Social Learning: The Key to Understanding New Information

Educational research has shown time and again that if we want students to learn, we must implement social learning strategies into our classrooms. Social learning theory states that people learn by observing others and then imitating them. And these same observations also teach students how to behave through both the positive and negative reinforcements they see happening to others.

For example, when a preschool teacher demonstrates how to stay quiet and walk in a line down the hallway, the students learn the appropriate actions by observing both the teacher and their classmates. These appropriate actions are then reinforced as they see their classmates receive praise when following directions or receive reprimands when not following directions.

The teacher does not have to tell the students that they are learning appropriate behavior as they walk quietly down the hallway in a line. The students simply learn by observing how the teacher walks down the hallway and by how he or she reacts to the behaviors of their classmates.

Another example of how social learning strategies are an important part of the learning process can be seen in a high school math classroom. After the teacher gives a mini-lesson on how to solve an equation, the students then solve an equation on their own, raising their hands to share their answers with the class. As the teacher calls on someone, he or she throws a piece of candy to the student as a reward for participating. The other students learn both the new material and the benefits of participating in class simply by observing the interaction between the teacher and their classmate.

And social learning is critical in virtual classrooms as well. When teachers demonstrate a new skill on the camera in real-time, practice the skill with all of the students together, and then ask the students to practice the skill on their own, the teacher understands the importance of social learning strategies. This I do, we do, you do model is an approach designed specifically to help students learn through observation, to support them as needed, and then to release them to practice the new skill on their own.

In summary, real learning does not take place when students passively hear new information. For real learning to take place, students must go through the process of observing others working with new information, practicing on their own, and understanding both the positive and negative rewards that take place as a result.