About the LIFE Center

Theory Gates

The LIFE Center's purpose and missions aim to involve theoretical accounts that explain why social learning works in the way that it does. LIFE has developed a Social Gating theoretical framework that examines possible mechanisms by which social interactions fundamentally organize both the processes and outcomes of learning.

LIFE examines which aspects/dimensions/characteristics of social contexts "gate" learning. The word "gate" in our conception refers to mechanisms by which the social system provides affordances, constraints, and cues that influence the choices individuals make in a given situation and the actions they take. The word "gate" might connote something static, but that is not how LIFE uses the term. We conceive of it more as a "gateway" or a "dynamic gate" in which people can and do make choices about the cues, affordances, and constraints to which they will attend. On our view, learners not only experience these social gates, but also make them: Learners organize environments for one another and coordinate their activities to shape the action of the "gates."

The proposed four gates are not mutually exclusive and offer explanations at different levels of analysis. Their relative contributions and how they are coordinated in action need to be tested empirically in different learning situations and contexts and across age. LIFE's theoretical gates are described below:

Attention/Reward Gate

The Attention/Reward Gate captures the idea that social contexts and interactions often increase arousal, and increased arousal can lead to increased attention, motivation, engagement, and encoding of content.

Intersubjective Coordination Gate

The Intersubjective Coordination Gate captures the idea that social learning is potent because of the close coordination between people. People adjust to each other's needs and coordinate actions to enhance learning. There are multiple forms of alignment that occur when people interact socially--including speech, posture, gestures, actions, and shared perspectives, feelings, and beliefs. Humans also design social arrangements to create shared resources for making sense of the world; these resources frame the need or intent to learn in ways that non-social arrangements do not. Intersubjective coordination at various levels of analysis (from gestural to linguistic) contributes to communication and the construction of shared meanings. Joint visual attention--cued by gesture, bodily orientation, and speech--helps participants (both infants and adults) signal goals, intentions, desires, and emotions, and also helps parse speech, which contributes to language acquisition.

Sense of Relationship Gate

The Sense of Relationship Gate highlights the idea that a person's perception of self-inrelation to others affects how they approach a situation, the choices they make, and what they learn from taking part in activity. Learners' identities influence their belief systems, values, and goals, as well as their choices, and these in turn affect learning (which feeds back to influence identity). Learners' identities and self-image as actors change with age, experience, and context. A learner's felt identity and sense of belonging affects his or her engagement and sense of agency in particular settings. Moreover, social others influence--both positively and negatively--the construction of learner identities, and contribute to the maintenance of those identities.

Evolution/"Socially Adapted Brain" Gate

The Evolution/"Socially Adapted Brain" Gate describes the ways that human beings--who developed evolutionarily to learn from and adapt to others in their social group--are predisposed to place special value on human features (faces, voices), patterns of action (biological movement), and interactions (reciprocal exchanges and interactivity). The emerging field of social cognitive neuroscience is beginning to uncover the brain systems that underlie these preferences and more importantly the human brain systems linking social perception and action. These brain systems, sometimes called shared representations or "mirroring systems" link what we see and hear others do and our own actions. They underpin the parity between self and other that supports seamless interpersonal communication and reciprocity. This gate also brings into play emotions that can enhance or hinder learning.


Why do we think that such an explanatory approach can be transformative for both learning research and educational practice? The kind of multi-level, interdisciplinary theoretical synthesis of learning across contexts, ages, and domains, as sketched here, does not exist in any fully articulated way in the current literature. It reflects the synthetic goal we set for ourselves at the start of the LIFE Center. What future research becomes possible and crucial to pursue with respect to this kind of theoretical synthesis? An interdisciplinary theory of the social foundations of learning across settings, ages, and domains leads to a host of compelling new research questions. Our theoretical synthesis is helping us identify gaps in the literature and areas that need expansion (e.g., how academic stereotypes and identities are influenced by the cultural environment and through activity across social settings; how choice affects learning, whether learning principles are domain-general vs. domain-specific). We believe that an interdisciplinary synthesis--from neuroscience to culture--of how and why people learn socially provides a fertile platform for many fields of scholars to enhance the science of learning.