Exploring children's learning
Exploring children's learning

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Exploring children's learning

3 Social learning theory

3.1 The role of observation

It was clear to Canadian psychologist Albert Bandura (1924– ) that not only is children's behaviour shaped by its consequences, but also that children learn by watching the behaviour of people around them. In contrast to behaviourism, Bandura's social learning theory emphasised the importance of children imitating the behaviours, emotions and attitudes of those they saw around them:

Learning would be exceedingly laborious, not to mention hazardous, if people had to rely solely on the effects of their own actions to inform them what to do … from observing others one forms an idea of how new behaviors are performed, and on later occasions this coded information serves as a guide for action.

(Bandura, 1977, p. 22)

There are many examples of children learning complex skills by observation. For example, Guatemalan girls learn to weave ‘almost exclusively by watching models. The teacher demonstrates the operations of the textile machine, while the girl simply observes. Then, when the girl feels ready, she takes over, and she usually operates it skilfully on her very first try’ (Crain, 2000, p. 194).

Bandura's theory explains children's learning by considering four interrelated factors. To imitate someone a child must:

  1. Attend to relevant aspects of the ‘model’ and their behaviour.

  2. Retain what they have seen, through appropriate encoding and rehearsal.

  3. Be physically able to reproduce the behaviour.

  4. Be motivated to perform the new skill, through the presence of reinforcement and punishment in the observed setting.

He detailed aspects of each of these processes and demonstrated, for example, that memorising modelled behaviour by translating what is observed into words or images produces better retention than observation alone (Bandura and Jeffery, 1972). Importantly, he acknowledged the role of observing others experiencing reinforcement and punishment, but argued that its role was in influencing which behaviours children attend to in the first place, and also in affecting children's motivation to reproduce a behaviour.


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