Social Learning Theory
Social Learning Theory
A theory, first proposed in the late 1960s, which posits that children learn through a process of interactions with their environments and their caregivers.
In the early 1960s, researchers who had become disillusioned with the radical behaviorism of theorists like B.F. Skinner began to look for theories that would explain the process of learning without relying on the behaviorist model. That model, pioneered by John Watson, Ivan Pavlov, and Skinner, was developed by studying the effects of conditioning on animals. With the cognitive revolution of the late 1950s, however, researchers began to acknowledge the faults of such an approach to studying human learning. The difference being, of course, that when dealing with human children, "instructors" are dealing with an organism whose capacity to think is equal to their own. That is, radical behaviorism fails in application to humans because children are not, as some behaviorists like to assert, empty vessels simply waiting to be filled with correct social instruction. Social learning theory is an expansion upon strict behaviorism but differs in that the child is understood to have broad interpretive skills and is not simply responding by instinct to parental cues and instructions.
Social learning theorists, having rejected reinforcement and association as the sole constructors of knowledge,
Clearly, this schema differs from classical behaviorism in that it requires that the learner understand the context of a behavior. In classical behaviorist studies of animal behavior, the response of the learner is always within the context of a specific reinforcement. Pavlov's dogs were trained to salivate at the sound of a bell rather than the appearance of food. In the schema presented above, a child learns to soothe a crying playmate with calming words and light touches because she has seen this done to either herself or others and then makes the decision to repeat the performance in a socially appropriate context, or, in some cases, doesn't.
This is the heart of social learning theory: humans exhibit wide latitude in choosing which behaviors to imitate and which to ignore. In reacting to any given situation, children, and indeed all people, engage in a complex process that not only involves behaviorist principles, but also such factors as ethics, morals, and a person's understanding of his or her role in the world. Social learning theorists conceive of this interaction as involving three elements: the person (P), behavior (B), and environment (E). According to this conception, people learn by filtering all experience through their own interpretations in relation to their environments. This theory is known as reciprocal determinism. It highlights the importance and limitations of subjectivity in the creation of personal belief systems, or personal narratives. These belief systems—a person's understanding of how the world works and his or her place among these complex workings—drastically impact one's responses to the world.
A final tenet of social learning theory holds that the successful integration of a personal belief system and behavior in response to that system leads to feelings of competence or self-mastery, a belief that one is "in charge" of one's relations to and understanding of the world. This feeling of mastery is brought about in a variety of ways, including verbal instructions (a parent telling a child she can accomplish some difficult task) and imitation, but it relies most heavily on personal experience, or what social learning theorists call enactive attainment. Children learn to rely on their skills and on their ability to think through problems by being given the opportunity to do so successfully. This kind of reinforcement, the experience of having achieved something, is, according to social learning theory, the most powerful form of learning in humans.
Bandura, Albert. Social Learning. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1977.
Fiske, Susan T., and Shelley E. Taylor. Social Cognition. New York: McGraw Hill, 1991.