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What Is Social Learning?

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What is social learning?

The idea behind social learning theory is that people learn by observing others.

People learn behaviors from other people by imitating them. Imitation is not always conscious. Sometimes we do things without even knowing why we did them. We imitate because we think someone else might be watching us.

When we see someone else doing something, we try to figure out what they might know that we don’t. In some cases, we copy what we observe because we want to fit into a group. We want to be accepted by our peers. We also copy what we see because we think it may help us in the future. For example, if you see your friend eating an apple, you might eat it too. You’re trying to get rid of the bad feeling inside. This is called observational learning. Observational learning helps us understand how the world works.

What Is Vicarious Learning?

Vicarious learning is a form of social learning. Specifically, it is learning through others, though this can take many forms. Sometimes we learn about ourselves when we watch others. For instance, if you see someone getting angry, you might feel anger yourself. This is called vicarious learning. Vicarious learning lets us know that we are capable of certain emotions. This knowledge can help us deal with those feelings.

What is Automatic Imitation?

Learning is a cognitive process that occurs in a social context. It can be observed when we observe a behavior and see the consequences of the behavior. Learning can also take place without any visible changes in behavior. Observation, extraction of information from the observations, and decision-making play important roles in learning. Learners are active participants in learning. Their environment influences how they think about things. They also learn from what they do and see. Both environment and behavior affect cognition.

Social learning refers to a type of learning that occurs when students learn from each other. It’s the kind of learning that often occurs in the classroom, but can happen anywhere social interactions occur. When students interact in digital communities or message in small groups–these are forms of social learning but technology isn’t required for it to occur. Technology does, however, change the practice of social learning in important ways including the increased speed of feedback loops, the scale of social interactions, the frequency and varied forms of punishment and rewards, and more. In short, technology rapidly accelerates and intensifies social learning while increasing the sheer quantity of social learning episodes over a given time period.

In the digital age, school curriculums are struggling to keep up with the changing ways in which students learn. With the internet and an endless supply of information at their fingertips, students are no longer confined to textbooks and worksheets. They can now find information on any topic they’re studying with a few quick clicks of a mouse. This presents both a challenge and an opportunity for schools.

What Is Social Learning Theory?

Social learning theory is a behavioral theory that posits that new behaviors can be learned by observing and imitating others. It is underpinned by the idea that meaning-making (i.e., learning) is a cognitive behavior and process that occurs in social settings. And it is the possibility of future social interactions that drive a ‘need to know,’ curiosity, and general motivation to learn.

Further, it is not only behaviors that are observed but also the perceived causes and effects of these behaviors including punishments and rewards (this is vicarious reinforcement). This form of social learning occurs not through observation but prediction and reflection. Feedback loops play a significant role in social learning. As a social process, rewards vary but generally speaking, if a behavior is thought to result in a regular reward, it will likely continue. If it is punished, it is less likely to be continued over time if the person experiencing the punishment believes they have alternatives to that behavior that are likely to result in improved outcomes.

Conditioning through feedback loops, and the observation, anticipation, and reflection of social interactions are all central to the process of social learning. Learning occurs in two stages: the acquisition of new information and the incorporation of that information into existing knowledge (Gurian, 2006). Social learning can be observed in a variety of contexts. It is an essential element of social behavior to learn what types of behavior will be rewarded by others.

According to Albert Bandura’s Principals Of Social Learning Theory, “social learning theory aligned mostly with previous behavioral theories–the novel component was its emphasis on imitation in learning. It stated the following:

  • When someone witnesses a ‘model’ performing a specific behavior, as well as the consequences of that behavior, they can commit the sequence of actions to memory and recall that data to guide their future behaviors.
  • People do not learn new behaviors simply by attempting them, and then succeeding or failing. Instead, they depend largely upon the imitation of action sequences by other people.
  • People choose to replicate or dismiss certain behaviors based on how they observe others being rewarded or punished for those behaviors, or the outcomes of those behaviors.

In other words, monkey see, monkey do (or do not…). Over time, Bandura’s theory of social learning moved away from the behavioral end of the spectrum and closer toward the cognitive end. He published a significant revision to his theory in 1977, which included the concept of self-efficacy at the core of its theoretical framework. In this revision, individual choices, effort, and feelings about those choices are affected by their beliefs about their own abilities to perform certain behaviors in order to achieve certain outcomes.”

The concept of conditioning is often used in behavioral psychology to explain the change that occurs in an organism’s response to a stimulus. Conditioning can be defined as the process by which an organism acquires a new response or behavior to an environmental stimulus. In order to explain the change in behavior that occurs with conditioning, it is useful to use an experiment performed by Ivan Pavlov. In his experiment, Pavlov conditioned a dog to salivate at the sound of a bell. In this experiment, Pavlov rang a bell whenever he fed his dogs. As soon as the dog heard the bell, it would salivate in anticipation of receiving food.

Social learning theory has significant overlap with Pavlov’s experiment. External stimulus cause conditioning which is both a cause and effect of how the brain works and makes meaning. In the case of social learning, it is the observation and imitation of other behaviors that are a kind of subsequent catalyst and conditioning.

In addition to Bandura’s theoretical work on social learning theory, B. F. Skinner brought a more empirical approach to the concept through “the use of stimulus-response theories to describe language use and development, and that all verbal behavior was underpinned by operant conditioning. He did however mention that some forms of speech derived from words and sounds that had previously been heard (echoic response), and that reinforcement from parents allowed these ‘echoic responses’ to be pared down to that of understandable speech. While he denied that there was any “instinct or faculty of imitation”, Skinner’s behaviorist theories formed a basis for redevelopment into Social Learning Theory.”

The Wikipedia summary continues, “around the same time, Clark Leonard Hull, an American psychologist, was a strong proponent of behaviorist stimulus-response theories and headed a group at Yale University’s Institute of Human Relations. Under him, Neal Miller and John Dollard aimed to come up with a reinterpretation of psychoanalytic theory in terms of stimulus-response. This led to their book, Social Learning and Imitation, published in 1941, which posited that personality consisted of learned habits. They used Hull’s drive theory, where a drive is a need that stimulates a behavioral response, crucially conceiving a drive for imitation, which was positively reinforced by social interaction and widespread as a result. This was the first use of the term ‘social learning,’ but Miller and Dollard did not consider their ideas to be separate from Hullian learning theory, only a possible refinement. Nor did they follow up on their original ideas with a sustained research program.

Julian B. Rotter, a professor at Ohio State University published his book, Social Learning and Clinical Psychology in 1954. This was the first extended statement of a comprehensive social learning theory. Rotter moved away from the strictly behaviorist learning of the past, and considered instead the holistic interaction between the individual and the environment. Essentially he was attempting an integration of behaviorism (which generated precise predictions but was limited in its ability to explain complex human interactions) and gestalt psychology (which did a better job of capturing complexity but was much less powerful at predicting actual behavioral choices). In his theory, the social environment and individual personality created probabilities of behavior, and the reinforcement of these behaviors led to learning. He emphasized the subjective nature of the responses and effectiveness of reinforcement types. While his theory used vocabulary common to that of behaviorism, the focus on internal functioning and traits differentiated his theories, and can be seen as a precursor to more cognitive approaches to learning.

Rotter’s theory is also known as expectancy-value theory due to its central explanatory constructs. Expectancy is defined as the individual’s subjectively held probability that a given action will lead to a given outcome. It can range from zero to one, with one representing 100% confidence in the outcome. For example, a person may entertain a given level of belief that they can make a foul shot in basketball or that an additional hour of study will improve their grade on an examination. Reinforcement value is defined as the individual’s subjective preference for a given outcome, assuming that all possible outcomes were equally available. In other words, the two variables are independent of each other. These two variables interact to generate behavior potential, or the likelihood that a given action will be performed. The nature of the interaction is not specified, though Rotter suggests that it is likely to be multiplicative. Interestingly, Rotter even developed a basic predictive equation, B.P. = f(E & RV) where Behavior Potential (BP), Expectancy (E) and Reinforcement Value (RV).

Management is a dodgy technology for the 21st-century.

Daniel Pink’s words, not mine, but it’s true.

Bandura’s Social Learning theory explained that children learn in social environments by observing and then imitating the behavior of others.

Management is a construct of industrialization. To be fair, it has a role anywhere: networks, sports teams, software, app stores, parks, and retail environments are all managed (with varying degrees of efficiency and success). But what about in learning? What should be managed there?

What is to be learning–so, standards? The pattern and form of those standards–so, curriculum? How that curriculum is delivered to students–so, teaching? What happens when pre-determined learning outcomes aren’t met–so, remediation?

These are all constructs that we often seek to refine rather than replace, but our relative lack of success here compared to our expenditure of time, money, and ideas should make us wonder–are we doing it right? Social Learning is already happening.

But as economies, institutions, connectivity, technology, and information access morph the world around us and make it unrecognizable to the Sesame Street generation, it would make sense to at least be able to contextualize social learning:

What is it?

What should I understand about it?

What is it ‘doing’ to learning?

How should I adjust my actions and behavior as an educator accordingly?

And more broadly, what parts of the learning process need to be managed and which need to be left alone? Because if it all needs to be managed, we’re doing whiz-bang job.

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