There has been a lot of talk about social learning these days.

  • Picking up knitting from watching a YouTube video,
  • Solving a programming problem by chatting with a co-worker at the water cooler, or
  • Figuring out auto mechanics by helping a friend take apart a car engine.
Central to all these types of learning situations is that they are social learning experiences.

But what is ‘social learning’?

Social psychologist Albert Bandura defined social learning as a psychological process by which an individual learns from another individual by observing their behavior either indirectly or directly.

Because we are social beings that relate to others who make us feel safe and secure, we learn best socially from people that are similar to us in important ways. 

“Similar” could mean similar to race, gender, status, etc. “Similar” could also mean learning from people who are similar to a standard, such as people (like you) who have risen to a particular occupational level. “Similar” could mean people who are close to us in some psychological sense - like similar Myers-Briggs types. Or “similar” could be some kind of identification to another’s beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors. 

In short, “similar others” are those who become social models to us. We will learn best from them because they are like us. And people like us make us feel comfortable.

How do you use this concept in instructional design? 

It’s especially useful when using storytelling to influence people in a certain direction. Identify what you want to see the learner do and create a compelling, authentic narrative that models that behavior.

Take time to create the model, to build the necessary context that resonates with the learner. Make sure your story has an arch. That there is a struggle that must be overcome. It must authentically portray the emotions, desires, ambitions and skills of the human model you use in the story and that these characteristics are similar to your learner.

This requires being clear about who the target audience is and about what helps or hinders the modeling of the desired skill set. 

It takes time to learn how to mesh these factors together to make your story an effective social learning vehicle, but we have seen it work countless times in the instructional design work we do.