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Social learning theory views the course of human development on the basis of children’s socialization experiences and acquisition of self-regulation. Children’s development of personality characteristics, such as dependency and aggression, as well as their skill in academics, sports, arts, or professions, are assumed to emerge from learning experiences embedded within the social milieu of their family, peers, gender, and culture. This research paper describes a social learning perspective and describes the intellectual context from which it emerged, changes in researchers’ emphasis over time, and current emphases, methodological issues related to the construct, and directions for future research.
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1. Deﬁning A Social Learning Perspective
Social learning theory deﬁnes children’s socialization in terms of speciﬁc social learning experiences, such as modeling, tuition, and reinforcement, and the cognitions, emotions, and behavior that emerge from these formative experiences. Children’s personal reactions were explained historically using personality constructs, such as identiﬁcation, conditioning, or drive reduction, but are explained contemporaneously in cognitive terms, such as personal agency beliefs and self-regulatory processes. Social learning experiences are responsible for children’s development of self-regulatory competence to adapt to changing settings, including those associated with their age or level of physical development. Self-regulation is essential to children’s development because socialization involves giving up immediately pleasurable activities or familiar methods of coping to achieve delayed beneﬁts.
2. Intellectual Context For Social Learning Research
Social learning research grew initially out of a seminar oﬀered at Yale University during the late 1930s by Clark Hull. Among the members of that historic class of students were John Dollard, Neal Miller, Robert Sears, and John Whiting. The goal of the seminar was to provide learning explanations for key aspects of children’s personality development that had been discussed by Freud, such as dependency, aggression, identiﬁcation, conscience formation, and defense mechanisms. Of particular interest to class members was the psychoanalytic notion of children’s identiﬁcation with powerful models, such as parents or other adults, which Freud used to explain a wide range of personality characteristics, such as, dependency, aggression, and even psychosexual development. Identiﬁcation was singled out by Miller and Dollard (1941) in a series of experimental studies of imitative learning. They found that a general tendency to imitate could be learned through reinforcement and that rewards could be structured to teach counter-imitation (i.e., the opposite choice of a model) as well as imitation. They concluded that imitation was a learned class of instrumental behavior but was not a learning process in its own right. Sears studied the impact of parents and their relationship with their children on the youngsters’ personality development, especially socialization processes that could explain how children internalize the values, attitudes, and behavior of the culture in which they were raised. According to Sears’ identiﬁcation theory, social learning experiences lead to the internalization of self-sustaining drives to emulate their parents and other adult ﬁgures. Sears was particularly interested in children’s development of self-control over aggressive behavior. Whiting conducted cross-cultural studies of diﬀerences in children’s socialization to determine whether the severity of these experiences could lead to cultural diﬀerences in anxiety, guilt, and the formation of conscience.
3. Changes In Emphasis Over Time
Albert Bandura’s ﬁrst book with Richard Walters on adolescent aggression tested Sears’ identiﬁcation theory as a basis for internalization of controls over children’s aggressive behavior. This research ultimately led these researchers to reject the psychoanalytic theoretical basis for social learning in a second book (Bandura and Walters 1963). They disproved the Freudian hypothesis that modeled violence would reduce observers’ aggressive drives through identiﬁcation and catharsis by demonstrating that such modeling actually taught or facilitated aggression, especially when modeling was accompanied by vicarious rewards. In other research, Bandura and his colleagues showed that through modeling and vicarious reward experiences children could learn new responses without actually performing them or receiving rewards. This disproved earlier instrumental conditioning accounts of modeling and imitation, and led Bandura to distinguish the cognitive eﬀects of learning due to modeling from the motivational eﬀects of rewards on imitative performance. To explain these two aspects of imitative learning, Bandura distinguished four subprocesses: two that aﬀect vicarious learning—attention and retention—and two that aﬀect imitative performance—production and motivation. To learn a new skill socially, a learner must attend to and encode a model’s actions, and to perform a skill imitatively, a learner must be motivated and motorically able to produce the response. Bandura used the label Observational learning to describe these distinctive inﬂuences of modeling without reference to Freudian identiﬁcation, Hullian acquired drives, or instrumental conditioning.
During the late 1960s and early 1970s, social learning researchers began to study vicarious learning of abstract properties of a model’s performance, such as grammar or conceptual classes underlying spoken language. They discovered that children could acquire a variety of abstract rules with minimal mimicry of a model’s speciﬁc behaviors, such as imitating a model’s style of questioning but not the model’s exact words (Rosenthal et al. 1970). These demonstrations of abstract modeling on children’s concepts, rules, and reasoning attracted adherents looking for alternatives to stage views of children’s development. Many learning researchers, including those interested in social learning processes, questioned the validity of claims of an invariant sequence of qualitative stages that are resistant to direct training and are transituational in their impact. Instead they sought to demonstrate that children could be taught advanced stage Piagetian concepts, Chomskian grammatical rules, and Kohlbergian or Piagetian moral judgments and that task and situational variations could cause cross-stage variations in these measures. Mary Harris, Robert Liebert, Ted Rosenthal, James Sherman, Grover Whitehurst, and Barry Zimmerman, among many others, used abstract modeling techniques to teach advanced stage functioning among children of a variety of ages, and the results were chronicled in the book on social learning and cognition (Rosenthal and Zimmerman 1978). Although age-related shifts in children’s functioning were of interest to social learning researchers, they sought to explain these outcomes more on the basis of changes in social learning experience, hierarchies of goals and knowledge, and level of motoric competence rather than simply cognitive growth and development. From a social learning perspective, shifts in children’s personal functioning at the approximate ages of 2, 7, and 12 years by numerous stage theories are better predicted by social learning experiences and accomplishments, such as the acquisition of speech and mobility, entrance into school, and the onset of puberty. When considering later lifespan developmental issues, social learning researchers have focused on adult life-path experiences associated with employment, marriage, child rearing, and physical declines in functioning rather than cognitive stage indices.
During the late 1970s, social learning researchers began to shift their interest from children’s initial acquisition of important personal skills via modeling to the other end of the developmental spectrum—the point at which they can regulate these skills on their own. To explain children’s development and use of self-regulation, Bandura (1977) depicted social learning experiences in triadic terms involving reciprocal causal relations between personal (cognitive-aﬀective), behavioral, and environmental sources of inﬂuence (see Fig. 1). Each of the three components of his theory inﬂuences the other components bidirectionally. Cognitive events, although central to learning and performance, were constrained by speciﬁc features of social environmental contexts and by speciﬁc performance outcomes. The close bidirectional linkage of cognitive-aﬀective processes to performance outcomes and situational contexts enabled Bandura’s triadic model to explain dynamic features of children’s development, such as variations in children’s aggression across settings, as well as enduring individual diﬀerences. Walter Mischel also used a triadic social learning formulation to explain children’s development of self-regulatory capability to delay gratiﬁcation. He found that both modeling experiences and cognitive encoding enhanced children’s willingness to defer a small reward for a later larger one. Michael Mahoney and Carl Thoresen studied adults’ self-control of a range of clinical problems triadically in terms of covert personal forms of self-control as well as environmental and behavior forms. Bandura (1977) undertook a series of clinical training studies using highly eﬀective (or mastery) models to improve the self-control of patients plagued with disabling fears, such as snake and dog phobias. These modeling studies were designed to enable patients’ to overcome their phobia by showing the eﬀectiveness of speciﬁc handling techniques with the feared animal. Bandura discovered that although these patients were conﬁdent about the eﬀectiveness of a model’s techniques to handle the feared animal, they were not conﬁdent about their own ability to learn and use those techniques, and this cognitive and aﬀective deﬁcit greatly aﬀected their willingness to change. Bandura deﬁned these personal perceptions of capability to learn or perform as self-eﬃcacy beliefs.
4. Emphases In Current Theory And Research
Increasing evidence of the importance of cognitive aspects of self-regulation, especially self-eﬃcacy beliefs, led Bandura to rename his approach as social cognitive theory (Bandura 1986). His book inspired numerous researchers, such as Gail Hackett, Robert Lent, Alan Marlatt, Ann O’Leary, Frank Pajares, Dale Schunk, Ralf Swartzer, Anita Woolfolk Hoy, Robert Wood, and Barry Zimmerman, among others, to begin studying the role of self-eﬃcacy and self-regulatory processes in a wide variety of areas, such as academic functioning, physical health and medicine, sports, business and management, mental health, and the arts. A social cognitive model was used very extensively to explain how students acquire the sense of self-eﬃcacy and the self-regulatory skill to assume responsibility for their academic learning (Schunk and Zimmerman 1994). Much of this research focused on how modeling experiences could lead school-aged children to acquire self-regulatory control of their academic performance and pursue desired careers.
During the 1990s, Bandura undertook a series of studies of the psychosocial inﬂuences of families, peers, and schools on children’s development of self-eﬃcacy to self-regulate their academic and social attainments. In research with Claudio Barbarelli, Gian Vittorio Caprara, Manuel Martinez-Pons, Concetta Pastorelli, and Barry Zimmerman, Bandura found that self-eﬃcacy beliefs and goals of parents for their children signiﬁcantly aﬀected the youngster’s self-eﬃcacy beliefs, aspirations, level of depression, and adherence to moral codes of conduct. Children’s self-eﬃcacy was assessed in a variety of areas of functioning, such as perceived social eﬃcacy and eﬃcacy to manage peer pressure for detrimental conduct, both of which were found to contribute to the youngsters’ academic attainments. In 1997, Bandura published a 20-year review of research on self-eﬃcacy involving hundreds of studies that spanned such tasks as mental and physical health, sport, academics, and business and management (Bandura 1997). Self-eﬃcacy proved to be highly predictive of such motivational measures as free choice, persistence, and eﬀort, of measures of self-regulation, and of social and academic learning outcomes.
5. Methodological Issues
In order to capture the triadic interdependence of person-related processes, such as children’s self-eﬃcacy beliefs, with their behavior and environmental setting, Bandura has advocated situationally speciﬁc forms of assessment and microanalyses of cognitive and behavioral functioning. By assessing children’s, peers,’ and adults’ functioning in this speciﬁc manner before, during, and after eﬀorts to perform behaviorally, researchers can test causal relations among social and self-regulatory processes. There is a body of evidence indicating that task-speciﬁc measures, such as self-eﬃcacy judgments, are more predictive of actual performance eﬀorts and outcomes than global trait measures of self-belief (Bandura 1997). The greater predictive power of task-speciﬁc measures was also reported by Mischel (1968) when he reviewed the literature on a wide range of personality traits, such as friendliness or conscientiousness. He found higher correlations when situationally speciﬁc measures than when trait measures of personal processes were employed, and he concluded that contextfree measures of personal belief or competence were unable to explain variations in behavioral functioning across contexts.
6. Future Directions For Research And Theory
To explain better the sequential cognitive and behavioral aspects of self-regulation, Zimmerman (1998) developed a three-phase, cyclical self-regulation model. Forethought phase processes anticipate eﬀorts to learn and include self-motivational beliefs such as self-eﬃcacy. Performance phase processes seek to optimize learning eﬀorts and include the use of imagery, self-verbalization, and self-observation. Self-reﬂection processes follow eﬀorts to learn and provide understanding of the personal implications of outcomes. They include self-judgment processes such as attributions and self-reaction processes such as self-satisfaction, defensiveness, or adaptation. These self-reactions are hypothesized to inﬂuence forethought processes cyclically regarding future eﬀorts to perform. It is also expected that as children develop skill in an area of functioning, they will show stronger cyclical links among these self-regulatory processes.
Schunk and Zimmerman (1997) identiﬁed four successive social learning levels associated with children’s development of a particular skill, such as writing or golf. A ﬁrst level, observational learning, occurs when a learner induces the major features of skill or strategy (for complex skills) from watching a model learn or perform, whereas a second level, emulative learning, is attained when a learner’s motoric performance approximates the general strategic form of a model’s. Emulative accuracy can be improved further when a model assumes a teaching role and provides guidance, feedback, and social reinforcement during performance eﬀorts. A third level, self-controlled learning, is attained when a learner masters the use of a skill or strategy in a structured setting outside the presence of a model by relying on a previously abstracted standard from a model’s performance. A fourth level, self-regulated learning, is attained when learners can systematically adapt their performance to changing personal and contextual conditions without reference to a model. It is not assumed that this is a stage model; thus, learners do not have to advance through the four levels in sequence or that the highest level of self-regulation will be used continuously without regard to motivation or context. Rather, it is hypothesized that students who master skills or subskills (in the case of complex tasks) according to this social learning sequence will display greater motivation and achievement than students using self-discovery methods. This multilevel formulation integrates the ﬁndings of modeling research with those of self-regulation research within a sequential model of children’s socialization.
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