The science bit: a social cognitive theory perspective on traditional teaching

6 min read

I want to input some psychology into the issue I wrote about in my previous post. I will draw on theory developed by psychologist Albert Bandura.

Bandura developed social cognitive theory which integrates social and cognitive aspects of learning and behaviour. There are two key ideas in social cognitive theory: observational (or vicarious) learning and self-efficacy. A little bit about these:

Observational learning

Bandura argues that much human behaviour is learnt through observation of others’ behaviour. He argues that it is impossible for people to learn everything through trial and error. Human beings rely very much on observing modelled behaviour, we then have a blueprint on how to act in similar situations. It is not just imitation, people think about and construct their own behaviour prior to acting.

Bandura makes the distinction between novice and expert behaviour. As novices people have to think carefully about their actions. Expertise is characterised by habituation and routinised behaviour. Once we have become competent in an domain of activity, we do not consciously analyse and reason in response to stimuli. People have heuristics or mental models that they can apply in situations. From a cognitive neurophysiological perspective, working memory has only limited capacity, people therefore are almost hard-wired to limit the use of working memory. We therefore need to act based on models that we recall from our long-term memory, without consciously reasoning about everything we do.

Becoming competent in something like teaching requires that we have opportunity to observe and accumulate knowledge for potential use as models. However, action and behaviour are not simply about mustering mental models from resources in long-term memory. As we become competent we have to make strategic assessments about the likelihood of success with a particular courses of action. Or the level of attainment we are likely to achieve. This leads me on to the next aspect of social cognitive theory: self-efficacy.


Self-efficacy is a very useful idea developed by Bandura. It is a forward-oriented belief, that is, a belief about the outcome of future events, and it is a belief an individual has in their ability to be successful or achieve a certain attainment in a domain of activity.

When we come to do something we are not familiar with, we are making assessments about the extent to which we will be successful. If he we have knowledge and skill in something related then it is likely that we will have a degree of self-efficacy. But self-efficacy is not necessarily transferable between domains.

Self-efficacy is dependent on the individual, their knowledge and skills and the task itself. Experimental studies show that self-efficacy is strongly linked to outcomes. In most situations it is a better predictor of success than knowledge or other psychological factors such as personality. This is because it takes into account the individuals strategic assessment of the situation at hand.

According to Bandura there are four sources of self-efficacy: enactive mastery experience, vicarious experience, verbal persuasion, and physiological and affective states.

  • Enactive mastery experience – this is most powerful source of self-efficacy. It is developed through experience and being successful. However, it is not just based on successful outcomes, it is closely related to an awareness and evaluation of the strategies and approach used to achieve the outcomes. To develop self-efficacy, success has to be related to process. It goes beyond practice-makes-perfect.
  • Vicarious experience – We can develop self-efficacy by observing someone we relate to or that we think is similar to our own potential performance level. By observing a competent other with these features we can develop self-efficacy in this way.
  • Verbal persuasion – a much weaker source of self-efficacy. We can persuade and encourage someone to do something effectively.
  • Physiological and affective states – if we are tired, ill or a stressed then our self-efficacy is undermined.

How does observational learning and self-efficacy help understand why teachers tend to teach in traditional teacher-centred ways?

Trainee teachers observe experienced teachers and recall the approaches of their own teachers. In their early ventures into the classroom they try out approaches. The cognitive demand, at this stage, is quite high. The management of stress and anxiety is important. Effectively then, through training they develop self-efficacy in teaching, through enactive mastery experience. A reflective component is important, because self-efficacy is related to the strategies used as much as the successful outcomes achieved.

One of the main concerns of teachers is managing the classroom and pupil behaviour, this becomes something of a focus in the early years of teaching. Until the point at which a teacher believes they have become competent. This is the point at which they have acquired a level of self-efficacy. This is the point at which teachers no longer need to analyse and rationalise or consciously reason every aspect of what they do. Many things become routinised and knowledge is heuristically stored as a set of possible behavioural responses to the situation at hand.

This allows me to explain the prevalence of traditional or teacher-centred practices: which I characterise as featuring a teacher explanation, demonstration or instruction, followed by student practice involving a defined task and finally a review or teacher assessment. For the reasons I discussed in my previous post, it is the practical demands that tend to mould practice into historical forms that reflect the institutional and resource-limited constraints of a state-funded school. The traditional teacher-centred routines represent an efficient solution to the demands of the teachers’ role, the constraints of the institution and the expectation of students, colleagues and parents.

Further reading

Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. New York: W.H. Freeman.

2 thoughts on “The science bit: a social cognitive theory perspective on traditional teaching

  1. Pingback: Cultural Scripts in teaching | Steve Watson

  2. Pingback: Cultural practices, political economy and social psychology in the similarity of practices in schools – Steven Watson

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