Everyone’s Talking About Social Learning Theory… Or Are They?
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Everyone’s Talking About Social Learning Theory… Or Are They?


Let’s be honest. ‘Social learning’ has become a bit of a buzzword. One person might use the term to invoke the theories of Albert Bandura, and another might be talking about social media as a learning platform. So who’s right? And why does it matter? 

That’s what we set out to determine in this post. We dug deep into various social learning theories, and interviewed people at the frontiers of ‘new social learning’ in the workplace. 

Here’s what we’ve discovered… 

There’s More Than One Social Learning Theory (No Wonder We’re All Confused…)

Ideas around social learning have both evolved and diverged over time. Much like the related concept of ‘collaborative learning’ (we’ll get into the differences later on), the term ‘social learning’ is not a homogenous pedagogical approach, but an umbrella term for several interconnected schools of thought.

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That means that when we invoke ‘social learning’, we could be referring to several different theories:

Albert Bandura’s Social Learning Theory

Albert Bandura, a Canadian-American psychologist, stated that both adults and children learn by observing, modelling, and imitating the behaviors they see around them. In Bandura’s social learning theory, learning is an active cognitive process that takes place in a social context. The basic process is made up four parts:

  • Observation: To retain and imitate a new behavior, the learner must pay attention to someone else carrying out that behavior. The observed person is the ‘model’. 
  • Retention: To imitate a behavior, the learner needs to retain it in their memory for possibly extended periods of time.
  • Imitation: To reproduce a behavior, the learner must have the correct physical capabilities.
  • Motivation: The learner will have gleaned, from the Observation stage of the process, whether they can expect ‘reward’ or ‘punishment’ from a behavior. This motivates the learner to imitate (or not) the behavior. Behaviors that are seen to be rewarded in others in a social context are more likely to be imitated.

Bandura’s theory doubles down on learning as an act that happens within a social framework. It’s an ongoing process in which individuals and environment may change, but the process of observation, retention, imitation, and motivation remains.

Vygotsky’s Social Learning Theory

Lev Vygotsky was a social constructivist who theorised that people learn best during social interactions, especially when those interactions are with ‘more knowledgeable others’. 

These ‘more knowledgeable others’—people more experienced in the thing being learned—act as guides to other learners. With the help of these guides, the learners progress through three zones of competence:

  • What the learner can do by themselves
  • What the learner cannot do
  • And in between these two, the Zone of Proximal Development: what the learner can do, but only with guidance. 

An image of three concentric circles. The outside is labelled "learner cannot do" he middle is labelled "learner can do with help". The inside is labelled "learner can do"
Vygotsky's Zone of Proximal Development

Vygotsky is also associated with collaborative learning, and you can read more about his theory in Eduflow’s post on collaborative learning.

Krumboltz’s Social Learning Theory

Career theorist John D. Krumboltz has a different approach to social learning theory. The Stanford professor’s theory connects social learning with career development. 

In his Social Learning Theory of Career Decision Making (SLTCDM), Krumboltz proposes a theory for why people make the career choices they make—mainly through a series of planned and unplanned learning opportunities arising from an individual’s social environment.

According to Krumboltz, we make the career decisions we do based on four unspoken beliefs:

  • Beliefs about our own abilities which influence our future planning
  • Beliefs about our environment or context, upon which we make assumptions about the future
  • Beliefs around the skills we think we have, whether innate or learned
  • Actions we take based on the above, and what we learn as a result

Krumboltz’s theory changed the way career counsellors and mentors guide learners through career decisions. Instead of requiring people to commit to a career path and suffer negative consequences if they diverge, Krumboltz’s theory encourages us to see our career path as something infinitely adaptable, based upon the lessons we learn as we evolve and observe others’ evolution.

New Social Learning

In The New Social Learning, Tony Bingham and Marcia Conner build on the foundational concepts of Bandura, Vygotsky, and Krumboltz, and propose social media as a way to encourage social learning even when learners aren’t physically together.

Bingham and Conner’s approach focuses on the workplace, and in particular the challenges faced by distributed teams where collaboration is vital. The book provides examples of organizations that successfully use social media as a training tool, and pairs up diverse strategic goals with suitable technologies.

The thread that connects all these different perspectives together is the idea of people learning together, often through observation and external cues.

There’s a Difference Between Social Learning & Collaborative Learning

It’s tempting to use these two terms interchangeably. But ‘social’ and ‘collaborative’ are not perfect synonyms. 

For us, collaborative learning is any form of learning that occurs due to social interaction between two or more individuals when they are working together on the same task or toward the same goal. That part about the shared goal is important, and it’s what differentiates collaborative learning from social.

Social learning does not require a shared goal between collegiate learners. Social learning can happen when one person observes another; it’s a form of information transfer from one individual to another. 

For example, coaching and mentoring are forms of social learning, but not collaborative learning. There is a focus on the coachee or mentee’s development, rather than a shared goal between mutually benefitting learners.

Social Learning Happens Naturally in the Workplace

If we take Bandura’s social theory to be the baseline, we start to see that social learning happens constantly in both remote and in-person workplaces.

A simple example might be: a new hire walks into the office in a suit and tie on their first day. They notice everyone else is in t-shirt and jeans, even the boss. On day 2, they too wear t-shirt and jeans.

It’s a simple scenario but it’s an expression of Bandura’s social learning theory. And it happens all the time at work. We imitate those we see getting promoted, we use the same jargon as the boss, and we model behaviors that seem to be rewarded or socially valued.

And You Can Create Ways to Amplify Its Effect at Work

So social learning is happening naturally across your workplace. And you as a learning practitioner can find ways to amplify and channel its power.

Understand the Behaviors to Highlight & Reward

Remember, humans are likely to imitate behaviors they see as socially acceptable or valuable. That means that as an L&D professional working within an organization, you need to identify which behaviors favor the organization, and highlight them.

For example, you can create a program that recognizes employees who live out the company values day-to-day. By rewarding these individuals, you’re encouraging others to observe and imitate the desired value or behavior.

Once you’ve identified which behaviors benefit the business and the culture, you can then create a public reward structure (it can be as simple as a public shout-out for high-performing individuals), and socialise that system throughout the company.

Introduce Coaching or Mentorship for All Team Members

Coaching is often reserved for executives. But coaching is a valid and effective way to leverage social learning for any employee, regardless of seniority. 

In both coaching and mentorship, the more experienced partner (the coach or mentor) acts as a Vygotskian guide for the less experienced partner. The mentor models or highlights the helpful behavior, and the mentee moves through the Zone of Proximal Development to competence with the help of this guidance.

Of course, creating a culture of coaching and mentorship has challenges. Some employees may be resistant to learning from peers. Pernille Hippe Brun, Founder of coaching company Session, recommends helping employees overcome that ‘ego-clash’ by framing the coaching as ‘cross-learning’, and helping coaches ask thought-provoking questions, rather than give advice.

You can also use our free professional development plan template to run coaching projects across your team.

Encourage Learning in Groups, Especially for Async Teams

Social learning can flourish in remote workplaces, but only when you leverage the correct technology. 

For example, Eduflow’s group formation activity allows learners to work towards a shared goal together, submitting work as a group and holding group reflections on feedback. This encourages collaborative learning and peer connection for async teams. If you do plan to organize group discussions for learners, make sure you create discussion questions that actually spark discussion!

Our peer review feature also encourages learning in smaller groups of two learners. Using this feature, you can encourage learners to review each other’s work and give guided feedback.

Help Leadership Model ‘Good’ Behaviors

In hierarchical organizations, the behavior of the boss or executive team over-rules any number of memos from HR or L&D. That’s why social learning starts with the public actions of those in leadership, who are the primary learning ‘models’, in Bandura’s terms.

While it’s hard for learning leaders to tell the C-Suite how to act, it’s definitely our responsibility to socialise the idea of modelling to those in power. Sharing information on how social learning works, and the importance of modelling, is a good first step.

Social Learning Theory is More Relevant Than Ever

‘Social learning’ is a catch-all term that describes humans’ innate ability to learn from observing others in social situations. While theorists like Bandura, Vygotsky, Krumboltz, and Bingham & Conner have all come at social learning from different angles, the core concept remains the same: that learning is a social phenomenon. 

As we move towards increasingly distributed workforces and technology-driven collaboration, learning practitioners will have to find creative ways of forging social connections for learning purposes. If you want to learn how to do that, sign up for Eduflow’s free course on Designing Social Learning Experiences.


Cassandra Naji | EdTech Marketer & Director of L&D 

William Cronje | Instructional Designer & Program Manager at Eduflow Academy

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