Individual and Collective Learning Theories


Literary anthropology refers to an exploration of the significance of literature in shaping lives and behaviors of human beings, particularly in historical, social, and cultural settings. Anthropology views human being as creatures capable of learning and teaching (Pelissier, 1991). Anthropologists have largely focused on the socio-cultural processes that surround education and through their extensive research, they have pointed out a range of learning and teaching processes that take place in different contexts. According to Jakimow (2015), some anthropological researchers argue for a theory of learning and teaching as a social situated practice rather than a cultural perspective. These anthropologists claim that it is sometimes useful to stop focusing on individual cognition when trying to understand how people learn. Additionally, anthropologists have tried to use a socio-cultural lens to try and develop an understanding of how teaching and learning occurs. This calls for the need to understand the relationship between individual and collective learning as well as the theories that explain their occurrence (Pelissier, 1991). This paper describes different modes in which teaching and learning can be conceived, while paying close attention to Catherine Pelissier’s ‘The Anthropology of Teaching and Learning’.

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Differences between individual and collective learning

The topic of learning at individual level has heavily been researched by psychologists and educators. These researchers have made discoveries on the unlimited capacity of the human mind to learn new things. Some researchers associate individual learning with cognitive development processes while others focus on laboratory training as a way of promoting individual learning. Kim (1993), defines individual learning as the process by which knowledge is created through transformation of personal experience. Conversely, collective learning occurs when transformation of knowledge occur among a collection of diverse individuals. Although the meaning of learning is the same in both individual and collective learning, the learning process in the two cases is fundamentally different. According to Kim (1993), individual and collective learning are closely related and it does not make sense to consider the two as entirely separate. Therefore, there are a number of theories that can be used to explain individual and collective learning as merged aspects. As Pelissier (1991), documents, the social processes involved in teaching and learning lie at the heart of anthropology.

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Theories of individual and collective learning

Knowledge-creation theory

Three major theoretical approaches have been used in this paper to explain the aspects of individual and collective learning. The three theoretical models are systems theory, knowledge-creation theory, and education theory. As far as knowledge-creation theory is concerned, the nature of knowledge that people in a group have mostly exists in form of experiences. This form of knowledge is known as tacit knowledge because it cannot be expressed in either written or spoken form. Moreover, collective knowledge cannot easily be transferred from one person to another. However, members of a group can learn tacit knowledge through knowledge creation. The four forms of knowledge creation processes according to Kimmerle, Cress, and Held, (2010), are socialization, externalization, combination, and internalization, in that order.

According to Kimmerle, Cress, and Held (2010), socialization is the process through which people share personal experiences. Socialization facilitates both individual and collective learning because it allows transfer of knowledge from one individual to another through immediate experience, and among members of a group through imitation and observation. The knowledge acquired through observation becomes tacit knowledge since one cannot express it in either written or spoken form. Externalization refers to translation of the newly acquired knowledge into explicit knowledge. The moment tacit knowledge is translated into explicit knowledge, it is important to combine it with initially acquired knowledge in order to become useful. This is where combination process comes in, and it refers to re-structuring of explicit knowledge which is supported by sharing of interpersonal knowledge. The final process under knowledge-creation theory is internalization where an individual converts explicit knowledge once more to tacit knowledge. In most cases, individual learning is viewed as learning by doing while collective learning is seen as learning by observation and imitation. The four processes under knowledge-creation theory occurs in form of a spiral, and they support inter-individual transfer of knowledge as well as development of new knowledge within an individual (Jakimow, 2015).

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Pelissier (1991), supports the idea that socialization promotes both individual and collective learning. According to Pelissier (1991), anthropologists increasingly emphasize that real life practice is built on everyday experience. Additionally, what people do on a daily basis are drawn on detailed ethnographic analysis and are closely connected to skills that people acquire from individual and collective experiences. This means that people are able to assimilate newly acquired knowledge through a combination of observation and practice, but not when the two aspects are used exclusively. From her views, it is clear that Pelissier (1991), agrees with the concept of knowledge-creation theory as far as promotion of individual and collective learning is concerned.

Vygotsky’s approach to everyday cognition greatly emphasizes on socialization and a means through which cognitive skills can be enhances. This scientist argues that a person’s mental functions are always social before they are internalized through social interactions. One area of Vygotsky’s focus in research is the idea that less learned people are often guided by those with greater expertise. The best example in this case is the social interaction that occurs between a student and a teacher (Pelissier, 1991). In a classroom, a student acquires new knowledge through the process of socialization, externalization, combination, and internalization. This is an example of individual learning process. Similarly, once a student has learned tacit knowledge through internalization process, this knowledge can be transferred to his or her team members through the same process, which indicates that both individual and collective learning follows the assumptions of knowledge-creation theory (Jakimow, 2015).

Systems theory

Apart from knowledge-creation theory, systems theory can also be used to explain the occurrence of individual and collective learning. Systems theory lays much emphasis on the need to distinguish between cognitive and social systems when trying to explain how people learn new things because these two systems function differently. The point of focus of systems theory is the idea that different systems have varied modes of operation. The system describes the interaction between cognitive system and social system which refers to individual and cognitive knowledge respectively (Pelissier, 1991). The best example of mode of operation that takes place in a social system is communication. Conversely, the process consciousness and modes of thought are good examples of operations that take place in the cognitive systems. Collective learning occurs better in a social system than in a cognitive system, while individual learning occurs better in a cognitive system than in a social system. Both social and cognitive systems are capable of reproducing and sustaining themselves to ensure continued learning (Kimmerle, Cress, and Held, 2010).

The environment in which a person lives is often more chaotic than a cognitive system itself. A cognitive system tries to create a balance by trying to distinguish what belongs to it and what does not in order to keep it operational. In addition, the cognitive system analyzes new emerging forces and selects what should be learnt and what should not be allowed into the system. This process of knowledge emergence allows an individual to learn new ideas in his or her immediate environment. Furthermore, communication is one way through which new ideas are allowed into the social system to facilitate collective learning. Communication allows members of a group to share knowledge with others. This can take place through either oral or written communication. Even though communication promoted collective learning, the social system must be conducive enough to allow individuals in group to share new knowledge with each other (Jakimow, 2015).

According to Pelissier (1991), social organization of language and communication as well as modes of thought determines how individuals and groups learn or acquire knowledge. For instance, many people have learnt how to speak fluent English through frequent communication with experts in the language. When referring to communication as a way though which collective learning can be enhanced, Pelissier (1991), emphasizes that it is important to set interaction rules to govern the communication process in order to create points that learners can easily master. For instance, both the teacher and the learner must be guided on when to speak and how they should formulate their utterances. This is referred to as creation of communicative competence in order to ensure that both the learner and the teacher use language in a socially appropriate manner. For this reason, it is clear that process and content are inseparable in social systems where collective learning occurs through communication.

The manner in which members of a group organize their communication differs due to variations in communicative competencies of group members. For instance, particular use of non-verbal and verbal cues in communication differs from one person to another. This influences how collective learning occurs in a given setting (Jakimow, 2015). Moreover, what is considered a socially-appropriate behavior also differs from one person to another. This is not necessarily a cultural variation but rather an element of interaction that people display in a particular setting. In other social settings, kinds of talk and different forms of address largely influence collective learning. Therefore, by listing communication style as one of the social processes that lie in the heart of anthropology, Pelissier (1991) understands that social systems have a big influence on collective learning.

Moreover, Pelissier (1991) has identified mode of thought as one of the factors that influence individual learning. This is in agreement with the assumptions of systems theory, particularly, the cognitive systems. According to Pelissier (1991), anthropologists are largely interested in how modes of thought reflect how individuals from different cultures think and react. In addition, anthropologists believe that both mental and social evolution exert an influence on one another through some form of feedback mechanism. Cognitive systems act as a useful anthropological endeavor that can be used to gain an insight into how people learn new things. As anthropologists strive to find detailed information on how modes of thought influence individual learning, they happen to increase people’s understanding on the significance of cross-cultural cognition in promoting both collective and individual learning.

Cross-cultural cognition draws on the concepts of both social and cognitive systems, and it focuses on the issues of anthropology and psychology. Historically, researchers have claimed that individuals from different cultures have different capacities. These cross-cultural variations are due to manifestations of universal capacities that occur as a result of evolutionary thinking. Individual capacities that occur across cultures are as a result of differences in cognition levels. It is due to these variations in cognition that different people are seen to have different levels of intelligence that influences how people learn, both as individuals and in groups. Cross-cultural cognition entails the aspects of both biology and culture, where biology forms part of the cognitive systems and culture forms part of social systems (Jakimow, 2015).

Education theory

According to Ertsas and Irgens (2007), teachers are charged with the responsibility of taking students through a process of life-long learning. In a classroom setting, there are both fast and slow learners, and the teacher must ensure that both categories of students learn whatever has been taught in the classroom. There is therefore great need for the teacher to create an environment that can promote both individual and collective learning. In this sense, the classroom acts as a site where knowledge of individuals and groups is constructed. Anthropological perspectives can be used to explain how individual and collective learning can be encouraged in a classroom setting. According to Pelissier (1991), teaching and learning are social processes through ideas are transformed into knowledge. One of the areas where knowledge generation occurs in everyday life is the classroom where students and teachers interact with one another through verbal and written communication (Jakimow, 2015).

Both individual and collective learning occurs within a cultural context, and the degree by which people assimilate new ideas depends on their intellectual capacities. Although education theory is analyzed on its own as one of the factors that influence individual and collective learning, it exhibits some components of knowledge-creation theory as well as those of systems theory. The manner in which a teacher interacts with students is a classroom is largely influenced by how communication is organized (Pelissier, 1991). For instance, collective learning occurs through observation and individual learning is enhanced if a teacher asks students questions in class and gives students a chance to ask questions too. Additionally, language use in classroom is a major vehicle of instruction in both individual and collective learning. The teacher must therefore be careful when choosing the best language to use when giving instruction in a classroom setting (Ertsas and Irgens, 2007).

Relationship between knowledge-creation theory, systems theory, and education theory

There is a close relationship between knowledge-creation theory, systems theory, and education theory. This means that individual learning and collective learning are also related in a number of ways. One of the approaches that can be used to explain the relationship between individual and collective learning is co-evolution model. Co-evolution model of individual and collective learning assumes that the manner in which knowledge is built can only be understood if both individual and team perspectives are taken into account. This model brings together both social and cognitive systems. According to co-evolution model of collective and individual learning, the learning process occurs when cognitive systems react to bring a solution in a situation that needs some equilibration. Two processes of equilibration are supported by co-evolution model of collective and individual learning. These are knowledge assimilation and knowledge combination (Kimmerle, Cress, and Held, 2010).

As earlier mentioned, knowledge assimilation refers to addition of new information to an already acquired knowledge while knowledge combination refers to re-arrangement of previously acquired knowledge based on fresh ideas. During knowledge assimilation and combination, a person has to internalize information from his or her immediate environment in some way. Consequently, their cognitive systems become more active that the social system during assimilation and combination, the social systems become more active than the cognitive systems during internalization. However, the co-evolution model of individual and collective learning also assumes that the social systems that occur during internalization are analogous to those that occur during externalization. It is therefore clear that co-evolution model combines the assumption of knowledge-creation theory and systems theory (Kimmerle, Cress, and Held, 2010).

Another approach that can be used to explain the relationship between individual and collective learning is social tagging model. According to Kimmerle, Cress, and Held (2010), social tagging occurs in a social context and it refers to the concept that members of a community benefit from a given tag. Social-tagging systems support both individual learning and collective learning processes. Through the support of social-tagging systems, it is possible to differentiate between the activities knowledge externalization and internalization. Users often add tags to particular resources during externalization as they try to translate new ideas into key words. Social tagging assists learners to retrieve stored information at a later date. Learners who add tags to resources during externalization concentrate on critical concepts more than people who do not add social tags. This helps to supplement cognitive effort and stimulate the speed with which individual learning occurs (Ertsas and Irgens, 2007).

During collective learning, all social tags added by individuals are combined to form a collection of keywords. Here, collective learning occurs due to the tagging activities of all users in a group (Jakimow, 2015). Co-evolution of cognitive and social systems may be achieved when many people add tags to resources. The cognitive processes that take place during internalization assist people to retrieve new information. Consequently, this may lead to the progress of shared information in a continuous advancement of knowledge, thereby influencing collective learning. An example of an environment where social-tagging influences collaborative learning is a classroom in which computer is used as a tool of providing instruction. Negotiating knowledge through computer networks required people to add tags on resources for quick retrieval of information (Kimmerle, Cress, and Held, 2010).


            This paper has extensively explored the theories of individual and collective learning. One question that a person might ask himself is whether individuals and groups learn new things differently. The contents of this paper attempt to answer such a question because it has explained how learning occurs in individuals and among people in a group. The three theories that can be used to explain individual and collective learning are knowledge-creation theory, systems theory, and education theory. These three theories are related and this indicates that there is a close relationship between individual and collective learning. Two models that can be used to describe the relationship between knowledge-creation theory, systems theory and education theory are co-evolution model and social tagging model. The three theories discussed in this paper clearly display how teaching and learning still lie at the heart of anthropology.

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