Discovering social learning from within the learning scenery

As learning facilitators we need to understand learning. We need to ask ourselves what it is and how and when does it take place. We should not stop questioning ourselves. If we do, we will be stuck by using only one way of learning. As we often observe, people learn in different ways. Applying only one method means limiting learning opportunities to those chosen by the institution.

One way to think about learning is through learning theories. Why are theories valuable? It is useful to have a lens through which you look at a certain problem, and this is what a theory represents. Dewey (1992), an educational reformist from the beginning of the 20th century, has said that theory gives an opportunity to think differently about a problem, rather than an answer. How are learning theories perceived today in the “learning business”? Do they give institutions the opportunity to think differently?

It seems that nowadays there are some mainstream theories. The way how learning theories have developed, is in a line of series through time. For example, at our recent event Training of Trainers we discussed major learning theories, which are said to have developed in the following order. We touched upon behaviorism, where learning is based on observable behaviors, learning by stimulus-response, using rewards and punishments and based on developing reflexes or on feedback. Second was cognitive (transmission), where learning is based on making connections and associations in order to transform the data into information to make it memorable and meaningful (learning by listening to presentations, by reading, etc., and making connections). Another theory presented was constructivism, where learning is perceived as an active process. We are learning by problem solving, by being actively involved in the process. The last one, which interested us the most, was social learning. We wanted to know more about it and decided to explore it further.

During our research we aimed to find a place for social learning in a scope of learning theories. One of the obstacles we came across was the fact that social learning has various interpretations. Social learning itself is still evolving and there is no unanimous definition of it. Going through a number of definitions, we were perplexed to learn that their common point is interaction among people. This is sometimes confused with learning through using ICT and social media, while it does not actually concern technology. Another common interpretation is that social learning is active in communities of practice. So, to be able to learn more, we had to start from the beginning.

Social learning theory, coined by Bandura (1971), perceives learning by interaction between one another. Originating from behavioral approach, he expanded his understanding of it onto learning from other people’s examples, experience, and feedback that they are given, which means that they need not be affected directly in order to learn.

We also came across an interesting article by Hart, who observed social learning in an organization and wanted to isolate a special aspect of social learning, social collaboration. She distances it from the formalized learning, “achieved primarily through an organized educational or training experience that involves people brought together explicitly, to learn from one another” (Hart 2015), by focusing on where she believes most of social learning takes place. In her opinion this comprises communities of practice and workplace itself, “when teams and other groups of people, learn implicitly from one another as a consequence of working together” (ibid.). Another difference lies in measuring its outcomes, which is through performance and results.

Communities of practice (CoP), as defined by Wenger (2010), are groups of people sharing a topic or challenge and learning from others how to improve their practice. Here, learning is not structured and directed; this can produce unintentional learning results. On the other hand, these results are challenging to measure.

On that point, it is evident that social learning is difficult to define and it is, thus, perhaps even more difficult to imagine it in practice. Let us try to explain social learning in relation to other learning theories by giving examples, where countries are hampered by corruption problems. There is the need to “learn” to prevent corrupt behavior.

Following a behaviorist approach, one would tackle the problem by punishing someone who was being corrupt. Eventually, this person would learn that being corrupt is a bad thing. We presuppose being a human is like being a black box, without values, feelings, etc. Stimulus is the one impacting our behavior. Following a cognitivist approach one would tackle the problem by information sharing. This would include information on rules of engagement, instructions on how to deal with corrupt behavior, etc. What is Bandura’s social learning contribution? Bandura (1971) thinks that learning is reliant on observation and modelling. Following our example it means that corruption would be tackled by bringing environment, behavior, and cognitive processes together. This would require finding a good model, from which others could mirror positive behavior. Additionally, people could learn through rewards, i.e. rewarding someone for non-corrupt behavior would make others recognize socially accepted behavior.

Bandura and Corruption

Bandura’s (1971) approach, by expanding behavioral theory to observing and modeling from others, was a new dimension in learning and the beginning of social learning theory. By social constructivism, on the other hand, learners seek to find new knowledge on the basis of their past knowledge and social interaction. They jointly question themselves, summarize, seek common understanding, and draw conclusions. It is an active process where questions lead to other questions (University College Dublin 2015).

In case experts would like to find a way how to tackle corruption through social constructivism, they would deal with this issue in active collaboration by asking each other questions, such as, “What social and cultural context drives corrupt behavior?”, “How and what kind of social interactions are leading to social behavior?” “If certain social interactions incur corrupt behavior, what can we do to prevent it?” Discussing these and similar questions and by adopting gained knowledge within the community represent learning of those involved in this process.


Nowadays social learning is often associated with the work of Wenger who developed the idea of CoPs (see above). Contrary to cognitive approach, learning does not happen in the person’s head, but in “the relationship between the person and the world” (Wenger 2010, 1). A community of practice represents a simple social system.

To put it simply again, a group of people that share a common concern (how to tackle corruption) would come together and discuss the problem. The outcome of the discussion would be a manual of methods for tackling corruption. Participants would find it useful in their local setting and apply it, and this would have a positive effect – lower corruption levels.

What does our short research and examples tell us about the perception of social learning today? We know now that there is no uniform understanding of social learning. It is rather like a tree with common roots but branches growing in different directions. The soil represents other traditions: for example behavioral and cognitive as well as constructivist approaches are essential for understanding social learning. Furthermore, the connections between them are complex too.[1] The branches represent what we call “social learning traditions”: works of Bandura, Wenger and others. This perception enables us to better understand the different options that social learning can give us.

What is social learning for you? Please leave a comment below.



Bandura, Albert (1971). Social Learning Theory. General Learning Corporation: 1–46:

Dewey, John (1929). The sources of a science of education. Quoted in Snelbecker, Glenn E. Some Thoughts About Theory, Perfection, and Instruction. In Instructional-Design Theories and Models: A New Paradigm of Instructional Theory. Edited by Charles M. Reigeluth. Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

Hart, Jane (2015). The Difference between Social Learning and Social Collaboration:

University College Dublin (2015). Education Theory: Constructivism and Social Constructivism in the Classroom:

Wenger, Étienne (2010). Communities of Practice and Social Learning System: the Career of a Concept:


[1] For example, Bandura’s social learning theory is often called social cognitive theory.



About Kaja Jurtela

Kaja works with public accountants and auditors in South East Europe. She designs and develops learning and knowledge initiatives to engage public finance officials in regional sharing of experience and fostering reform processes. She is involved in research of learning theories and different aspects of public financial management. Her current research project focuses on fiscal transparency: how to define, measure and put it into practice at the national level.


About Matija Čarman

Matija is interested in economic developments, specifically macroeconomics and the financial sector, and therefore pays substantial attention to capturing institutional needs in order to develop a relevant learning program.

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