The Wings of Instruction: Neuro-Move #5 – SOCIAL INTERACTION

When Teaching Mirrors Learning Series 

Unpacking The DNA of Learning Blueprint


     Each article in this 15 part series systematically unpacks the DNA of Learning Blueprint for kindling the spirit of learning and re-starting our passion as educators.  The collective series will represent a comprehensive outline of fundamental requirements for timeless learning across ages and disciplines.

Part  12:  The Wings of Instruction: Neuro-Move #5 – SOCIAL INTERACTION

Social interaction’s role in dna’s  “wings OF INSTRUCTION”


“The brain is directly and powerfully shaped by interactions with others.”


Do You Suppose

    …perceived social interaction could be at the root of motivation?  I looked forward to hockey practice, even though I knew sweat and exhaustion would result.  It wasn’t about socializing with my teammates.  It was my goal to be able to perform at gametime.  This future reference drove me to work hard in the moment, even amidst pain at times.  Does this phenomenon extend to everyone’s life… to students in classrooms?


The Power of Interaction

     My wife drives 20 minutes each way to exercise classes three times each week.  Upon return, she often recounts differing activities the group performed.  While working on this piece, I asked her why she is so committed to the drive and attending exercise classes that result in perspiration and aches.  “I need the exercise,” she replied.  I countered, “Then why don’t you just do the routines here and skip the driving time and fees?”  She said, “It’s not the same.”  She was exactly right.  The drive in and back is a nuisance.  The fees are unavoidable.  The work can be strenuous.  Schedules conflict and some sessions are missed, programs are electively high and low impact, and participants vary in ability, economic status, shape, and disposition.  Yet, all these variables and downsides are insufficient in deterring her motivation to be there alongside others.  Although there is some casual socialization, the determination to consistently take part seems to stem from the psychological support generated from being part of a group.  Others being in “the same boat” provides a context that feels supportive.  The presence of others becomes a sense of belonging, membership, and importantly–motivation.  While each individual attends out of a personal goal (being fit, improving cardiovascular function, getting out of the house, losing weight, etc.), the unspoken support of the collective experience weighs in.  When people have a common purpose, they support one another actively, openly, or even unwittingly.

The Faces of Interaction

          If versed in the literature, participants of the exercise class would tell you that attending the class in person helps them manage the exchange, conflict, competition, cooperation, and accommodation aspects of social interaction.  While at yoga, my spouse engages in all aspects of collaboration with the group.  She cooperates with the requests of the instructor to support the whole-class purpose.  Noting she is more flexible than other participants serves to motivate her competitive disposition to continue to excel in ways others may not.  Pausing to help another with a pose also takes place with intent to help accommodate their efforts to accomplish tasks.  As can happen, when a new attendee confronts the instructor to suggest their preferred way to conduct class, veteran attendees step up, carefully managing the potential conflict with their instructor and the group’s routine.  Casual social exchanges take place before and after class.  However, the reason for being there is clearly for continuing and extending exercise functions.

     This parlays into clubs, sports, workplaces, and other venues.  Have you ever found yourself in one role or another in such situations?   


Unpacking Social Interaction

     Success in life is bolstered by competent social interactions.  Timeless, transferable capability follows.  There are three critically important aspects to this: 1) having a clear purpose and structure of intent; 2) organizing thinking to productively share/exchange thoughts with others; and 3) the capacity to collaboratively and effectively interact.  Let’s look at these aspects more closely.

1).  Connecting with Purpose:  We all need to understand the purpose of our interaction, what we are working to achieve, and why it matters to us.  The educator’s role is instrumental in assuring that each student identifies meaning and connects with the purpose of the work.  Thus, if Cortina is going to invest wholeheartedly in the learning, she needs to clearly understand the purpose of the work and how it relates to her

2).  Organizing Thinking:  The competent expression of our thinking requires learning how to sort and organize our thoughts to communicate.  Learners must be taught how to participate in productive discourse.  As we prepare for exchanges (speaking or writing), students will need explicit instruction and practice with ways to organize knowledge and prepare ideas before and while sharing with others.   Mrs. Miller, Cortina’s teacher, initiates her lesson by helping her students organize both their thinking and project plans. “Cortina, you are thinking of starting a landscaping business, what information and ideas do you have for this business to happen? Write your thinking in your notebook, then choose a buddy and explain to them what you intend to do to make this a successful business plan”   

3).   Collaborative Interaction:  The capacity to collaborate productively with others is imperative, yet not innate.  Successful exchanges involve more than sharing content.  Educators know how important it is to establish a community of learners who understand how to respectfully work together.  Beyond safe environments for learning–developing skills in decision making, managing emotions, and positive relationships are all reinforced through competent social exchanges.  Cortina must understand that the ultimate success of her undertaking will rely on effective collaboration among everyone involved.   If her goal is to be realized she will need to engage with customers and employees as demands, uncertainties and challenges arise. 

DNA of Learning Blueprint: “WINGS” of Instruction

Collaboration Is Not Automatic

     Group activities too often cause interaction without collaboration or learning.  One or two do the work while groupmates spectate.  Some dominate the conversation. Rudderless, everyone talks incessantly devoid of purpose.  Children must be taught how to become more aware, responsive, and engaged in understanding how to work well with others.  They must learn to recognize and interpret gestures, facial expressions, intonations, and actions.  Learning how to work with others to connect and engage is a competency that deserves a front row seat in the classroom!  Effective collaboration will benefit everyone as a transferable, lifelong skill.  This capability is timeless! 


Mistaken Certainties with Social “Interactions”

     We have long heralded interactive opportunities as vital to schooling practices.  Implementation matters.  Here are some common beliefs and practices that have fallen short or worse—send messages counterproductive to the intent.

  1. Small groups can be productively interactive. However, simply putting kids into groups is no better than moving chairs on the deck of the Titanic.  Moving about and chatting is not a learning goal.  The difference between competent, constructive interaction and unstructured groupwork is important to learning outcomes.  Learning to communicate effectively requires understanding and skill in listening, taking turns, etc.
  2. Greetings can help people connect. Teachers being at the classroom door when kids enter is not sufficient if the teacher is conversing with another adult at that time.  Eye contact and interaction specifically with EACH child creates the dynamic.  Students need to experience this and learn to make eye contact themselves
  3. Being present sends positive messages. The principal being visible at the school entrance for student arrivals is counterproductive if s/he has a cell phone in hand.  If the intent is to connect with students, then purposeful, personal exchanges must take place and be seen by others
  4. Simply put, “AVAILABILITY” alone is not a skill. Effective collaborative social interaction is.

     What can be done to avoid unintentional, unproductive practices?  Understanding how social interactions impact relationships can provide advantages for learning.



     Our minds use about four times the neural networks for speaking than when listening.  Barbara Given (Krasnow Institute, 2002) suggests the “social learning system” of the brain regularly causes teams of learners to integrate learning across different areas of the brain.  Marzano, et. al.’s (2001) meta-analysis showed a 27% gain when cooperative strategies were effectively employed with students.  When done well, Kagan’s cooperative structures showed a 0.63 effect size on learning outcomes.  With a clear purpose, organizing for speaking or writing increases the potential for understanding, applying and transferring knowledge.


The Journey Ahead

     We have yet to understand the import of what may have occurred in the lives of millions, given the prolonged conditions of separation from others, masking and asynchronous communications during the 2020 closing of schools.   Social deficits were compounded as parents simultaneously tried to handle work and family.  Television, video games, a multitude of screen-based activities and other fragmented, untended options became the default mode for many.  Computer apps were abundant, attempting to generate some likeness to social interfacing.  However, it is abundantly clear that 2D is not the same as 3D, face-to-face exchanges.  We are just beginning to see the import and understand the devastation of social interactive neglect.

Impact differences?      Social Interaction Health?       Purposeful or distracting?  Fallout from disengagement?


Moving toward tomorrow

Step 1: When planning your lesson, part of direct instruction should always include teaching behavioral learning expectations. “I want you to collaborate with each other,” is a common directive that falls on deaf ears.  Clarity as to purpose and expected interactions must accompany groupwork.  Effective collaboration is not a natural practice and must be taught   

Step 2: Be sure to demonstrate how to effectively organize and prepare information for the exchange of ideas such that “thinking” practices are transparent and deliberate with respect to the big ideas and purpose of the unit.  “Think Alouds” are one method used to transparently demonstrate one’s thought process

Step 3:  Ensure there is an opportunity within each unit for each student to interact and express their ideas purposefully within their own personalized context

Step 4:  Remember, organizing thoughts for speaking and writing requires more minds-on processing work than listening does. This capacity builds application and transfer, supporting long-term learning outcomes!


     Once the psychology of engaging a learning mindset occurs, then the biology of neuro-moves can contribute to the learning agenda.  Interactions carve opportunity for relating, knowing others better and constructing our competencies. Distinguishing general social interaction from preparation for collaboration will provide dividends.  Productive social interaction is a timeless, life-long skill that benefits everyone!

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Yonten, Chophel and Lhawang, Norbu.  (2021).  Effect of Kagan Cooperative Learning Structures on Learning Achievement: An Experimental Study.  International Journal of Multidisciplinary Research and Explorer (IJMRE), p. 125-132.                        

Given, Barbara.  Teaching to the Brain’s Natural Learning Systems, ASCD 2002