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SOCIAL INTERACTION: Neuro-move #5 (of 5)

The DNA of Learning Series:  The “WINGS” ©2022     
SOCIAL INTERACTION:  Neuro-move #5 (of 5)
by Dr. Robert K. Greenleaf and Elaine M. Millen, M.Ed. C.A.G.S.


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

The “Wings” of the DNA of Learning Blueprint “give flight” to four principles of engagement (prior articles) that must be interwoven within pedagogy and instruction.  As relationships are built and student interests become known there are demonstrable practices that intersect education with learning science research.  Without becoming experts, we can adopt practices that align with the fundamentals of generating “minds-on” processing.  These promote results far beyond the “entertaining, flashy, the kids love it” type approaches.  Many common brain-based misunderstood strategies are misapplied, yielding little benefit.  Readily incorporated into educational settings, the focus of this segment is “social interactions.”

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, even amidst pain at times.  Does this extend to everyone’s life... to students in classrooms?

The Power of Interaction

While working on this article, I asked my spouse why she is so committed to attend exercise classes three times each week.  She has to drive 20 minutes each way, work until she perspires, later aching while she recounts an activity of the session.  “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 stems more 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 would tell you that exercise class 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 motivates her competitive disposition to continue to excel in ways others do not.  Pauses 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 played one role or another in such places?    

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 interact effectively.  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.  

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.  

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, 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.

  • 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  
  • 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 
  • Being present sends positive messagesThe 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, purposeful, personal exchanges must take place and be seen by others
  • Simply put, “AVAILABILITY” alone is not a skill.  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 potentials 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.   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. 

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

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

Step 4:  Remember, organizing thoughts for speaking and writing requires more minds-on work than listening. 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. which we can better guide learners.  Distinguishing general social interaction from preparation for collaboration will provide dividends.  Productive social interaction is a timeless, life-long skill that benefits everyone!

Dr. Robert K. Greenleaf was formerly a professional development specialist at Brown University. Bob has 45 years of experience in education ranging from superintendent, principal, teacher, & special education.  As President of Greenleaf Learning Bob has traveled the world conducting Brain & Learning Institutes.  Dr. Bob’s doctoral work was at Vanderbilt with undergrad psychology.

Elaine M. Millen, M.Ed. C.A.G.S., has over 50 years of experience in education as a teacher, principal, director of special education, curriculum director and assistant superintendent of schools.  She has taught at both the undergraduate and graduate levels.  As an educational consultant/instructional coach, she has worked nationally with hundreds of school leaders in areas of leadership, instructional coaching, and student engagement.  She worked with Brown University as a consultant, guiding project work.

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