Tribal Learning

by Jay Deragon on 03/21/2011

The internet is changing the way the human network learns. Instead of learning from an instructor or a book we are learning to learn from each others experience. With wide open communications and networking capabilities the new learning model is changing how, what, when, where and who we learn from. We are now gathering together into virtual tribes seeking knowledge about anything, everything and everybody.

Tribal learning isn’t new but the medium of sharing as changed. Sharing is no longer restricted to the gathering of a few around a camp fire instead the gathering is open to the many regardless of geographic location.  The old tribal learning models of the past were replaced by institutional learning models of the industrial era; here is what you need to know to do what others want you to do. The 21st Century tribal learning model is driven by intrinsic motivation of the individual to learn what they want to know to do what we want to do.  Now the world is learning what tribes want to do and it is different than what the world wants them to do.

Tribal Learning Characteristics

All the activity created by all things social is revealing patterns of behavior that are uncommon to those who have been taught through institutional learning processes. Yet the patterns of behavior are common to those who have rejected institutional thinking and embraced the very first learning model since the beginning of time, tribes.

We are born ready to discover and learn. What we learn is largely influenced by our environment, people and things that influence our learning process and what we assimilate through sight, smell, sound and touch.  As we grow in knowledge and skill we learn from the “tribes” that surround us and we mimic what those tribes say, do and think. What tribes have been taught to say, do and think has been the result of institutionalized learning which has become a product of the environment we’ve lived in. Now the environment is changing and what we learn, say, do and think is becoming influenced by the tribes we associate with rather than the institution we came from.

Social tribes are driven by intrinsic motivation which is driven by an interest or enjoyment in learning new discoveries, and exists within the individual rather than relying on any external pressure. Extrinsic motivation comes from outside of the individual. Common extrinsic motivations are rewards like money and grades, coercion and threat of punishment. Competition is in general extrinsic because it encourages the performer to win and beat others, not to enjoy the intrinsic rewards of the activity.

Social psychological research has indicated that extrinsic rewards can lead to overjustification and a subsequent reduction in intrinsic motivation. In one study demonstrating this effect, children who expected to be (and were) rewarded with a ribbon and a gold star for drawing pictures spent less time playing with the drawing materials in subsequent observations than children who were assigned to an unexpected reward condition and to children who received no extrinsic reward.

Today most of the institutional behavior on the web is reflected by organizations trying to create extrinsic motivation for tribes to follow the organizations offering.  Tribes don’t follow institutions to learn anything rather they learn from other members of the tribe.


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