Social Learning and the Environment


social learning

A question was asked last week that really intrigued me. It was asking if there is “room for mental representation in the area of social cognition” (Mill, 2016). My response is a resounding yes. For starters, mental representations can be thought of as the expectations a person develops, through their interaction with the environment, of the world and the things in it, and includes the processes by which inferences are drawn about the world. Social Cognition is the way individuals learn by observing other individuals and by the individual’s capacity for empathy, which gives rise to a cognition (the mental representation and processing of the world) based in social interactions. Our ability to feel empathy and to have cathartic experiences is made possible by the fact that the neural networks responsible for biological survival and the neural networks responsible for sociality are the same (TEDxManhattanBeach, 2011), which means we are able to physically feel what another person must feel in certain situations just from hearing a story about them. Think about that…we actually have a physical reaction to just hearing another person’s tale. This means that each person must have similar mental representations and mental processes in order for them to both feel the same emotion, or to be inspired by another’s tale of overcoming adversity, or to cry at another’s loss. Because we are such social creatures, it only makes sense that this be harnessed in the classroom. Because we are able to feel motivation from others, because we learn through observation, and because we share mental processes and representations, teachers should make more of an effort to involve each member of the class as an active participant in their education and to require group work to solidify and demonstrate their understanding.

Social Learning Theory and Vicarious Learning provides an easily understandable explanation of Social Cognitive Theory and how it is applied in the process of changing behavior.


The theory of Social Cognition can be extended to the theory of Dynamic Systems. A dynamic system is a system in which two or more things interact with each other and over time, this interaction leads to change in one, or both, of them. This means that social interaction is a dynamic system in which people affect change in one another. A person learns about the world and how to survive in it by not only interacting with it but observing members of their group, which means that this could be extended to the classroom in profound ways. Individually, cognition is situated in the environment and how a person interacts with the environment affects their neural and cognitive processes over time (Port, 2002). So, if we are shaped by the environment we are exposed to, then we must have the capacity to shape ourselves over time. dynamic system
Dynamic System Theory is similar to the theory of the process of evolution and adaptation, and how the environment shapes the species that exist in it. People evolve over time and are shaped into who they are by the environment they were exposed to. I am an online child and can be very selfish. This is a trait that is expressed without conscious effort, it is tacit. It is a product of my childhood, but I am not powerless to change that about myself. The dynamic system is the classroom is similar to the process of trying not to be selfish, it requires a teacher to help students change their default mental state when it concerns education. A teacher needs to help students not automatically default to the attitude that school is boring. Teachers must consider that students will grow more when exposed to a dynamic environment than an environment of passive learning. A student must be allowed to interact with the material on their own and then they must be asked to work with others in a process of applying the information learned. Within this process, students will learn from one another and discuss the ways in which they understood the information.

Examples of Microevolution provides an example of sparrows evolving new traits to cope with the environment of North America, a place that is not their native home. This is a great example of how the environment (dynamic system) shapes the things that exist within it.


Nothing is learned in isolation and genuine learning is done when lessons are applied in a way that is relatable to real-life. Learn from the Team is a concept in Perkins’ Whole Game approach to learning which advocates for just that, the application of learning in real-life scenarios that are relatable to a learner’s life and experiences (Perkins, 2009). His idea is that people learn more, and more effectively, when they are given the chance to use what they are learning and use it with other people. I use the Learn from the Team concept when teaching beginners how to do Thai boxing. I always start them out with the basics and then have them apply what they have learned to hitting pads. I, then, move them to controlled sparring in which they work with a partner to practice techniques learned in class. The sparring, which mimics real-world application, increases in difficulty over time and allows students to learn through the observation of their peers’ sparring sessions. It is a system that has worked well through the years, but I now have an explanation for why it works and a name to attach to the concept. The reason his concept works so well is because it combines our innately social tendencies with actual use of what is being learned. We are creatures that learn through observation and mimicry, so it is only logical that a teaching method that incorporates social learning with the dynamic system of real-world scenarios is highly effective at producing lasting and genuine learning.

This video provides a nice overview of project-based learning in action.


Berkeley. (n.d.). Examples of Microevolution. Retrieved from

Edutopia. (2014, June 26). Five Keys to Rigorous Project-Based Learning. Retrieved from .

Mills, M. (2016). Unit 6 presentation transcript. Retrieved from

Perkins, D. N., & ebrary, I. (2009). Making Learning Whole : How Seven Principles of Teaching Can Transform Education. San Francisco, Calif: Jossey-Bass.

Port, R.F. (2002). The Dynamical Systems Hypothesis in Cognitive Science. Encyclopedia of Cognitive Science, 1(p 1027-1032). (n.d). Albert Bandura: Social-Cognitive Theory and Vicarious Learning. Retrieved from

TEDxManhattanBeach. (2011, November 7). Mary Helen Immordino-Yang – Embodied Brains, Social Minds. Retrieved from