In this post we explore how learning with others, in a group or under the guidance of mentors, can be an effective approach for learning new skills. We identify how learning socially was commonplace for revered artists and thinkers – Da Vinci and Picasso. And look to contemporary research to reveal whether this approach is still relevant today considering the challenges faced when learning new tech skills. To conclude, we suggest some practical ways to start learning with others.
Learning socially has stood the test of time.
It’s a common theme in the story of some of our greatest minds.
Acclaimed artist Picasso spent many evenings in the salons of Paris and Barcelona – places where people would enjoy deep discussion of politics, religion, philosophy, economics and of course art.
Similarly, Da Vinci lived for many years in the Italian “Bottega”. A space, home to other like-minded individuals where he explored painting, sculpting, architecture, science, music, mathematics, engineering and many other disciplines.
At first, it sounds counter-productive.
Surely Picasso would have been better off spending the hours he spent in the salons – practicing at home with a paintbrush instead?
As would Da Vinci. He could have isolated himself to focus on his passions, using the hours freed up to focus, without distraction, on creating more masterpieces.
In reality, their time spent learning socially – exchanging ideas and exploring seemingly unrelated disciplines, is arguably what made their work great.
Picasso turned the complex ideas he formed in the salons into art. It brought new meaning to his work, taking it from good to great. Da Vinci used the understanding of the world he gained from his mentors at the Bottega to think differently than anyone had before. It allowed him to invent new designs and acquire new skills with ease.
But how does this translate today?
Not all of us aspire to be renaissance artists and inventors.
The skills most of us want to develop are in technology.
They require logical thinking. They revolve around a screen. And although we are assembled in “teams” much of the delivered work is completed solo.
So, if you want to learn something technology based like software engineering, data science or user-experience design, you might ask – is a social approach relevant?
And how can time spent learning socially possibly beat extra hours studying in-front of the computer screen?
The truth is it’s not just a nice idea.
Researchers find that learning together, is effective.
(Johnson, Johnson, & Stanne, 2000; Oakley, Barbara & Brent, Rebecca & Felder, Richard & Elhajj, Imad, 2004; Springer, Stanne, & Donovan, 1997; Terenzini, Cabrera, Colbeck, Parente, & Bjorkland, 2001).
Spending time learning socially allows us to overcome difficult challenges with the power of the group. It allows us to consider different perspectives and benefit from critical feedback of our work.
It’s particularly effective for problem-solving and critical thinking. In addition, the accountability you gain when learning with others can keep motivation high and effort consistent (another critical strategy).
So with no Salons nearby and your nearest Bottega shutting shop in the 15th century.
Where can you find like-minded people to learn tech socially with?
Here’s some ideas you can use right away:
Reach out to your network.
Try to connect with someone who has already gained the skill you want to learn, or who works in a nearby field. Living busy lives ourselves we often assume that no-one will have to the time, but will it really hurt to ask for an introduction, or post out on LinkedIn? The offer of a coffee can go a long way – you might find a life-long mentor or at least find someone you can reach out to when you really get stuck.
Websites like meetup.com and eventbrite.com allow you to find free tech events near you. Most talks are followed by a Q&A and the opportunity to connect with people working in the technology you are studying. Even if the topic is over your head or something you’ve already covered, hearing it explained from a different perspective can help form new knowledge or strengthen an existing concept.
Join the online discussion.
It’s not really the same, but if in-person isn’t practical for you because of your location or other commitments, it is possible to find communities online. You can find tech slack groups on slofile.com or ask questions and contribute to discussion on reddit.com. But be warned, this can descend into procrastination quickly.
There are many different opportunities to connect with other learners, but the key thing is to connect with people on a similar journey as you.
We hope this gave you some ideas for how to take a social approach to learning new tech skills. In our next post we’ll explore how a data-driven approach to learning can help you progress faster than normal.
Johnson, D. W., Johnson, R. T., & Stanne, M. E. (2000). Cooperative learning methods: A meta-analysis. Minneapolis, MN:University of Minnesota Press.
Oakley, Barbara & Brent, Rebecca & Felder, Richard & Elhajj, Imad. (2004). Turning student groups into effective teams. Journal of Student Centered Learning
Springer, L., Stanne, M. and Donovan, S. (1999). Effects of Small-Group Learning on Undergraduates in Science, Mathematics, Engineering, and Technology: A Meta-Analysis. Review of Educational Research, 69(1), p.21.
Terenzini, P., Cabrera, A., Colbeck, C., Parente, J. and Bjorklund, S. (2001). Collaborative Learning vs. Lecture/Discussion: Students’ Reported Learning Gains. Journal of Engineering Education, 90(1), pp.123-130.