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Social Learning Lessons: Tales from 7th Grade Biology

Posted on May 22, 2011 at 07:36 PM

I remember being nervous on the first day of Junior High back in 1980 something. It was a new school with new teachers, new classmates, new everything. But I went from nervous to terrified the moment I stepped into Mr. Froelich's biology class. Mr. Froelich was a huge man in a white lab coat that smelled of formaldehyde. He also had wild hair and a terrible harelip that made understanding his speech difficult at times. Little did I know that Mr. Froelich would become one of my favorite teachers of all time...not so much for what he taught me, but for what he allowed me to learn.

I'll get back to Mr. Froelich and 7th grade biology in a moment, but for now, let's come back to the present. Social learning, informal learning, self-directed learning and other similar buzzwords are all the rage in the training & development space these days. We are constantly on the lookout for ways to enable learning outside of the traditional classroom setting, often by leveraging technology. We recognize that the vast majority of learning takes place in the midst of "doing" and we create tools to help the process along.

That being said, we still spend a whole lot of time developing formal classroom or eLearning programs with specific objectives and supposedly measurable outcomes. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it can be leading to less than optimal learning. We all know that lecture (aka The Big Talking Head) is one of the least effective ways to learn about a topic or master a skill. The more hands-on and interactive the class, the better the learning outcome will be...but only if you make the student responsible for their own learning as they are in a social learning or self-directed learning situation.

Now, back to Mr. Froelich and 7th grade biology. He gave us a lecture exactly once that entire school year. It was the first day and lasted for about half of the class period. During that short lecture, Mr. Froelich explained that his class was different from other classes. In a nutshell, here's how he ran his class:

  • Each person was paired with a lab partner to perform experiments, record results and write up conclusions.
  • Each group was given a list of experiments to be performed in order.
  • When an experiment was completed and written up, you and your partner had to present your results and findings to Mr. Froelich who proceeded to grill you about the work and your conclusions. He asked the hard questions too, the ones that would be impossible to answer unless you understood what had happened in the experiment. If he did not like your answers, you did the experiment again, and perhaps again after that until Mr. Froelich was satisfied that you "got it" and he signed off on your lab sheet.
  • After you got a sign off, you moved on to the next experiment and repeated the process.
  • Each set of lab partners worked at their own speed, with a minimum number of experiments to be completed each term.

After that first day in Mr. Froelich's class, he never lectured us again except for short safety briefings on new equipment and chemicals, he never gave us a test, and he never gave us homework. Funny how no lectures, no tests, and no homework resulted in some of the richest learning experiences of my life. Here's why:

  • Mr. Froelich gave us all the necessary tools, and made us responsible and accountable for our own learning. Whether an experiment succeeded or failed, we had to figure out why, and we had to be able to explain it. If we couldn't, we tried again until we could. Mr. Froelich asked questions, and affirmed answers, but never just gave them to us.
  • Mr. Froelich allowed each lab team to work at their own pace. This made it possible for us science geek types to work ahead of the majority of the class and get to some exciting experiments toward the end of the term that other students would never touch. This was one of the very few times in my academic life outside of graduate school where what was covered in a class was not determined by the capacity of the slowest students.
  • Mr. Froelich encouraged true teamwork and collaboration in his class. First, the way he grilled both lab partners ensured that both of you had to understand the experiments and the outcomes. You could not move on until he was satisfied that was the case. To get to this point you had to work with your partner, communicate, discuss, evaluate and draw conclusions. If one had a better understanding, it was up to them to help the other. In addition, lab teams were encouraged to compare results with other teams and try to solve problems with their help.
  • Mr. Froelich encouraged a healthy competition among the lab teams. Over the course of a term, you always knew where your lab team stood in terms of number of experiments completed. I remember taking great pride in the fact that my lab partner and I were often at the top of the list and were the only girls to occupy that spot during the year. Of course, the only thing that we earned was more experiments to do. Call me crazy, but that was actually an incentive for me.

The way in which Mr. Froelich conducted his class was unique in my experience, and it was also one of the most highly effective learning experiences of my life. Looking back on the experience almost 30 years later brings to mind several lessons in social learning. He created an environment where learning could take place by working with our peers rather than listening to lectures. You had to use your noggin and actively participate in the lab environment to be successful. We were motivated by competition with our peers and elevated in our knowledge by interacting with them. And the sense of pride and accomplishment you felt each time you made it through an experiment and a sign off was wonderful.

As the world of corporate learning and development continues to evolve to include more opportunities for social learning over more traditional methods, my mind often goes back to 7th grade biology and how I might utilize Mr. Froelich's model. In the design work I do for SAP training initiatives, one way I have done this is to develop team process workshops. These workshops bring all of the users involved in a process together in one room, live or virtually, and gives them a scenario to work through. The teams must communicate and learn from each other in order to be successful. This has proved to be a great way for teams to come to a common understanding of how the process impacts each user, understand expectations, and find ways to streamline tasks by sharing tips and tricks. There are no lectures, just a group of people working through a process and drawing conclusions for themselves. I think Mr. Froelich would be proud.

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Andrea May

Currently Vice President of Instructional Design Services, Andrea joined Dashe & Thomson as Director, ERP Training in 2005 after working with the company as a contract Senior Consultant/Project Lead for almost 5 years in the areas of instructional design, training development, change management and communications. Prior to Dashe & Thomson, Andrea was an SAP Training and Change Management Consultant and Project Lead for DDS, Inc., where she provided consulting services to major companies in the Twin Cities, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Houston, and Saudi Arabia. Andrea specializes in customized instructional design and training development for large-scale ERP implementations, and in recent years her focus has shifted to primarily providing certified employee training programs for the propane industry. She is passionate about helping her clients find the best solutions to their unique training and performance challenges. She is a member of the Association for Talent Development (ATD) and the eLearning Guild where she has served as a speaker at their national conferences. At home Andrea is a voracious reader, a long-time Girl Scout Troop Leader, and she does her best to keep up with her teenage and not-quite-teenage daughters.

Classroom Learning, Training Development, Social Learning, Informal Learning