Unlocking the mysteries of social learning theory: A journey through 50 years of connection

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Key takeaways

  • Social learning theory underscores the power of observation in shaping behaviour. Through live, symbolic, and verbal models, individuals gain insights from their surroundings, paving the way for transformative learning experiences.
  • Attention, retention, motivation, identification, and rewarded behaviours serve as the pillars upon which behavioural change rests.
  • An understanding of the mediational factors empowers L&D professionals to design learning interventions that captivate, inspire, and drive meaningful action.
  • By embracing technological advancements, L&D professionals can harness the power of connection to create immersive, collaborative learning environments that transcend traditional boundaries.
  • The proliferation of online resources and interactive platforms empowers learners to curate their educational journey. By providing autonomy and catering to diverse learning preferences, L&D professionals can foster engagement, retention, and knowledge transfer.
  • By immersing learners in simulated environments and facilitating interactive engagement, VR revolutionises traditional pedagogy, paving the way for experiential learning and interpersonal connections.

In the intricate dance of human behaviour, the threads of connection weave a tapestry that shapes our learning experiences. Just as the bonds we make with other people and the web of connections we form around us influence our behaviour, so too do they underpin how we learn. Consider the simple act of an infant learning to walk, where observation and mimicry pave the way from a crawl to their first steps.

But what drives this transformation of learning into action? And how can we harness this phenomenon to design learning experiences that catalyse real behavioural change?

Enter the realm of ‘social learning theory’, a concept pioneered by psychologist Albert Bandura. Join us as we delve into the essence of this ground-breaking concept, and uncover its core principles. But our exploration doesn’t stop there. In this blog, we’ll also journey through the annals of history, from the dawn of mobile communication to the advent of virtual reality, and witness as each technological breakthrough serves as a chapter in our narrative, showcasing the evolution of human connection and its profound impact on learning.

What is social learning theory?

Social learning theory was first put forward by psychologist Albert Bandura, who proposes that we can learn both from those that surround us, and our environment. Known as observational learning, Bandura categorises the sources we learn from into three ‘models’.

  1. A live model: Which involves an actual individual demonstrating or acting out a behaviour.
  2. A symbolic model: Which involves real or fictional characters displaying behaviours in books, films, television programs, or online media.
  3. A verbal instructional model: Which involves descriptions and explanations of a behaviour

What are mediational factors?

We know that simply observing an action, or piece of learning doesn’t necessarily lead to a change in behaviour. Why? Well, there are key cognitive processes that take place that ultimately decide whether or not we will choose to transform that learning in to an action. These are called ‘mediational factors’ — and they hold the key to unlocking behavioural change.

Attention The learning must capture the interest of the observer to be deemed worth replicating. In turn, the learner must also pay attention to the behaviour in order to be able to replicate it.

Retention — The behaviour needs to be remembered. Most learning isn’t immediate — we reflect, organise and process our thoughts. For us to replicate the behaviour days or weeks later, we must remember it.

Motivation — Motivation to replicate the learning also plays an influence. What is the positive benefits of replicating it? Do the rewards outweigh the benefits? Are the rewards important to the learner?

Identification We are more likely to model behaviours from those who are similar to us, or even who we aspire to be like. This could be in terms of age, experience, gender, values etc. We identify with these individuals, making their behaviours seem more relevant and attainable.

Rewarded Behaviours Individuals who see that a behaviour is rewarded are more likely to imitate that behaviour. Individuals also benefit more from role models whose success is due to factors they can control, rather than innate talent.

Learning from years of social connection

When it comes to social learning, connection underpins every aspect of the theory. And in an ever-connected age, there’s definitely something we can learn from this.

After all, when we look at each through the lens of a learning opportunity, each connection breakthrough has aspects of the social learning theory woven through it. So how can we enhance our ability to use each to retain and unlock knowledge. How can we harness the power of connection to build memorable learning experiences?

Well, prepare to go back in time…

Four historic milestones for social connection

1. 1973 — Motorola invents the first mobile telephone

Yes, they weren’t the touch-screen, multifunctional devices we know today, but mobile phone still revolutionised the way we communicate. Suddenly, we could be accessible anywhere. No longer were we tethered to a single spot by a twisting cable, we could be reached in the kitchen, in front of the television, while working, or even in the car. And when Nokia upped the game (with a QWERTY keyboard, and a weight of 21 pounds) — we began to be able to access our friends and relatives anywhere, anytime.

With the dawn of the mobile, suddenly our world opened up. We could reach colleagues, friends, and family from around the world — accessing new pools of knowledge from our peers. Crucially, we could do this in an environment that suited us.

No more meetings hunched over a desk phone, or long calls propped up against the wall. We could converse from the comfort of an office chair, or the calming environment of our own home. For the first time we didn’t have to give up the comfort of our environment to access collaborative environments for working or learning.

We were no longer confined to an environment that didn’t support our learning needs — simply by making conversations portable, we could choose where to best situate ourselves in order to set up the best environment possible to focus our attention on the multitude of diverse ideas we now had access to. And with studies showing that our environment determines our motivation and engagement, (both key aspects of the social learning theory — the move to mobile opened up a whole new avenue of social learning.)

2. 1993 — The world wide web was made public

With the invention of the world wide web by Tim Berners-Lee, we were given the key to a treasure trove of knowledge. Unlocking it was like a portal to a new world, brimming with information and overflowing with answers. Gone were the days of lengthy trips to the library; as soon as a question sparked in our brains, the answers were at our fingertips. As the web developed, learners and users could actively choose the type of knowledge they wanted to consume and in what form. We had the autonomy to select from a banquet of resources, including blogs, long-form papers, videos, or audio formats. We could feast on realms of information on any given topic while choosing a format most digestible to our brains.

Due to the vast range of content available to us, accessing the world wide web increased the accessibility of learning for everyone. Whether we learned through video, reading, or even through gamification, the accessibility of the web meant that learners could hone in on those two key mediational aspects of the social learning theory: retention and attention. Using information that they could handpicked to suit their brain’s wiring meant that it was much easier to form connections and build ideas, cementing the knowledge in our brain. We took autonomy for our learning, actively seeking out topics and materials that captivated and held our attention. And as we connected with others around the world, the pool of ideas and concepts we had access to widened.

3. 1997 — The first social media site was born (SixDegrees.com)

You may not have heard of SixDegrees.com, but it laid the foundations upon which the social media sites we know today were built. Users could set up a profile page, create networks, and send instant messages. Sound familiar? Perhaps. Despite closing down in 2000, we now have LinkedIn (2002), Twitter (2006), Instagram (2010), and Snapchat (2011), all based on the same concept.

Not only did our connections with people extend right into their homes and lives, but we also suddenly had an added visual aspect. Social media took us to new heights of observational learning, and the impact was dizzying. Not only was our attention captivated in a newer, more personal way, but our screens and minds were also lit up by the diversity of lives, faces, and opinions we had access to on our screens.

This personal aspect was the powerful tool that gave the meaning of social learning a whole new aspect. With the ability to create our own ‘for you’ page, as the algorithm served us just what we connected most with, there was more chance than ever that we would find like-minded individuals who we identified with, or even wanted to emulate.

And this touched on a key aspect of the social learning theory — identification. Just look at trends that have gone viral — living proof that we learn and copy those that we see on our feed.

The larger-than-life influencers on our page did just that — they influenced us. Tapping into the ‘identifiable’ mediational factor, they often had desirable features or personalities, a social status, or simply looked or had similar values to our own.

Motivation also played a pivotal role. As influencers became more integrated into society, the allure of emulating the behaviours seen on our screens served as a potent catalyst, transforming our passive observations into active actions.

While social media and its huge influence on our lives came with equally negative side effects, there’s a lot to be taken from understanding the way we learn from the apps. When it comes to social learning theory, social media tactfully blended live, symbolic, and verbal learning, and added in the essential cognitive factors to transform what we observe into action.

4. 2019 — VR became mainstream

Although we may think of VR as a new concept, with the very first quest headset being sold in 2019, VR was first actually introduced in 1968 (albeit a more primitive version). Ivan Sutherland, a computer scientist, and his student Bob Sproull, created the first head mounted display named — The Sword of Damocles. And while users could only view wire frame shapes through it — today VR has advanced so much that we can collaborate, interact and co-work in an alternate universe.

When it comes to attention — being fully immersed in your learning really says captivating like nothing else. Imagine delivering learning in an environment that grabs the senses — think a beach in Greece or a theme park in America. Imagine learning about mechanics, while watching the very thing you are building functioning around you. Or making theory come alive as you go through the physical motions of a concept in real time.

VR allows learners to lay down the cement to embed their learning in. Plus, as we move to a remote and dispersed world, having access to collaborative spaces where we can work together and have real-time experiences is as valuable as gold nuggets.

When it comes to interpersonal connections, virtual reality  possesses a distinctive capability to revolutionize classroom dynamics. Rather than traditional one-way instruction, envision a setting where teachers and learners can learn through shared experiences, and interact in two-way conversations. This shift from passive lecturing to interactive engagement cultivates a much more meaningful learning process, rendering educators more relatable and providing students with mentors they can identify with — a pivotal aspect of social learning theory.

Final thoughts

In tracing the evolution of social learning theory through 50 years of connection, we’ve unearthed valuable insights for those of you seeking to revolutionise your learning experiences. From understanding the nuances of observational learning to harnessing the power of mediational factors, our journey has revealed the path to driving real behavioural change.

So, as we navigate the ever-changing landscape of technological innovation, from mobile phones to virtual reality, the keys to crafting impactful learning interventions lie in personalisation, autonomy, and immersive engagement. By embracing these insights, you can unlock the transformative potential of social learning, shaping a future where every connection becomes a catalyst for knowledge and growth.

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