Discovered by educational psychologist Albert Bandura in 1986, observational learning is the learning that takes place through watching others. This type of learning is often included in a style of progressive education and can affect an individual, a group of people, a nation or a culture.
Understanding Observational Learning
Observational learning is not the same as pure imitation of another behavior. Observational learning occurs as a result of witnessing another person, but is performed later and cannot be explained as having been taught in any other way. This type of learning also encompasses the concept of behavior avoidance as a result of seeing another person behave in a certain way and receive a negative consequence.
The four stages of observational learning are:
Examples of observational learning include:
- An infant learns to make and understand facial expressions
- A child learns to chew
- After witnessing an older sibling being punished for taking a cookie without asking, the younger child does not take cookies without permission
- A newer employee avoids being late to work after seeing a co-worker fired for being late
- A child learns to walk
- A child learns how to play a game while watching others
- A child shows that she has learned the basic steps of cooking a meal by doing so at a play kitchen in her classroom
- A child learns a science concept by demonstration from the teacher
- After watching her mother, a young girl shows she has learned how to hold a baby by walking around with the baby in her arms the correct way
- An inexperienced salesperson is successful at a sales meeting after observing the behaviors and statements of other salespeople
- A child shows observational learning of how to drive a car by making appropriate motions after seeing a parent driving
- A young boy swings a baseball bat without being explicitly taught how to do it after attending a baseball game
- A young girl watches a basketball game, then shoots hoops without being explicitly taught how to do so
- Without previous experience, a child puts on roller skates and skates without being taught.
- A student learns not to cheat by watching another student be punished for cheating
- A girl sees another child fall on ice in front of her so she avoids stepping on the ice
- A person moves to a new climate and learns how to properly remove snow from his car after watching others
- A tenant sees a neighbor evicted for late rent payment and as a result consistently pays her rent on time
- A new customer in a store learns the process for lining up and checking out by watching other customers
- A woman in a clothing store learns the procedure for trying on clothes by watching others
- A man in a coffee shop learns where to find cream and sugar by watching other coffee drinkers locate that area
- A new car salesperson learns how to approach potential customers by watching others
- A girl learns how to mow her own lawn by watching neighbors mowing their lawns
As you can see, you encounter examples of observational learning all the time and have likely learned many things yourself using this method of learning.
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Examples of Observational Learning
By YourDictionaryDiscovered by educational psychologist Albert Bandura in 1986, observational learning is the learning that takes place through watching others. This type of learning is often included in a style of progressive education and can affect an individual, a group of people, a nation or a culture.
Observational learning is what it sounds like, learning through observing. The old saying, “monkey see, monkey do,” is fitting when discussing this learning theory. With the child’s internal motivation to learn and accomplish new things, observational learning is the first way of exploring her abilities. She see’s a caregiver’s smile and reciprocates it. She hears her parents’ voices and mimics the sounds. Observational learning allows the brain to tap into its inner need to excel and advance at the most basic level – watching and doing.
Observational Learning and The Brain
Albert Bandura, a leading researcher in the area of observational learning, is well known for his bobo doll studies dealing with observational learning in the early 1960’s. He created a movie of a young woman hitting, kicking, and yelling at a blow-up doll. After showing the film to a group of young kindergartners, they were sent to a playroom filled with bobo dolls. As one might guess, the children copied the modeled behavior, and aggressively hit and kicked the bobo dolls. The realization that the children changed their behavior without reward didn’t fit with traditional behaviorist thinking of the time, and Bandura labeled the learning “observational” or “modeled learning.”
Along with observing and doing, Bandura combined the cognitive and operant view of learning to formulate a four-step pattern seen in observational learning.
- Attention – something is noticed within the environment and the individual is attentive to it.
- Retention – the behavior is noted and remembered.
- Reproduction – the individual copies or emulates the behavior that was observed.
- Motivation – the environment provides a consequence that changes the chances the behavior is repeated through either positive or negative praise or punishment.
The mirror neuron theory along with observational learning encourages an individual’s desire to sympathize and also respond similarly when behavior happens. Mirror neurons are a collection of brain cells that fire when an individual observes someone making the same movements as her own, causing a reaction. For example, when observing someone folding a sheet of paper and receiving a paper cut, one often flinches in sympathy. This plays a role in observational learning. Just as a child learns from observing others, her brain is ready to respond in ways from observing other’s responses from actions. Also, mirror neurons are fired when making faces in response to others, such as smiling when someone else smiles, or frowning in disapproval as someone else does.
Observational learning takes place automatically, and begins at birth, which means it is a powerful learning tool and way to shape a young child’s mind. A parent is the first model to a child, and in later years, friends and other adults offer the child models for establishing learning and behavior. And, observational learning can be one of the most powerful strategies for modifying or shaping behavior.
Behavior and Observational Learning
When a child is in a situation where a peer or an adult exposes her to a new behavior, she is attentive to what is new and often tries the behavior for herself – sometimes with not such positive results. As adults, it is our role to jump in and model the behavior desired to assist with promoting appropriate outcomes. Often, an adult becomes frustrated when a child misbehaves but forgets to look at his or her own actions. If the adult models yelling when angry, and then punishes the child when she yells in anger, the adult is not taking into consideration observational learning theory.
Modeling behavior is the first step in observational learning and sometimes it is hard to remember to follow your own rules and regulations, whether in the home or the classroom. If you ask a child not to eat in her room, but she sees you enjoying a snack in bed, she is getting mixed messages. A child often benefits from observing others perform tasks successfully, encouraging her own behaviors and decision-making. Aiding a child in accomplishing a challenging task, like tying her shoes by modeling how it is done, is an example. It is beneficial for the child to be exposed to several models, which helps break stereotypes and preconceptions.
Along with holding attention while modeling behavior, following with proper motivation is key. Setting realistic expectations for children, as well as explaining them in detail, offers the ability for the child to feel she can succeed along with building self-esteem. Also, clearly defining consequences can aide in increasing positive behaviors.
As adults, we can take the time to model behaviors we desire from children and young adults, which benefits all. Along with modeling positive behaviors for youngsters, spending time communicating clearly and defining consequences creates a comfortable environment for observational learning.
About the author - Sarah Lipoff
Sarah is an art educator and parent. You can visit her website here.