The concept of “apprentice” may seem flat and unnuanced, but the truth is that it has evolved a lot over time. After all, if we get philosophical, there are no easy answers to any question. What are we talking about when we talk about learning? Is the fact that we have mastered a skill or subject a merit that is ours alone? What is the nature of the learning process and what agents are involved in it?
In the West, it was usual to consider man as the only engine of his learning process : the idea of man in search of virtue (with permission of the corresponding deity). Then came the behavioural psychologists and they revolutionised the panorama : the human being went from being the only one responsible for his own personal development to becoming a piece of meat, a slave of external pressures and conditioning processes.
He had gone in a few years from believing in a naive free will to sustaining a fierce determinism. Between these two opposite poles appeared a Canadian psychologist who would speak of learning in more moderate terms: Albert Bandura, the thinking mind behind modern Social Learning Theory (STA).
Albert Bandura’s Social Learning Theory: interaction and learning
As Lev Vygotsky did, Albert Bandura also focuses his study of learning processes on the interaction between the learner and the environment. And, more specifically, between the learner and the social environment. While behavioral psychologists explained the acquisition of new skills and knowledge through a gradual approach based on several reinforcement trials, Bandura tried to explain why subjects who learn from each other can see how their level of knowledge makes a significant qualitative leap at once, without the need for many trials. The key is found in the word “social” which is included in the SAG.
Behavioralists, says Bandura, underestimate the social dimension of behavior reducing it to a scheme according to which one person influences another and causes association mechanisms to be triggered in the second. This process is not interaction, but rather a sending of information packages from one organism to another. For this reason, the Social Learning Theory proposed by Bandura includes the behavioural factor and the cognitive factor, two components without which social relations cannot be understood.
Learning and reinforcement
On the one hand, Bandura admits that when we learn we are linked to certain processes of conditioning and positive or negative reinforcement. Similarly, he recognizes that our behavior cannot be understood if we do not take into consideration the aspects of our environment that are influencing us as external pressures, as behaviorists would say.
Certainly, for a society to exist, however small it may be, there has to be a context , a space in which all its members exist. In turn, that space conditions us to a greater or lesser extent by the simple fact that we are inserted in it.
It is difficult not to agree with this: it is impossible to imagine a football player learning to play on his own, in a great emptiness. The player will refine his technique by seeing not only how best to score goals, but also by reading the reactions of his teammates, the referee and even the crowd. In fact, he most likely would not have even begun to take an interest in the sport if a certain amount of social pressure had not prompted him to do so. Often it is others who set part of our learning goals.
The cognitive factor
However, Bandura reminds us, we must also take into account the other side of the coin of the Social Learning Theory: the cognitive factor . The apprentice is not a passive subject who dispassionately attends the ceremony of his learning, but actively participates in the process and even expects things from this stage of formation: he has expectations. In a context of interpersonal learning we are able to foresee the novel results of our actions (rightly or wrongly), and therefore we do not depend totally on conditioning, which is based on repetition. In other words, we are able to transform our experiences into original acts in anticipation of a future situation that has never before occurred.
Thanks to the psychological processes that behaviorists have not bothered to study, we use our continuous input of data of all kinds to make a qualitative leap forward and imagine future situations that have not yet occurred.
The pinnacle of the social aspect is the vicarious learning highlighted by Bandura, in which one organism is able to draw lessons from the observation of what another does. Thus, we are capable of learning by doing something that is difficult to measure in a laboratory: the observation (and attention) with which we follow someone’s adventures. Do you remember the controversies that periodically arise about whether or not children should watch certain movies or television series? They are not an isolated case: many adults find it tempting to participate in Reality Shows by weighing the pros and cons of what happens to the contestants in the last edition.
Note: a mnemonic trick to remember the Vicarious learning that Bandura talks about is to rub the snakes or “projections” that come out of the eyes of the lord of the Vicarious video clip, in which many eyes and many strange things also appear.
A middle ground
In short, Bandura uses his model of Social Learning Theory to remind us that, as lifelong learners, our private and unpredictable psychological processes are important. However, despite the fact that they are secret and belong only to us, these psychological processes have an origin that is partly social. It is precisely because of our ability to see ourselves in the behaviour of others that we can decide what works and what does not work .
In addition, these elements of learning serve to build the personality of each individual:
“Albert Bandura’s Theory of Personality”
We are able to foresee things from what happens to others, in the same way that living in a social environment makes us set certain learning goals and not others.
As far as our role as learners is concerned, it is clear: we are neither self-sufficient gods nor automatons .