Social Cognitive Theory – Learning is Social and Context Bound
Humans, as learners, are not just cognitively learning about new ideas and concepts, we are also observing others as peers, guides, and role-models and copying or replicating their behaviours. Setting it apart from other traditional learning theories, the “social cognitive learning theory highlights the idea that much human learning occurs in a social environment. By observing others, people acquire knowledge, rules, skills, strategies, beliefs, and attitudes” (Schunk, 1996. p. 102).
This learning theory immediately resonated with me as an instructor (and student) taking part in formal, non-formal and informal learning. I agree with Bandura, the major theorist for this perspective, that “the cognitive component of learning is only part of the picture” (Bandura, 1996). I personally learn the most when I can see a concept put in to context when applied in a true-to-life setting. What’s more, many students I’ve taught express that case studies and real-life examples provide the “missing link” when trying to understand a concept they have read in a book.
Bandura pictured his model of learning as a triangle in which learning, observing and the environment are interactive and reciprocal. I strongly agree that for well-rounded learning to occur, one must experience each aspect of Bandura’s triangle. For example, a medical student may understand the human body and study extensively on the topic of a surgery such as an appendectomy; however, they would need to observe an experienced doctor perform this surgery in an operating environment prior to truly understanding how to approach it and undertake it. What’s more, certain areas of the medical practice, such as bedside manner are likely better understood and taught through demonstration and/or observation. As in instructor at British Columbia Institute of Technology (BCIT), many of my students have graduated from University programs with Bachelor’s degrees. These individuals have expressed that while they may hold a BA in Communication (for example) they now need to learn the practical applications of the trade, such as how to write a press release, and other learnings that they did not have a chance to observe or put in practice in a formal, cognitivism-based learning environment.
Behaviourist theorists “believe that human behaviour is a result of the arrangement of particular stimuli in the environment” (Merriam & Bierema, 2014) and that learning is an observable change in behaviour. It suggests that the learner is passive and simply responding to stimuli (like Pavlov’s dogs). I’m not disputing the theory; however, I prefer an approach where the learner is consciously incorporated in the process. After all, we are not robots. We are rationale beings, capable of making decisions.
In traditional Cognitivism theory, the learner’s mind is viewed like a “computer” in that we must open it up and figure out how information is processed. Once we know how they process information (thinking, understanding, memory) we can better tailor our teachings. The problem here is that learners have unique learning styles and a one-size fits all approach may be too vague for practical application. This theory alone (without the social component) doesn’t consider or emphasize the role of environment, observation or social interaction in the learning process.
As adult learners, the environment we learn in often has a significant social component. Now that I have an understanding of how the social dimension impacts learning, I will do my best to incorporate forums in which classmates have the opportunity to learn by observing and modelling others through. I will encourage students to: share experiences, present learnings, assist with instruction by teaching lessons, and have opportunities to connect with mentors.
Learning-Theories.com (2014). Retrieved from http://www.learning-theories.com/cognitivism.html
Merriam, S. & Bierema, L. (2014). Adult Learning – Linking Theory and Practice. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.