What can neuroscience tell us about the benefits of social learning?

This blog is inspired by the third episode of our Learning Science Unpacked podcast, with neuroscientist and Sponge partner, Professor Paul Howard-Jones.


Learning with others has been our fundamental way of learning from birth. Anyone who has seen the acceleration of a child’s learning when they start at nursery has seen first-hand the power that social interaction can have on learning. But what is going on in the brain when this happens, how do we carry it through to adulthood, and how can we, as workforce learning and transformation specialists, leverage this knowledge to level-up our learning programmes?

Sharing attention is a creative process

When learning with other people, the discourse will cause someone to represent the information in different ways because they’re having to build a bridge between their understanding and someone else’s.

This can be a very creative process, as the learner will be generating news ways of looking at the idea because they’re not going to have the same impression as the other person. Building bridges, generating new ideas, and sharing different perspectives will all help make the info more accessible, usable, and permanent.

Social connection improves engagement

Social learning helps us to engage in the first place. We’re primates – we’re social beings. And more than primates, we’re the type of primate that has higher oxytocin levels. The significance of that is that we pay much more attention to our ‘in-group’ and we’re more able to share attention towards a common aim.

Unlike chimps, we share parenting. This is not so unusual in the animal world: think marmosets, tamarinds, and many species of birds. This shared parental responsibility is the basis of how we evolved our ability to share attention. When we share attention, our reward system activates which is the reason why watching sport with other people is so fun. When we’re sharing attention, it makes it so much more engaging.

Social interaction is a platform for learning

Social learning kicks in at an early age. When a child’s mum or dad is looking at something, they get a dopamine response because they are looking at it as. Because attention is being shared, the child’s parent only needs to use a word, and the child will start to associate that object with that word.

This is the basis of learning and continues into adulthood where we show and share examples, anecdotes, and stories to advance knowledge in our in-group.

Initiating attention enhances learning

Asking questions of others attracts attention to ourselves and is a very rewarding experience. But it’s the turn-taking that occurs in a dialogue that is most rewarding, as people construct ideas, shape perspectives, and offer thoughts.

Crafting opportunities for learners to ask their own questions and encouraging that initiation in a learning experience would be a good strategy for effective learning, as well as group work, multi-player games, and rewarding user generated content on social learning platforms.



This year, Sponge won a coveted Brandon Hall Human Capital Management Bronze Award for our “Speak Up” campaign with AstraZeneca.
Using social platforms and a campaign approach, ‘speak up’ culture – ie the confidence and willingness to make one’s voice heard – increased by 12%.

This case study is a great example of how Sponge combines modern technology and platforms with human-centric principles of learning and neuroscience to drive measurable results in areas such as Ethics and Compliance. 

If you’re looking to achieve behavioural change in these crucial areas of your organisation, speak to our learning experts today.

Speak to our experts about your digital learning programmes today:


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