Is it true that we learn better together?

As a promoter of life-long learning, I am always interested in what others are saying about personal growth and development. I recently came across an artistic infographic on the subject of LLL. One of the concepts in this diagram was the oft-stated truism that “we learn better in groups.”

Not necessarily so. Like any truism, it’s only true to a point.

We learn large blocks of content better by ourselves

If you have to acquire a mass of information, this is best done by oneself. Even in a class lecture setting, it is up to the individual to listen, to take notes, to intake the content. You can’t listen as a group. If you are reading a text, you have to do so as an individual. Any time the acquisition of content is the goal, direct instruction or direct intake through reading by the individual is necessary.

Billy Joel once sang, “sooner or later you wind up asleep in your own space.” Likewise, in the intake of information, you wind up in your own mental space.

Now, you can process this information in a group, which further cements the content in the mind. Questioning and examining other viewpoints can be quite invaluable at this stage. But in the initial intake of information (or in learning skills), one has to be able to do it on her own.

Some people simply learn better solo

You can’t make the blanket statement that “we learn better in groups” and also maintain the concept that individuals have different learning styles.

Some people, through personality, mental wiring, and prior experience, are better learning by themselves. The dynamic of the group may not be conducive for such learners to learn at their peak.

Transparently, I am one of those learners. If I’m in a group setting where the leader instructs us to complete a group learning activity, I inwardly groan. “Just give me the information, and I’ll internalize it the best way for me.” It’s important to have the meta-cognition to know how you learn best. For some, that’s not in a group.

Again, I do like to process what I’ve learned in a group. Discussing concepts with others may reveal aspects that I haven’t considered. But for me, it’s not a necessity.

The problem with truisms

The problem with truisms is that when you attempt to apply them to every situation, they don’t always work. Developing an educational philosophy around the maxim, “We learn better in groups,” can seriously short-change the educational process.

I’ve been around enough middle school students to understand that, of course, they love to work in groups. But it’s not because the learning is better; it’s because they’re social creatures. As an educator, I made sure to balance group work with a good amount of individual work and direct instruction.

If we take this idea uncritically, we run the risk of creating an entire educational methodology around a platitude. The best education utilizes multiple techniques, including the old ways of direct instruction and individual study, to achieve learning.