to the scholarship of teaching and learning, including:

  • Draw attention to a design framework that helps faculty think about elements of their courses that hold representation and social learning as central to the disciplinary (and broader developmental) goals of the course
  • Expand and deepen what we understand about the potential for participatory learning as applied to formal curricular contexts
  • Expand and deepen our collective understanding of authentic learning and make a case for a certain kinds of authentic learning that spans across digital and non-digital environments
  • Deepen what we mean by intermediate cognitive processes and adaptive expertise in terms of working with novice learners on authentic problems
  • Better understand how social pedagogies facilitate certain forms of metacognition and to identify a range of concrete strategies for building metacognitive reflection into authentic tasks and supportive processes
  • Catalog ways that various techniques for formative assessment and visualization of learning can be used to enhance the iterative cycles of learning within a course.

We are not proposing that social pedagogies is a term that should trump all others—authentic learning, experiential learning, participatory learning—but we do believe it calls attention to an under-analyzed set of elements that binds these kinds of learning.

The Social Pedagogies Framework

The common design elements and learning goals that have emerged from our cross-case studies have been captured in a conceptual framework (see Table 1). Each of the elements of the framework represents a range of design choices that a teacher might make in creating a course and a set of corresponding learning goals or outcomes that can be linked to specific elements. The framework is really a heuristic intended, in essence, to be a set of prompts for teachers to consider the elements of their course in light of their goals for their students.  Although we address each of the elements as if they were distinct—and belong to different layers of course design (task, process, communication, assessment, integration), the case studies have shown us that at minimum what makes social pedagogies effective in any given course is the way they function in constellations. No single case represented in the White Paper likely emphasizes all the elements (or at least all equally) but it is likely that if a course’s authentic approaches are effective for students it is because multiple design elements are at work and in some measure of alignment.

[1] Funded by the Teagle Foundation and the Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship, Georgetown University. The Social Pedagogies Working Group includes 16 faculty from 10 institutions, representing the full range of institutional types in higher education.

[2] See, for example, Jan Herrington, Ron Oliver, and Thomas Reeves, “Patterns of engagement in authentic online learning environments.”  Australian Journal of Educational Technology 2003 19 (1): 59-71.

[3] See, for example, Hitano and Inagaki (1986) who first coined the term, “adaptive expertise,” and later elaborations by John Bransford and his colleagues (2005).

[4] See Henry Jenkins, et. al., Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture. MacArthur Foundation, 2009.

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