Recognition and Affirmation: A Case for Social Learning

Recognition and Affirmation: A Case for Social Learning

Last week, I wrote about a recent Pew Internet study that confirmed the American hunger for continued learning opportunities: over the last 12 months, 74% of American adults report participation in some form of personal learning and 63% of employed adults report participation in some form of professional learning. Surprisingly, however, this learning is more likely than not to take place in a physical locale (a school, place or worship, library or a work-related venue) rather than on the Internet.

The report details many reasons why Internet learning is less reachable for certain segments of the population than others, including income level, education level, access to broadband and startlingly low awareness of available digital learning programs. And even for adults with easy access, the Internet is far from their preferred place to learn. As the report’s author, Pew research John Horrigan, told NPR’s Elissa Nadworny, “Learning is still very much a place-based thing. The Internet plays a role, but it’s secondary in most respects.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about why.

Although Horrigan suggests that the results signal a need for “a reality check of where technology fits into our lives,” I wonder if the answer isn’t about technology at all, but rather the fundamental drivers of what motivates and excites adults about learning.

In a recent study in the European Journal for Research and Learning of Adults, Irish scholar Ted Fleming underscores the social requirements of adult learning, proposing that personal learning and development depends on a deep need for acknowledgment by others. “Self-realization can only be achieved through interpersonal relationships that are a precondition for participation in public life, political will formation and democracy.”

Fleming augments German philosopher Jürgen Habermas’ communication-driven approach to human development as “a linguistically mediated process of socialization” (we might call that conversation) with Columbia University Professor Axel Honneth’s premise that “the struggle for recognition and the need for self-esteem. . .explains human development.” Only through “the interpersonal process of support and recognition” do we develop self-confidence, self-respect and self-esteem to engage in the kind of “democratic discourses” that comprise true transformative learning.

In an equally recent Harvard Business School Working Paper, our friend Julia Lee of the University of Michigan and her colleagues demonstrate just how important to the workplace these individual self-concepts may be. The study begins with an observation that individuals’ need to feel accepted may prevent their unique contributions to a team, resulting in team productivity loss. In two randomized controlled studies of self-managed teams, Lee and her colleagues found that pre-meeting relational self-affirmation exercises (writing short narratives of life moments when they were “at their best” and reading positive short narratives about them by friends, family members, customers or colleagues) positively influenced team creative performance and team information exchange.

By focusing on relational self-affirmation, the dual study’s authors move beyond the individual’s self construct to include social feedback from others “to affirm self-views.” This relational affirmation in a professional learning context “refocuses individuals’ cognitive resources,” enhances information exchange and enables teammates to work more creatively together.

Émile Friant, Political Discussion, 1889 [Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons

Émile Friant, Political Discussion, 1889 [Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons

Our own participants confirm the findings of both of these papers. In hundreds of interviews, the majority of Books@Work participants speak of their delight in spending time with colleagues, around a table, exploring narratives together. They speak of learning about each other and, through the eyes of others, learning more about themselves. And as one young man recently shared in terms uncannily reminiscent of Honneth’s recognition theory,

“There’s every now and again that feeling of affirmation. There is definitely a difference between my level of confidence when I first spoke at the first session, but by the third session I felt comfortable and it was in part due to some of that affirmation that I felt. I think it helps to know that some of the things that I saw and some of the opinions that I had, others thought were interesting or agreed with, so it provides a bit of comfort.”

And his colleague confirmed his response, “He’s very quiet. He never says two words. Just to hear him open up in there, it was kind of neat.” She went on to describe the collective learning experience in terms that echoed the pre-team relational self-affirmation concepts: “It just makes you a better person. Just to be able to relate to people. It’s nice to get to know the people you work with on a different level. Then, you have a different relationship afterwards.”

The Pew Research, although surprising on its face, further confirms both the Books@Work experiences and the recent research. People learn when they can explore interpersonal reactions, recognize each other and affirm their own self-concept. As Fleming concludes his study, “This emphasis on the interpersonal dimension of teaching and learning and the key importance of recognition is important so that current preoccupations with the technologies of teaching can be balanced by emphasizing the importance of mutual support [and] peer teaching.”

The Pew respondents seem to agree. And so do we.

Image: Arnold Lakhovsky, The Conversation, c. 1935 [Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons

Further Reading:

Recognizing Others and Ourselves Through Literature

The Meeting of Minds: Safe Spaces at Work

Friendships at Work: Building Connected Organizations

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Ann Kowal Smith

Ann Kowal Smith

Ann Kowal Smith is the Founder and Executive Director of Books@Work.