How We Learn Socially: Imitating, Collaborating, and Storytelling

This tile introduces the concept of social learning. Discover how informal learning, storytelling and community can be powerful drivers of learning.

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Social Learning and Social Attention Sharing

There are surprisingly few ways in which humans are unique from other animals.

But one of the most remarkable ways that we truly are different is in our tendency to learn socially. Human beings exhibit what cognitive neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene refers to as “social attention sharing.”

Our attention systems and learning are highly dependent on the signals we receive socially.

Babies gaze at faces and make eye contact before focusing their attention on the object the adult is looking at – in other words they are naturally more interested in the people around them than they are in learning things. Shared attention determines what children learn.

Case Study: The Bobo Doll Experiment

Albert Bandura is best known for his 1961 Bobo doll experiment, where he made a film in which an adult was shown “beating up a Bobo doll and shouting aggressive words.”

The movie was then shown to a group of children, who were given a Bobo doll to play with afterwards. The children who had seen the violent film clip were more likely to beat the doll; imitating the words and actions of the adult.

This was a significant study as it departed from the insistence of the theory known as behaviorism, which was dominant for much of the early 20th century. Behaviorism argued that all behavior could be explained by reinforcement and reward. If a child was violent, it was because they had learned that violence gave them rewards.

However, the children in the study had received no incentive or encouragement to beat up the doll – they were simply imitating the behaviors they had observed.

In 1971, Bandura proposed that new behaviors can be acquired by observing and imitating others: learning is social.

In this sense, social learning bridges the gap between behaviorism and observational learning.

Sociocultural Theory and Zone of Proximal Development

Lev Vygostky was an Austrian psychologist who invented the socio-cultural theory of psychology. Vygotsky had a deep interest in the role of the social environment in shaping learning.

He is most famous for his theory of the ‘zone of proximal development.’ This is the area of knowledge that lies just beyond what a learner knows for sure, but which they can usually figure out with some assistance. Vygotsky believed that getting learners to explore that area, with some guidance from people with greater mastery of it, was the optimal learning strategy.

The impetus to move beyond the zone of existing knowledge to the zone of proximal development, said Vygotsky, can come from the scaffolding of our teachers, but also from our peers, our parents, or our own psychological need to do better, know more, and achieve more. He emphasized the active role of learners in the learning process.

In short, we don’t just learn from the people trying to help us learn: our whole human environment has to be primed for us to learn.

Informal Learning

Informal learning refers to learning that occurs outside of a structured, formal classroom environment. In contrast to formal learning, informal learning is highly socially collaborative and learner-directed.

Imagine that rather than having to learn a set of facts about the Vietnam War for your history test, your teacher simply asked you to come to the next class with 5 facts about the Vietnam War, and an explanation for why you found them interesting.

Informal learning like this encourages learners to pursue what interests them.

Another feature that sets informal learning apart from formal learning is its removal from external assessment.

Practitioners who support informal learning believe that the formal learning system of grading and testing as a tool for measuring performance impedes learning and is detrimental to learners’ confidence and motivation.

Graded tests can also, ironically, lead to more cheating. In the fact-finding task above, cheating wouldn’t really be possible.

Learning through Storytelling

Many of history’s greatest memory masters were also storytellers. Homer’s *Odyssey* and *Iliad* were both composed and passed on entirely from memory. They weren’t written down until generations after Homer’s death – meaning there were plenty of extremely strong memories after him as well!

Our brains are extremely good at retaining stories. It’s much easier to retain a story – even an extremely long, detailed one – than it is to remember an equivalent amount of disconnected information.

This view is backed by neuroscientists, who describe the ‘intrinsic narrative drive’ of the cortex; its need to weave stories out of our disparate experiences, to make sense of them. For the psychologist Patrick Lewis, “without the story form, humans would have endless unconnected, chaotic experiences.”

By using storytelling in learning contexts – whether in the classroom, or in committing facts to memory by using metaphor – we’re tapping into a part of our brain that’s primed to make connections and weave stories: we’re tapping into our own ‘creative intelligence.’

What are Communities of Practice?

From our earliest days at elementary school we are taught not to share our answers with our classmates. But a wealth of research suggests that this is all wrong – students collaborating can actually be a far more effective way to learn than to leave it all to themselves.

A community of practice is a group of people who share a concern or a passion for something and regularly use their existing knowledge. The concept has been studied in depth by Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger; many consider it to be one of the most exciting areas of developmental psychology.

Communities of Practice have existed for centuries – think of the medieval guilds formed by artisans – and have evolved in type and nature with developments in technology. In the earlier example, the community of practice might be your third grade math class.

CoPs can evolve naturally as a result of the members’ common interest in a particular domain or area, or they can be created deliberately with the goal of gaining knowledge related to a specific field.


Why They're Different to Communities of Interest

It can be useful to distinguish between a community of practice and a community of interest. A community of interest means hobbyists and observers, whereas a community of practice is a group of people who are active practitioners.

A book club would be an example of a community of interest. However, a writer’s club, where people share what they’d written each week, would be a community of practice. Basically, the distinction is about the level of active engagement.

Educational theorist Etienne Wenger and cognitive anthropologist Jean Lave believed that members of a community of practice learn from each other and have an opportunity to develop through the process of sharing information and experiences with the group. It is not just learning but teaching that helps you remember things.


Communities of Practice can be physical or virtual. Online learning is an example of the latter. Online learning harnesses the principles of social learning by encouraging learners to collaborate and share information through discussion forums and mandatory self-introductions.

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