Thesis: Learning Theory

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Social Learning Theory

Learning Theory

The importance of social learning and that way that the social context enables and facilitates learning processes such as motivation, imitation, reinforcement and self-efficacy has become an central theoretical concern in contemporary education. The field of social learning theory has many well-known and respected scholars, such as Alfred Bandura and others who have suggested the importance of this theory in terms of learned behavior patterns such as aggression, especially among young children.

Social learning theory achieved certain predominance over more behaviorist models of learning in the latter part of the last century. However, this theory has also been critiqued for overemphasizing the social components of learning. Many critics suggest that the biological and genetic aspects of the learning process, as well as individual psychological factors, are not adequately considered in social learning theory. This paper will include a discussion of these critiques in an overview of the concepts and major theorists that have influenced the development and acceptance of this perspective on the importance of social learning.

2. Overview of Theory and its Components

In essence social learning theory is a theoretical stance that is taken by a broad range of professionals and disciplines, which includes education, sociology and psychology. It has a number of core concepts that are generally adhered to. These can be summarized as follows. The first is that the most important determining factors in all human behavior are learned. In this regard social learning theorists reply to the argument that the genetic and biological factors are important in learning by stating that they are not the main determining factors in the learning process. As Wiener (1980) states, social learning theory posits the view that, "Genetic and biological factors merely set limits on possible learning experiences" (Weiner, 1980, p. 229).

A second crucial tenet of social learning theory is that behavior is situationally specific. This means in effect that, "…people behave as they do in response to the demands and characteristics of the particular situation that they are in at the moment" (Weiner, 1980, p. 229). Furthermore, this stance also assumes that the most important influences on behavior and on learning are to be found in the world or environment external to the individual. This is of course a controversial issue and the debate about external as opposed to internal or psychological influences and motivations in learning will be an aspect that will be referred to in the following sections. Another central criterion of this theoretical stance is that a "…theory of motivation should use few constructs, make a minimum number of inferences, and be guided by experimental data" (Weiner, 1980, p. 229).

In terms of its historical and academic trajectory, this theory emerged in contradistinction or in opposition to Freudian conceptions of behavior and human learning. Rather than referring to internal psychological and subconscious processes, the advocates of social learning theory stress the importance and the significance of the environment as a central determining factor in human behavior (Weiner, 1980, p. 234). An example that is given is the use of role models and the way that they influence learning and behavior patterns, which will be discussed in more detail in the following sections. Another important foundational aspect of this theory is that it is different to other theoretical stances in that "…social learning theorists contend that learning is the fundamental concept needed for the explanation of action" (Weiner, 1980, p. 234).

This theory suggests that social learning occurs in relation to certain stages of human development. These are the following: through close contact with others in the society or social environment; through imitation of those who are superior; through the understanding of concepts and, importantly, learning takes place by means of role model behavior. These include three crucial aspects of the learning process; namely, observing, imitating, and reinforcement (Social Learning Theory from notes on Ormond's Human Learning).

To elaborate further on these general principles: the individual learns mainly through observing in the first instance the behavior of those around him or her -- and especially the way that certain behaviors and actions affect those people who are being observed (Social Learning Theory from notes on Ormond's Human Learning). Another important concept of social learning behavior is that in many cases learning is not necessarily linked to behavior. In other words, learning can occur without any change in the behavior patterns of the individual. This is in contradistinction to behavioral learning theory which states that "…learning has to be represented by a permanent change in behavior" (Social Learning Theory from notes on Ormond's Human Learning). Therefore, social learning theory is of the view that people learn only through observation of the world around them.

Another central facet or component of this theory that has become part of the contemporary view of social learning is the importance of cognition. Social learning theory suggests that cognition plays a vital role in the learning process and that, "Awareness and expectations of future reinforcements or punishments can have a major effect on the behaviors that people exhibit" (Pedagogical Theory and Social Computing). This aspect assumes a great deal of importance when discussing the relevance of self-efficacy in the learning process. Some academics state that "Social learning theory can be considered a bridge or a transition between behaviorist learning theories and cognitive learning theories" (Pedagogical Theory and Social Computing).

3. Literature overview and synthesis

Many points pertaining to an overview and synthesis of the literature have been noted in the previous section. An important aspect to consider in this regard is that any discussion of the literature on this theory must of necessity take into account the debate between the tenets of social learning theory and behaviorist and other theories of learning. As mentioned above, social learning theory differs from Freudian behavioral theory and these differences are indicative of the unique stance that social learning theory takes on learning and human behavior in general. This point is concisely summarized in the following extract from Weiner (1980)

According to Freudian theory, a variety of observed actions may be signs of the same underlying dynamic principle. For example, both paranoid acts and an overt sexual approach toward someone of the same sex are indicators of homosexual desires; both artistic products and neurosis are signs of unexpressed sexual wishes; laughter, dreams, and war all may be expressions of aggressive drives; saving money and cleanliness reveal an "anal" personality character; and so on. Social learning theorists such as Mischel… oppose this viewpoint (Weiner, 1980, p. 234).

The above quotation provides a clear starting point from which one can begin to understand and evaluate the various arguments and debates that are presented by the main advocates of the theory of social learning.

In terms for the literature the foundations of social learning theory are derived from the 19th century writings of works of Gabriel Tarde (1843-1904). This refers to the sociological and psycho-social views that Tarde proposed to explain society. In essence Tarde's view were psychological in that he stated that to understand human life and society, as well as learning, "…the primary requisite is to see how the minds of men act and how they influence one another" (Davis, 1909, p. 86).

On the one hand behavioral psychology tends to interpret and understand human behavior in terms of "…sensation, feeling, thought and action" (Davis, 1909, p. 86). On the other hand from a social theory perspective, the essential quality of society consists in "…an inter-influence, a co-relation, a co-adaptation of similar minds" (Davis, 1909, p. 86). Therefore, Tarde and others argue that one cannot ignore or dismiss the social and interactive context and influences that surrounds the individual. To deny these influences would, in this view, undermine a true understanding of human life and reality which relates to the learning process.

In his works Tarde goes on to interpret human behavior almost totally in terms of social aspects that influenced human actions and behavior patterns. As Davis ( 1909) points out, Tarde is concerned with the "…relation between mind and mind which creates a society" (Davis, 1909, p. 87).

On this theoretical foundation the various theoretical perspectives of modern social learning theory were developed. One of the central concepts of this theory is imitation. Wiener (1980) states that,

It is evident that individuals learn through observation and imitate the behavior of others. Any number of complex human activities, including, for example, driving it car, hitting a baseball, or making a proper introduction, clearly are facilitated by observing others as they perform these activities (Weiner, 1980, p. 230).

However, behaviorist theorists of learning stressed operant learning; where learning was considered to have occurred when the individual makes a response which is followed by reinforcement. This view tended to ignore cognitive learning, which theorists like Bandura began to focus on. The work of Bandura was particularly focused on the way that learning occurred through the observation and imitation of others. Another theorist who also supported this social view of learning is Walters.… [END OF PREVIEW]

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Cite This Thesis:

APA Format

Learning Theory.  (2009, September 13).  Retrieved May 19, 2019, from

MLA Format

"Learning Theory."  13 September 2009.  Web.  19 May 2019. <>.

Chicago Format

"Learning Theory."  September 13, 2009.  Accessed May 19, 2019.