Social learning theory strengths & weaknesses

Written by walter johnson
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Social Learning Theory (SLT) is an approach to education that stresses imitation. The main thesis is that learning can best be understood and promoted through children imitating those performing a certain task well, that is, by watching experts. Children will observe, especially if the person involved is clearly rewarded or praised, and then imitated. This process is called modelling. Through this method, children see those doing a job well, being rewarded for it, and therefore, are motivated to imitate the work, thereby learning valuable skills.

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One of the great strengths of SLT is that it combines several important models of learning. It is clearly behaviourist in that it advocates that children are motivated to imitate a behaviour if that behaviour is seen as resulting in praise or some other kind of reward. It is cognitive in that this learning process goes from imitation to mastery--a point is reached where the model is no longer necessary, and the child can then go her own way. Using certain insights from these other general models makes SLT attractive as a educational theory.


Children are seen according to SLT as fairly easy to teach. Motivation comes largely through praise. The praise, however, is seen indirectly, since it is the model that is praised, not the child (at first). Once motivated, the model provides the bulk of the teaching. The general concept is that children just need the right environment to begin learning useful skills.


It is easy to see how both adults and children mimic masters in learning new tasks. When learning how to play football, for example, people often first watch a game on TV. One wants to learn to play the piano by listening to Van Cliburn, who provides the inspiration and motivation. It is an easy theory to grasp and it seems to be generally proven by actual experience.

No Development

The main weakness of this theory is that it does not stress the child's actual cognitive development. While there are some cognitive insights in SLT, this is not stressed. A child is seen as a sponge, absorbing information through modelling. The actual child's contribution to how such models are absorbed, processed and worked out through time is not present to any great extent in the theory.


Modelling is a theory based on imitation via observation. It does not stress what happens later–innovation. While the initial blueprint for activity is seen in the model (the expert who is observed) can easily be visualised, there seems to be no model for innovation. Innovation is too abstract to be modelled.

No Grounds for Motivation

Motivation is not given a cause. SLT holds that motivation exists through praise—the child sees a famed athlete loved through his prowess. But it seems that motivation is socially conditioned, and therefore relative. SLT then takes the basic social structure as normative and standard, without judgment.

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