Through co-creative processes and lots of practical testing, the CollaboLearn project has transformed research-based theories into a concrete pedagogical inspiration material. Learn more about the theoretical background of the project and the material below.
Autism and Social Learning
When we see autistic people with attention problems, a stereotypical behavior, a great need for predictability, and who have difficulty entering social contexts, according to the latest research, it is not about social cognitive difficulties, but rather about a different sensory apparatus.
The Predictive Coding theory is an example of recent neuroscience that shows how the brain works like a crystal ball that is constantly predicting and creating meaning. The brain is constantly processing sensory inputs and testing predictions. Every time we experience a prediction error (the world is not as we expect), our brain updates our internal models of the world, and in this way we learn and develop.
The neurology of autistic brains includes a lot of neural noise – an overload of sensory input that makes it incredibly difficult to form accurate predictions. It is especially social situations that become unpredictable because they are sensory-rich and the context is crucial for creating meaning. The fact that social situations become sensorial overwhelming means that their internal models of the world never become well-formed. That is why it becomes so difficult for autistic people to predict and thus navigate and comprehend. Autistic people will therefore – quite naturally – try to create a more predictable sensory input, and we typically see this in the form of an extreme need for control, withdrawal, or repetitive behavior.
From a learning perspective, learning therefore requires many more repetitions for autistic people and longer time to understand and feel safe in the learning situation. The greater attention to detail and massive amounts of sensory impressions also means that it is extremely difficult for autistic people to transfer knowledge and previous experiences to new social situations. Their learning is often specific and context-dependent because it depends on concrete details and situations, which makes it difficult to transfer knowledge and skills from one area to another. Often social competences remain context-specific knowledge and even after a successful social learning situation where the internal models are updated, the autistic person is left without generalizable competences that can be used flexibly across contexts.
This understanding of autism emphasizes the importance of facilitating more good social learning courses that provide social experiences and more robust internal models. We must therefore be careful about shielding autistic children, and instead think about designing learning environments that contain suitable disturbances, so that they have the opportunity to develop socially and communicatively. We must be aware of scaffolding the social learning process through repetition, visualization, and concretization of social experiences, and this is exactly what CollaboLearn tries to show examples of.
However, we must also be very conscious of not designing normative learning environments where it is the autistic children, youth, and adults who have to adapt. We know from sociological research into autism how crucial it is to give each individual child the opportunity to learn from their own personal sociality. That is we need to create room to support autistic children in developing their pre-existing social strategies rather than learning normative ways of being social.
Fiske, S. T. & Taylor, S. E. (2013). Social Cognition: From Brains to Culture. London: Sage.
Mottron, L. & Burack, J. (2006). Autism: A different perception. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 36(1–3). DOI:10.1007/s10803-005-0048-z
Ochs, E. & Solomon, O. (2010). Autistic sociality. Ethos 38(1), 69-92.
Paldam, E. (2021, november). Play for autistic children is a vital path to social learning that is easily misunderstood. Child and Family Blog.
Paldam, E., Steensgaard, R., Strøm, S., Roepstorff, A. & Gebauer, L. (2022): A robot or a dumper truck? Facilitating social learning across neurotypes. Autism & Developmental Language Impairments.
Pellicano E, & Burr D. (2012). When the world becomes ‘too real’: a Bayesian explanation of autistic perception. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 16(10): 504-510.
Skewes, J, Jegindø, E-M., & Gebauer, L. (2015). Perceptual inference and autistic traits. Autism 19(3), 301–307.
Constructivism and Facilitation
The underlying learning view that permeates everything in CollaboLearn is a constructivist understanding that learning processes:
- are self-initiated with an inner motivation for exploration (Piaget)
- involve interaction with others (Vygotsky)
- support reflections on experiences (Dewey)
- are creative, constructive, and engaging (Papert)
In other words, learning and development is not a transmission process but a construction process in which the learner himself constructs his knowledge through committed participation in a learning community with inspiring materials and a meaningful project.
There are many proposals for constructivistic learning environments. For example, the MIT Media Lab works with “the four P’s” for creative learning:
- Project: A concrete project which frames the learning activity through materials, a question or problem, or a theme.
- Peers: Learning always takes place in a social context with collaboration and feedback.
- Passion: Flow and excitement because there is ownership and the opportunity to explore exactly what occupies you.
- Play: The learning environment includes qualities of play such as exploration, surprise, risk-taking, and excitement.
The self-determination theory developed by Deci & Ryan is also an embodiment of a constructivist view of learning, as the theory shows how people are motivated to learn and develop when the needs for competence, connection, and autonomy are supported. The theory and research behind it reminds us that all people are motivated to learn, and our task as educators is to meet individual’s need for involvement, appropriate challenges, and communities. When our needs are met, we see people thriving with commitment, willingness, persistence etc. When the needs are not met, we see people with challenging behavior, e.g. apathy, anger, boredom etc.
With the CollaboLearn project, the aim was to design social learning environments adapted to neurodiverse children based on a constructivist learning view. It is about scaffolding social learning processes through concrete experiences from framed construction activities that motivate the children to participate and provide the opportunity to explore and be reflective together.
Social learning is complex, varied and difficult to grasp – especially for autistic children. There is a need to make the learning concrete and visible, as well as many repetitions with small variations in order to gain meaningful experiences that can become learning. It is a difficult process that requires facilitation, so it is the children’s own discoveries that become the center of learning.
The constructionistic pedagogy requires that the educator is included as the child’s supportive co-explorer, rather than as the all-knowing captain in front of the blackboard. A facilitator creates the possibility that a process can take place without providing the solution himself. This means that the educator as a facilitator creates the opportunity for children to have social experiences that they can reflect on and repeat until they become learning. The learning circle describes the learning process that the facilitator must facilitate. The idea is that the children learn from their own experiences, i.e. from their mistakes and frustrations as well as their successes.
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Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2012). Self-determination theory. In P. A. M. Van Lange, A. W. Kruglanski, & E. T. Higgins (Eds.), Handbook of theories of social psychology (pp. 416–436). Sage Publications Ltd. https://doi.org/10.4135/9781446249215.n21
Exploratorium, San Francisco (2013). “Learning Dimensions Framework” & “Facilitation field guide”. URL: https://www.exploratorium.edu/
Petrich, M., Wilkinson, K., & Bevan, B. (2013). It looks like fun, but are they learning? In M. Honey & D. Kanter, (Eds.), Design, make, play: Growing the next generation of STEM innovators (pp. 50-70). New York: Routledge.
Resnick, M. (2017). Kindergarten For Our Whole Lives. Youtube, Tedx Talks. URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IfvgVpQI56I
Resnick, M. & Rosenbaum, E. (2013). Designing for Tinkerability. In: M. Honey & D.E. Hunter (Eds.) Design, Make, Play pp. 163-181. Routledge, London.
Motivation and Play
People learn when they are motivated to do so. Play is intrinsically motivating – we do it because we can’t help it. That is why play is also naturally educational and developmental – we throw ourselves completely unconsciously into testing strategies that we have not mastered in advance. Play actually contains a number of qualities that provide good learning and development conditions:
- When we are internally motivated, we become self-forgetful and lose ourselves in time and place – we reach a sense of flow.
- We dare to explore, take risks, and fail and we are persistent despite frustration.
- Play opens up many ways of doing something – there is nothing right or wrong, and we are freed from the feeling of having to accomplish, learn something specific, and live up to expectations and norms.
These qualities of play create conditions for children’s learning because they contribute to the development of, among other things, intelligence, narrative ability, flexible thinking, self-regulation, emotional well-being, and creativity, research shows.
Play is typically also a social learning community because play i.e. requires voting, mentalizing, negotiation, and compromises. Although social learning communities are particularly demanding for autistic children, it is possible to persist when the play activity is motivating. In this way, play naturally becomes a learning environment.
We regard the individual child’s motivation as the catalyst in a learning environment where the child can gain social experiences and reflect on these, so that they achieve social learning. CollaboLearn uses construction play to create a motivating learning environment. Lego is just one option for a well-functioning construction toy but we can also use other kinds of materials, e.g. wooden blocks, modeling wax, drawings, marble runs, and digital building blocks in e.g. Minecraft.
If the children are not engaged, we must make the learning environment more motivating and meaningful for them, and it is our task to ensure that the play takes place in the zone of proximal development. Just as a bricklayer builds his scaffold as the bricks are laid, children’s learning can be scaffolded as they develop. When you scaffold social learning, it is therefore about adapting the framework so that the children’s development is supported. In order to adapt the framework, the educator must observe the children in the play and reflect on their development. Some days the frames should be large, other days smaller – the most important thing is that the framework fits the child’s social daily form, so that they want to repeat the process. Therefore, the play activities are adapted to a social play scale, which can be used to assess the child’s daily form and prerequisites for participating in play.
Experimentarium (2022). Spiral-projektet: Aktiv og nysgerrig læring. URL: https://www.experimentarium.dk/om-experimentarium/projekter/spiral/
Fagbladet Folkeskolen (2022, november). Kuglebanen styrker både trivsel og læring.
Henriksen, C. (2022). Leg åbner porten til lighed. Asterisk: DPU’s Digitale Magasin. URL: https://dpu.au.dk/asterisk-dpus-digitale-magasin/asterisk-100/leg-aabner-porten-til-lighed
Lillard, A. S., Lerner, M. D., Hopkins, E. J., Dore, R. A., Smith, E. D., & Palmquist, C. M. (2013). The impact of pretend play on children’s development: A review of the evidence. Psychological Bulletin, 139(1), 1–34. URL: https://doi.org/10.1037/a0029321
Robinson, Sir Ken (2010). Bring on the learning revolution! TED. URL: https://www.ted.com/talks/sir_ken_robinson_bring_on_the_learning_revolution/transcript
Sahlberg, P. & Doyle, B. (2019). Let the children play: How more play will save our schools and help children thrive. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Sommer, D. (2020). LEG – en ny forståelse. Frederiksberg: Samfundslitteratur. Serien: Professionernes begreber.
The Brain Architects (2022). Building Resilience Through Play [Podcast]. Center on the Developing Child, Harvard University. URL: https://developingchild.harvard.edu/resources/podcast-resilience-play/#podcast
The LEGO Foundation. Learning Through Play. URL: https://learningthroughplay.com/
Visible Learning as Pedagogical Documentation
Social learning is abstract and difficult to grasp in words. Although it occurs in interaction with others, the learning process itself occurs within each individual. We know from research that social learning is supported and deepened when we share it with each other. Typically, we share our thoughts and reflections by putting them into words but it can be difficult for many to put into words something as abstract as social learning.
Therefore, the CollaboLearn project has explored ways to make our learning visible and tangible using objects, so that it becomes easier to share thoughts and reflections with each other.
The exploration is based on the pedagogical philosophy from the northern Italian city of Reggio Emilia as well as our collaborators at Project Zero at Harvard Graduate School of Education. Together, these professionals have found through research and practice that deep learning can be scaffolded through documentation of learning by observing, capturing, and sharing the process through various formats and materials.
We have played with and explored these insights together with the autistic children and their adults and come up with concrete ways that we can enable autistic children to observe, capture, and share their learning experiences with each other. These specific ways are, among other things, through learning metaphors from which an object-mediated reflection is facilitated and the abstract is made visible, concrete, and tangible. By documenting our learning together with the children through figures, images, videos, stories, or other forms of visualization, we can share our reflection on the social experiences.
We see how such reflection routines enable the autistic children to both maintain attention to, understand, and reflect on their learning. In addition, we ensure that the children take ownership of the learning because it stems from their own experiences. These two conditions allow the children to return to key learning points again and again, which we know is essential for autistic children’s learning.
The professional role is thus not just a facilitator but also a documentarian who ensures that we document the discoveries and experiences that the children make along the way, while they play. It is not possible to document everything that takes place in a learning environment. Therefore, you can decide which e.g. specific learning points the group focuses on, or document only what surprised or filled the room.
BUPL (2022, november). Byg en følelse, og lad hænderne tale. Børn&Unge: 10/2022, s. 42-47.
Krechevsky, M., Mardell, B., Rivard, M. & Wilson, D. (2013). Visible Learners: Promoting Reggio-Inspired Approaches in All Schools. John Wiley & Sons.
Project Zero & International School of Billund (ISB) (2018). Pedagogy of Play Toolbox. URL: https://isbillund.com/academics/pedagogy-of-play/
When you teach a child something, you take away forever his chance of discovering it for himself.Jean Piaget
We do not learn from experience. We learn from reflecting on experience.John Dewey
By giving our students practice in talking with others, we give them frames for thinking on their own.Lev S. Vygotsky
It is literally neurobiologically impossible to think deeply about things that you don’t care aboutMary H. Immordino-Yang
The aim of teaching is not to produce learning, but to produce the conditions for learningL. Malaguzzi
The teacher must adopt the role of facilitator not content provider.Lev S. Vygotsky
Children learn best when they are actively engaged in constructing a personally meaningful artefact which they can share with others.Seymour Papert
Pupils are more like oysters than sausages. The job of teaching is not to stuff them and then seal them up, but to help them open and reveal the riches within. There are pearls in each of us, if only we knew how to cultivate them with ardor and persistence.Sydney J. Harris, 1964
Documentation is the practice of observing, recording, interpreting, and sharing through different media the processes and products of learning in order to deepen or extend learning.Krechevsky et al., 2013