by Karla Howard - Instructional Systems Designer. 

The social learning theory

In 1961 and 1963 Albert Bandura conducted a series of social experiments. These experiments involved observing children’s behaviour when they had watched an adult act aggressively towards a Bobo doll (an inflatable toy, about 5ft tall, often painted to look like a clown). Bandura, in his experiments, claimed that people learn through observing, imitating and modelling. Alongside this, he also stated that people not only learn by being rewarded or punished, but also by watching others being rewarded or punished.

Key principles from these experiments were deemed the social learning theory by Bandura. The principles claim that learning is not purely behavioural; it is also a cognitive process that takes place in a social setting. Perception, intellect, the environment and behaviour all equally impact the individual learning experience. 

Social learning today


In today’s society, social learning can take place wherever we are; we have adapted our learning habits to our ever-changing and demanding environment inside and outside of work, so how are we doing it? Are the social learning principles still relevant?

In 2016, how are we incorporating social learning into our lifestyle?

An obvious social learning environment is social media - such as LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook. These are daily destinations for millions of global consumers who spend an average of 80 minutes per day on them.

Yes, I concede that in some cases the sites may be a more formal setting. LinkedIn group discussions, for example, are professional and the discussions which take place on this platform raise work related issues and ask operationally sound questions to engage the group community.

Your behaviour changes to adapt to the social media environment you are in. Whereas learning on your Facebook profile would class itself as far more social and informal as you are surrounded by your friends and family, as well as peers, it’s your own community, made up only of individuals you have invited in. 

Shared learning experiences

For some, I realise that the social media style platforms within an organisation which link into the learning management system, such as Yammer, may not be classed as social learning. For me, I think it’s about how they are used. In our organisation, we have our own Design Team group within Yammer which is private and joining is by invite only. The team owns the conversation, the learning and any social bonding it creates. It is a space to post anything from photos of team social events to sharing knowledge and asking those ’stupid questions’ in a safe learning environment with our peers. Yes, it is on an organisational platform, but the same protocols and behaviours don’t apply to the wider Yammer site, as it is a private group policed by members of that small environment. How can this not be social learning amongst a group of work colleagues, who are using it to assist their learning journey and their bonding within the team? And what other social learning can you do?

Mentor network and developmental site/professional networks - can be set up linked to the learning management system or one of the social media sites. This would encourage experienced practitioners to mentor less experienced colleagues and a global network could be set up to share best practice and enhance the learning experience.

Blogs and communities of practice can be set up for discussions and shared learning experiences. If there is a need for security of the site, then closed or secret groups can be set up where only invited learners can enter and contribute. Scientists (and writers) have long known about the therapeutic benefits of writing about personal learning experiences, thoughts and feelings.

The ‘beware’ caveat here though has to be that by sharing your thoughts and feelings opens you to the other voices in the blog/post. As well as writing, you have to listen - you are merely a part of the conversation you have started or contributed to.

Conferences and professional meetings should be attended to encourage networking and cementing yours and your company’s brand. Think about which sessions you want to commit to though. Dependent on conference type, the queues can be very long for some sessions and you end up getting shut out, even after waiting for a considerable amount of time to get in. And, from time-to-time you'll go to a session with high expectations, only to realise it's not hitting your needs, or meeting your expectations. It is always worth looking through the agenda and picking the ones you think are the best fits for you and your requirements.

There's an incredible amount of sharing and learning that can happen. Don’t just sit and answer your emails, get out there and mingle!  Even if you're not at the conference, there are usually conference hashtags to follow, live feeds, blogs covering all the action, you have no excuse not to get involved, even if it is from your armchair.

Online databases that have shared documents and examples of best practice documents can be a gold mine of information and research. As long as you have permission to be there, have a look and learn. Isn’t this what social learning is all about, modelling and observing the performance of others and their work; how have they designed the session? What graphics have they used? You may not be hitting a Bobo doll but you certainly can imitate a person’s ideas and learn from them how they have structured their sessions/projects etc. Again, another ‘beware’ caveat has to be, I in no way mean plagiarise their work or breach copyright in any way. I see it more as a learning resource - a library if you like.

Books, articles, Wikipedia and internal resources including procedural and technical manuals can be utilised to support the development and encourage self-learning. Podcasts, video casts, online videos and training for example from or YouTube. All of these mediums can be utilised for social learning, you can learn at their own speed and develop accordingly to the needs and goals which you wish to attain. Surely this must be social learning in the 21st century, observing or hearing an expert in the field/colleague give verbal instruction of the topic of your choice.

My favourite piece of symbolic modelling and observational learning recently has to be the film ‘The Internship’. This is where two salesmen “whose careers have been wrecked by the digital age” find their way into a coveted internship at Google, where they must compete with a group of young, tech-savvy geniuses for a shot at employment. The key takeaway from this film for me, was this has to be one of the best examples of why diverse teams at work are successful. Think outside of the box for your learning activities. It may be a cliché but learning is everywhere.

Informal feedback and project debriefs can be included within your social learning ethos and managers given training, to factor them in as a matter of course. Experiential learning in the workplace can add value to the individual and team, good news stories could be uploaded/posted on the social discussion sites. Verbal constructive instruction from colleagues can produce a wealth of knowledge in a community setting, where a safe learning environment can be adhered to and is paramount.

Coaching and mentoring from managers/experienced colleagues can be a follow-on from feedback. Inductees could be assigned their coach/mentor on day one of their training, thus giving them a specific avenue to ask advice, opinions or bounce ideas off. 360 degree feedback could be utilised here and encouraged as part of the developmental process. The Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) concepts come in to play here surely - ‘modelling’ is very much an NLP concept. NLP practitioners would say it is the ability to watch, respect and learn from others as well as ourselves.

Modelling as part of social learning

Modelling has to be a social learning lifestyle in the 21st century for any enthusiastic learner. It gives us as learners the ability to evolve naturally because of the members' common interest in a particular domain or area. It can also form offline, for example a lunch room at work, a field setting, a factory floor, or elsewhere in practically any environment; or it can be created specifically with the goal of gaining knowledge related to their field. It is through the process of sharing information and experiences with the group that the members learn from each other and social learning takes place. Was the Bobo doll part of the first ‘NLP’ type experiment? Is NLP the new Bobo doll? Whatever the new Bobo doll is, one thing is for certain, it should be as individual for the learner as learning is to each of us. 

"Social learning can and should be part of your learning lifestyle wherever you are. It is for me, can you say the same?"

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