Social learning is a theory by psychologist Albert Bandura that suggests that learning is a cognitive process that takes place in a social context and can occur purely through observation or direct instruction, even in the absence of motor reproduction or direct reinforcement.
It is a process in which individuals observe the behavior of others and its consequences, and modify their own behavior accordingly.
Historically, this type of learning was the most widely used method (in the Middle Ages, the apprentice became a teacher through observation, imitation, and exploration). But this also occurs in our days, if we have just started at a new job and we are lucky enough to join a group of experts, we will learn much more in less time than if our new colleagues were in our same level of knowledge.
We always thought that learning took place within the four walls of a corporate training classroom, but that is never been the case; real learning has always happened around a group of people sharing information related to their interests, so as kids do gathering together when playing in the park or playground.
Individuals that are observed are called models. In society, children are surrounded by many influential models, such as parents within the family, characters on children’s TV, friends within their peer group and teachers at school. These models provide examples of behavior to observe and imitate, e.g. masculine and feminine, pro and anti-social, etc.
When a child starts imitating the people around, the child will respond to the behavior it imitates with either reinforcement or punishment. If a child imitates a model’s behavior and the consequences are rewarding, the child is likely to continue performing the behavior.
But why does a child imitate? What does that involve in the learning process? Within the first learning theories, the individuals were considered as the only actors of their learning process. Later on, behaviorist thought that “free will” is illusory, and that all behavior is determined by the environment either through association or reinforcement.
Albert Bandura´s Social Learning Theory has often been called a bridge between behaviorist and cognitive learning theories because it encompasses attention, memory, and motivation.
“Most human behavior is learned observationally through modeling: from observing others, one forms an idea of how new behaviors are performed, and on later occasions, this coded information serves as a guide for action” (Bandura).
Social learning theory explains human behavior in terms of continuous reciprocal interaction between cognitive, behavioral and environmental influences.
“Reciprocal Determinism: the world and a person´s behavior cause each other”, Bandura.
The necessary conditions for an effective modeling are:
Attention – factors such as distinctiveness, affective valence, the complexity of the situations, functional value, the sensory capacity of the person, arousal level, perceptual set, past reinforcement, etc, can increase or decrease the amount of attention paid.
Retention – to remember what you paid attention to other factors are involved: symbolic coding, mental images, cognitive organization, symbolic rehearsal and motor rehearsal.
Reproduction – reproducing the image will involve physical capabilities and self-observation of reproduction.
Motivation – having a good reason to imitate will include motives such as past (i.e. traditional behaviorism), promised (imagined incentives) and vicarious (seeing and recalling the reinforced model).
All these elements that are involved in the learning process are the ones that help us create and build our personality. We are capable of forecasting what can happen to us from analyzing what has happened to others in the same situation, and, since we live in society and with each other, we can think ahead in order to try to establish our goals and objectives in life.
What really motivates us to learn is “how humans have a desire to be autonomous, self-determined and connected to one another”. This need for self-independence is what drives people to achieve more. This probably explains why learning in a tight, controlled environment, is not always successful. We don’t want to wait to be told to learn or when to start learning.
Social learning is happening all around us. Our kids in the schools are learning even without our knowledge and with the precious help of the internet; let them “auto-learn” through their senses and they will continue to learn successfully. Let social learning happen in our schools, and it will continue to surprise us.