The father of Social Learning Theory

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. Fortunately, most human behavior is learned observationally through modeling: 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. - Albert Bandura, 1977


Social Learning Theory is a basic theory in psychology that has helped to shape both primary and secondary education as well as corporate learning. Modern psychologists believe that it is the basis for true learning. This theory is simple and yet it has been challenging for the organization to leverage. Yet it is practiced every day by its employees. Each day an employee within the organization shows another a better way to perform a task. This informal passing on of information is the root of what Bandura was talking about. How can you leverage social learning in your organization? There are two types of learning within an organization push and pull. Push occurs when the organization provides, usually through formal training, information that the employee is to learn and utilize. Pull is more social and involves an employee seeking for information they need in order to perform. To leverage Bandura’s research in your organization, connect employees and enable them to collaborate on projects and issues regardless of geographical, systems, or other organizational barriers.

The Foundations of Modern Social Learning Theory – A Historical Overview

Maslow published an early theory of motivation entitled “A Theory of Human Motivation” (1943) where he first proposed his hierarchy of needs model. He theorized that people are driven to meet their needs in order to survive and to reach their potential, or “self-actualize”. According to Maslow, you are motivated to meet your lower-level needs before moving up the pyramid to focus your energies on higher-order needs. The needs he identified and prioritized were:

  1. Physiological – food, water, shelter.
  2. Safety – feeling free from immediate danger.
  3. Belonging and love – belonging to a group.
  4. Esteem – feeling of gaining recognition.
  5. Self-actualization – knowing who you are, where you are going and what you want to accomplish.

While Maslow is not directly a learning theorist, it is important to understand people’s motivations to engage in learning.

Piaget is best known for his four stages of cognitive development. He discovered that children think and reason differently at different stages of development. These stages include:

  1. Sensorimotor (0-2 years) – the mind is concerned with concrete objects.
  2. Preoperational (2-7 years) – the mastery of symbols.
  3. Concrete (7-11 years) – mastery of classes, relations, numbers and how to reason.
  4. Formal Operation or abstract thinking (11+ years) – mastery of thought.

Piaget conducted some very famous and easily replicated experiments. His theory is the basis for early development theory and is still taught today. Constructivism (1930′s) is where emphasis is placed on the student and not the teacher. Teachers guidestudents to creatively develop solutions to problems. Students learn by developing and testing out solutions. The earliest basis for this theory dates back to Socrates, but Piaget’s research on intellectual growth started to popularize early training theory.

Lewin, the father of organization development, saw behavior as a function of the person and the environment. B = f (P, E). He summarized that learning is best facilitated when there is a conflict of concrete experience and an analysis within the individual. Action – reflection – generalization and testing. Rogers approach was to create an environment for engagement, learning and growth. He was known for his theory for providing feedback.

  • Evaluative – to make a judgment about worth.
  • Interpretive – or paraphrasing to explain what another person statement means.
  • Supportive – an attempt to assist the others communications.
  • Probing – to gain more information, to continue the discussion or clarify a point.
  • Understanding – trying to understand what the other person means in there statements.

All of these early learning theorists formed the foundation upon which today’s social learning movement rests. Our next post will focus on how these early foundations became the basis for Albert Bandura’sSocial or Observational Learning theory.