December 12, 2023

Accelerating Learning with the Social Brain | Summary of an AQPC Webinar

On October 19, 2023, Nicholas Walker, an English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher at Collège Ahuntsic, hosted a webinar organized by the Association québécoise de pédagogie collégiale (AQPC). This webinar was given in collaboration with Daniel Boulerice, from the Cégep du Vieux-Montréal, who had presented a 1st iteration of the workshop at the annual AQPC symposium in June 2023.

In this webinar, Nicholas Walker presented how teachers can accelerate learning in all subjects by engaging the social brain. He also provided concrete examples for the classroom and the computer lab.

The complete recording of the webinar is available here.

Recording of the AQPC webinar Accelerating Learning with the Social Brain

Homework… for teachers!

To pique the audience’s curiosity, Nicholas started his presentation by assigning homework to each participant. Throughout the presentation, we had to think of how we would share these ideas and concepts with a colleague. We had to think of the most effective way to convey these insights to that specific individual. To do so, we had to consider who that person is by considering these questions:

  • What motivates them?
  • How do they approach their role in the classroom?
  • What are their attitudes?
  • Would they be offended if you made suggestions to them?
  • Are they likely to welcome new ideas on pedagogy?

By doing so, Nicholas was attempting to demonstrate the whole idea behind the social brain concept: if you enhance the social aspects of the information to be learned, you learn better and faster. In other words, by giving us a social purpose for learning (sharing the presentation with a colleague), the participants would better retain the information.

Nicholas has generously made his slides presentation, including video clips, available to everyone if you wish to use it to share the concept with a colleague.

The traditional model and false assumptions

During the presentation, Nicholas explained how the traditional teaching model, as we know it, stipulates that teachers possess expert knowledge, which is transferred to students. We have been operating under this common assumption for at least 100 years.

The sad truth is that this model is based upon some false assumptions. In fact, according to  Lieberman’s chapter (2013) on education and the social brain, learners remember only a small fraction of what their teacher taught. Therefore, school learning is not efficient. So, what can we do better? How can we make learning more efficient? To do so, Nicholas proposed that we look at how the brain works.

Brain size and social complexity

Nicholas began by explaining the strong correlation between brain size and social complexity. Species with a more complex social group tend to have larger brains. Of all the species, humans have the biggest brains and the most complex social groups.

Why are our brains so large? As humans, our brains must track and manage in our memory an astonishing number of human-to-human relationships, with our brains being able to handle up to 10,000 potential dyads. However, humans have not evolved to remember information, as the traditional model might suggest, but to live in groups.

Thanks to our big brains, humans can manage all these relationships. We can keep track of other people and make sense of their mental lives in terms of:

  • their mood
  • their motives
  • their goals
  • their thoughts
  • their feelings
  • their dispositions
  • etc.

Nicholas emphasized that our brains are optimized to remember this information when it’s relevant to the social context in which we live.

Social communication in the classroom? Why not!

Research shows that engaging in social interactions and thinking about others helps us retain information. However, socializing in class is largely discouraged most of the time, and our classrooms are not optimized to encourage social exchanges. Many classrooms are still arranged in rows and columns to separate students from each other and to discourage interaction among them.

Because socializing is considered a problem in our classrooms, teachers tend to put a stop to it. We believe that socializing interferes with the ability of students to encode information into their long-term memory. Social interaction is often seen as competing with learning instead of facilitating it.

The good news is that, according to a study by Lieberman, we encode information in 2 possible ways, using either our information brain encoding system or our social brain encoding system.

The information brain and the social brain are complementary, as they don’t operate simultaneously but rather in a mutually exclusive manner. When one is active, the other remains inactive. For instance, when the information brain is engaged, the social brain remains inactive, and vice versa.

Nicholas explained how the information brain focuses on facts and discrete information while the social brain encodes information in a social context. So, when teachers try to suppress social interaction in class to enhance information transfer and encoding in the information brain, they actually suppress the social brain.

Evidence of the social brain advantage

Nicholas presented some significant studies providing compelling evidence for the advantage of the social brain.

In the 1st study, conducted by Hamilton, Katz and Leirer (1980), participants were asked to read statements about past everyday events framed in the past tense, such as:

  • washed the dishes
  • cleaned up the house before the company came
  • read the evening newspaper
  • etc.

Two groups were formed for this experiment. Group 1 was instructed to memorize these events for a forthcoming test, while Group 2 was directed to imagine the person involved in each event and consider sharing their impressions of this person later.

Following these 2 preparations, both groups underwent a post-test. Surprisingly, Group 2, who was asked to think about the social context of the events, remembered approximately 25% more than the group instructed to memorize the events outright.

These results suggest that our brains are optimized to retain information that bears relevance to a social context.

In the 2nd  study by Bargh and Schul (1980), students were tasked with remembering scientific facts, basically a list of information. Group 1 was instructed to simply memorize this information for an upcoming test, while Group 2 was asked to prepare as if they were going to teach this information to someone else, even though they never actually got to do so.

What’s fascinating is that both groups ultimately took the same test.  The results showed that the group that was asked to prepare to teach others (Group 2) did significantly better on the test than the memorization-focused group (Group 1).

This study shows that engaging the social brain leads to better encoding of memories into long-term memory.

There is even more evidence that humans have evolved to think about the needs of others. Indeed, with Hattie’s metanalysis (2009) on the acceleration of learning, more robust evidence of the advantages of social learning have emerged:

  • Reciprocal teaching (when students engage in teaching each other within small groups) leads to a 37% acceleration in learning.
  • Peer tutoring leads to a 28% acceleration in learning.
  • Cooperative learning results in a 27% acceleration in learning.
  • Classroom friendship leads to a 27% increase in learning compared to isolation.

Hattie’s research emphasizes the importance of classroom friendships, as students without friends tend to be less engaged and perform more poorly.

Based on these findings, Nicholas reminded us not to underestimate the importance of icebreaker activities in the early weeks of the semester that promote social interaction because friendship does have an impact on accelerating learning.

Try the experiment!

Imagine yourself sitting in a chair, eyes closed. You are not thinking about any problem in particular; you are just letting your mind relax.

What thoughts tend to drift into your head? What do you think about when you’re not thinking about anything in particular?

Your answer is most likely to be that you are thinking about your family, your friends, your loved ones.

In his presentation, Nicholas discussed this experiment that was done in another study by Lieberman, in which he observed brain activation of people when asked this exact same question: What do you think about when you aren’t thinking about anything in particular?

Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans indicated that when we are not thinking about anything in particular, the same regions of the brain light up as when we are thinking about others. In other words, the default state of our brain is to be socially engaged.

Implications for pedagogy across disciplines

In this part of the presentation, Nicholas Walker suggested some practical implications for pedagogy across all disciplines, proposing strategies to activate the social brain and accelerate learning, as presented in the table below.

Subject Suboptimal learning activities Social brain activating actvities
  • Reducing complex historical events to key information points
  • Memorizing information for tests
  • Imagining the thoughts and feelings of historical figures at the time and place
  • Writing a story using interior monologue
  • Learning the rules of good writing (comma splices, thesis statement, APA/MLA style, etc.)
  • Memorizing rules
  • Thinking about their reader
  • Reflecting on how they can make their text more persuasive
  • Thinking about how they can make their text more believable
  • Filling in the blanks
  • Memorizing grammar rules
  • Applying the rules next time they write and revise
  • Writing a 1st-person fictional narrative using the target grammar to entertain your group
  • Reflecting on their character’s motivation
Math and science
  • Identifying key concepts and formulas in the textbook
  • Memorizing them for a test
  • Identifying key concepts that their peers may find difficult or confusing
  • Taking turns in groups preparing lessons to teach group members

Nicholas concluded this segment of the presentation by reminding the participants that no matter which discipline they teach, they should not only activate the information brain by asking their students to listen and take notes, and memorize these notes during a test.

Instead, teachers should engage their students’ social brain by asking them to actively listen while taking notes and ask them to explain what they’ve learned to their neighbours afterward. This way, they have a purpose for taking the information and they’re thinking about what their neighbour needs to know. It also serves as a very useful comprehension check.

This approach can enhance teaching effectiveness across various disciplines.

Social AI and social IT innovations

Nicholas concluded by presenting some ways to engage the student’s social brain, despite physical constraints. For example, teachers may have concluded that it is impossible to make language labs more social since students are physically separated from each other by dividers. The problem of social isolation appears more acute with homework. How can we make homework more social when students work in isolation at home?

Nicholas presented some information technology (IT) innovations he has created involving artificial intelligence (AI) and video conferencing software to make language labs and homework more social for students.

You can find all of Nicholas’ innovations on and Each AI-powered mini-course comes with a free trial period. To continue after the free trial, you can buy 4 months of access.

1- AI-Powered Email Exchange

The 1st tool presented is an AI-powered email exchange, Nicholas developed to help a colleague looking for a way to support his students in passing the English Exam for Teacher Certification (EETC) to get their teacher certification. The robot invites the student to write emails, scores them, and offers corrections. It also generates replies using ChatGPT, simulating a real email exchange.

2- AI-Powered Monologue Practice

The 2nd tool presented is an AI-powered monologue practice. In this case, the student watches a video of a robot who asks a series of questions. Then, the student records a video of himself answering these questions and submits it. After a minute, the system automatically evaluates the video and generates a score and feedback on the use of target structures. That way, the student gets meaningful feedback.

3- AI-Powered Dialogue Practice

What about dialogue? Nicholas developed another tool for students to practice speaking with someone else but from home or at the lab. The robot speaks a line and displays a line for the student to say. The student records a webcam video at the same time as the video is playing, simulating a conversation. Then, the system analyzes the student’s pronunciation and provides feedback.

4- AI-Powered Conversation Practice

The 4th tool presented is an AI-powered conversation practice tool where the robot responds to student questions. The robot then replies with either corrective feedback or a meaningful answer. In other words, if you ask it correctly, the robot will answer. If you ask it incorrectly, it will correct you.

5- Authentic Conversation Practice

Finally, Nicholas introduced World Chat Live, a website developed by his colleague Anne-Marie Lafortune. He collaborated with a Philippe Gagné, a French as a Second Language teacher at Vanier College, an anglophone college, to synchronize their lab times. This way, a student from Vanier College and a student from the Collège Ahuntsic could be paired and talk to each other during their lab period or for homework, creating both synchronous and asynchronous social learning opportunities through authentic conversation practice.

Nicholas Walker’s presentation on the social brain was eye-opening and inspiring. His insights gave me a better understanding of how students learn. From now on, I will consider the importance of engaging the student’s social brain when planning classroom activities. I believe I can easily transfer the concept to my own teaching practices, and I’m sure most teachers across disciplines can do the same!

About the author

Véronique Drolet

After teaching English as a second language and English Language Arts at the secondary level for 16 years, Véronique Drolet has recently joined the college network. She is currently an English teacher at Cégep Limoilou. In addition, her strong interest in languages led her to complete a certificate in translation. Passionate about the pedagogical integration of digital technology, she is now part of the Eductive team as a technopedagogic editor.

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