Behaviorist and cognitive theories of learning focus on the individual learner. Social learning theorists view learning as a process of adopting ways of thinking from the culture and community. Therefore, social interaction is a crucial part of the learning process. Two leading thinkers in the social learning tradition were Albert Bandura and Lev Vygotsky.
Observational Learning (Albert Bandura)
Observational learning is based on behaviorist principles, but is focused modeling—learning by observing the behavior of others. To demonstrate the importance of observational learning in children, Bandura, Ross, and Ross (1963) showed children a live image of either a man or a woman interacting with a Bobo doll, a filmed version of the same events, or a cartoon version of the events. As you can see in the video linked below, the Bobo doll is an inflatable balloon with a weight in the bottom that makes it bob back up when you knock it down. In all three conditions, the model violently punched, kicked, and sat on the doll and hit it with a hammer:
https://youtu.be/Pr0OTCVtHbU (4:08 minutes).
Take a moment to see how Albert Bandura explains his research into the modeling of aggression in children. The researchers first let the children view one of the three types of modeling, and then let them play in a room in which there were some toys. To create some frustration in the children, Bandura let the children play with the fun toys for only a couple of minutes before taking them away. Then Bandura gave the children a chance to play with the Bobo doll.
If you guessed that most of the children imitated the model, you would be correct. Regardless of which type of modeling the children had seen, and regardless of the sex of the model or the child, the children who had seen the model behaved aggressively, just as the model had done. They also punched, kicked, and sat on the doll, and hit it with the hammer. Bandura and his colleagues had demonstrated that these children learned new behaviors simply by observing and imitating others.
Observational learning is useful for animals and for people because it allows us to learn without having to actually engage in what might be a risky behavior. Although modeling is normally adaptive, it can be problematic for children who grow up in violent families. These children are not only the victims of aggression, but they also see it happening to their parents and siblings. Because children learn how to be parents in large part by modeling the actions of their own parents, it is no surprise that there is a strong correlation between family violence in childhood and violence as an adult. Observational learning is also the basis for concern about the effect violent television shows and video games may have on children.
Vygotsky’s Social Learning Theory
Lev Vygotsky developed and published his theory in Russia in the 1920s, but it wasn’t until the 1960s and early 1970s that his work became well-known among education researchers in the United States. His work emphasized learning through social interaction. Vygotsky believed that our culture provides us with “cognitive tools” that affect the way we think. Our language, for example, is a cultural tool. While language serves a similar function in all cultures, the unique features of a language can influence how we think. For example, if you are a speaker of a language that has different forms of address depending on social position (such as vous versus tu in French), you probably have a slightly different way of thinking about status and social position than a speaker of a language (such as English) that does not recognize this distinction. Similarly, children who learn to add and subtract with an abacus think about numbers differently than children who learn with different manipulatives or with only pencil and paper.
According to Vygotsky, children learn these cultural tools by interacting with adults, who model use of the tools and assist children in using them. Children begin by imitating the adults’ behavior, but eventually they internalize them. The adult serves as a more knowledgeable other who provides scaffolding that allows the child to perform in his or her zone of proximal development (ZPD). The ZPD is the gap between what the child can do successfully without help and what he or she can do with help. The assistance provided is called scaffolding because it is intended to support the child temporarily and be gradually taken away as the child gains skill. (More advanced peers can also provide scaffolding.)
For more detail on Vygotsky’s theory, see this article from Simply Psychology.