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A Guide to Social Learning Theory in Education

May 15, 2020

Every teacher has those students. The ones that make the classroom difficult. They speak out of turn, bully other children, and express many behavioral problems that can bring a teacher to the end of their rope. Every classroom has students like these, and it can be incredibly frustrating for a teacher to deal with this all the time. At the root of the problem may be the student lacking guidance in the classroom. 

“The content of most textbooks is perishable, but the tools of self-directedness serve one well over time.” -Albert Bandura

Current and aspiring teachers know that one of their most important jobs is to help give students guidance to be better learners and people, not just try and teach them one or two things out of a book. Understanding learning theories can help teachers connect with students who are acting out or having trouble learning. The practical applications of the social learning theory can directly address behavioral issues in some students and help them improve. In both their actual learning, and their behavior as a student, the right learning theory can make a world of difference.

What is the social learning theory?

Simply put, social learning theory is the idea that children learn from observing others. This learning can be acted on, a child sees a sibling politely ask for a treat and get one, or not acted on, a teenager hears a friend talking picking a lock and they learn something new, but don’t try it themselves. Especially when it comes to aggressive behavior, social learning theory plays a big role in how all people and especially children learn. 

There are four elements to social learning theory including:

  • Attention. Children can’t learn if they aren’t focused on the task. Students who see something unique or different are more likely to focus on it, helping them to learn.

  • Retention. People learn by internalizing information. We can then recall that information later when we want to respond to a situation in the same way which we saw. In order to learn from what we see, we have to retain that information.

  • Reproduction. We reproduce our previously learned behavior or knowledge when it’s required. Practicing our response in our head or in actions can improve the way we respond.

  • Motivation. Motivation is required in order to do anything. Usually our motivation comes from seeing someone else be rewarded or punished for something they have done. This can motivate us to do or not do that same thing.

Teachers have found that social modeling and examples are a very powerful tool in education. If children see positive consequences from an action, they are likely to do that action themselves. And if they see negative consequences, they are likely to avoid that behavior. Unique, novel, and different situations often catch a student’s attention and can stand out to them.

If students see other students paying attention, they are more likely to pay attention. So teachers utilize reward systems and punishments to help students learn from the examples of others. Social learning theory also has a great root in encouraging self-efficacy by using constructive feedback. Students who get positive reinforcement have more confidence in themselves and their abilities—this stands out in their mind and they want to repeat this behavior.

History of social learning theory.

Albert Bandura is considered the father of social learning theory. In the 1960’s he conducted a now-famous experiment called the Bobo doll experiment that led to his official writings on the social learning theory in 1977.

The Bobo doll experiment was a group of tests performed from 1961-1963. The experiments involved studying children’s behavior after they watched an adult act aggressively toward a doll-like toy with a low center of mass that rocked back after being knocked down. The most important element of the experiment was seeing how children behaved after seeing the adult get rewarded, punished, or no consequence for physically abusing the Bobo doll. These experiments helped show how children can be influenced by learning from the behavior of others. Albert Bandura’s insights focus on behavioral development of students

Lev Vygotsky is also known for his work on understanding how children learn from their peers, but his work is more focused on cognitive and language development. Lev Vygotsky focuses on the difference between what a child knows and what they want to know, the zone of proximal development. He focuses on how seeing other adults and peers helps children be able to overcome that zone of proximal development.

Social learning theory vs. social cognitive theory.

Albert Bandura is known as being the creator of both of these learning theories. Social cognitive theory is a more specific and detailed element of the social learning theory, and is connected to the cognitive theory of learning. It takes the idea that people learn from other people, and adds their personal or cognitive factors, the behavior itself, and the environment as combination factors for determining learning and behavior. 

In social cognitive theory, Bandura broadens the theory by saying that humans aren’t just shaped by their environment and inner forces, but they also shape their environment and inner force. Self-efficacy is an even more crucial area of social cognitive theory. 

Social learning theory is the more broad approach to the idea that humans and children learn from observing others.

How to incorporate social learning in your classroom.

While it’s one thing to think about social learning, it’s another to really incorporate it into your classroom. It’s important to understand strategies for how to incorporate this theory and help students succeed with it. Empathy and care are crucial to making sure this learning theory goes well in your classroom. Teachers should always remember that they can focus on reinforcement to shape behavior, model appropriate behavior, and build self-efficacy as part of their classroom model.

The flipped classroom model. A flipped classroom model involves changing the way students would traditionally learn. Instead of a teacher lecturing during the school day, students watch an instructional video or reading material at home. Then in class, they apply what they learned through activities or assignments that might have been homework. Teachers act as guides and coaches, helping them continue their learning. This embodies the social learning theory because students are able to observe the behavior and action of other students during the learning and activities, seeing when they are getting praised and encouraged, and apply those observations to their learning.

Teachers can incorporate this model by recording themselves lecturing on a certain subject so students can watch that video as their homework. They can then take their homework assignments and plan to work on them the next day with the students. It can be beneficial for teachers who choose this model to be available to help answer student questions if needed.

Gamification and simulations. Gamification and simulations help teachers turn their classroom into a more interactive experience. It takes assignments and activities and put them into a game. Gamification involves turning an activity into a competitive game, creating rewards for winners, and creating that unique and novel spark that will attract the interest of students.

Simulations in the classroom help add interest and fun to a classroom situation. A mock trial, a mock city, a digital simulation—all of these simulation options are great ways to enhance a classroom setting and make students feel more engaged. They also get the opportunity to learn from their peers.

Gamification and simulations connect to social learning theory by allowing students to make real observations for rewards and punishments in an engaging way in the classroom. Students can win a game or see someone succeed in the simulation, and then emulate that behavior. 

Teachers can start by creating a unit that has a simple game or simulation to test it out, and then continue to add new games or simulations whenever possible.

Peer coaching. Peer coaching is a great way to help students learn from each other. Students connected to each other can observe and learn, helping each other along the way. It’s important to be careful when instituting peer coaching—you don’t want students to feel uncomfortable or insecure about another student helping them. This can work well for math learning, paper writing and editing, and more. To institute peer coaching, carefully observe students first to see who would be a good fit to make the experience a success.

Teachers can be a peer coach for students, or another aid can help act as peer coaches for students, especially when it comes to older students. Older students can directly learn from adults who have been in similar situations, and they can see how then ended up and how they got to where they are. 

Teacher resources for social learning.

These resources will help teachers be prepared to incorporate social learning in their classroom and help students improve behaviors and be successful.

  • This resource is a simulation of the sky that can help students learn about astronomy.

  • Padlet can help students and teachers collaborate. Students can communicate and work with each other while watching instructional videos or reading articles written by the teacher.

  • Edpuzzle allows teachers to create video content for students to consume easily.

  • Quizizz is a great game option that makes learning and quizzes a more fun, game option. 

  • How-to videos are a great way for students to learn at home, particularly in a flipped classroom environment.

If you're a current or aspiring educator, it's important to understand how different learning theories can benefit your classroom and help students find success. Get more help and knowledge about teaching and education with a degree from WGU.

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