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To what extent can social learning theory explain the way teachers learn in an age of online teaching and learning?

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Claudette Bailey-Morrissey, Careers Leader, Careers Development Institute, UK

This article explores the experiences of three teachers who embraced online teaching in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, which required that teaching and learning took place online during periods of school closures and lockdown between 2020 and 2021. It illuminates how they developed their practice and ensured that students received effective teaching and learning.

The context

Teachers’ professional learning is of increasing interest as one way to support the increasingly complex skills that students need to learn in preparation for further education and work in the 21st century (Darling-Hammond et al., 2017). Moreover, sophisticated forms of teaching are needed to develop student competencies such as deep mastery of challenging content, critical thinking, complex problem-solving, effective communication and collaboration, and self-direction (Darling-Hammond et al., 2017). According to Bandura (1971), social learning theory explains human behaviour in terms of continuous reciprocal interaction between cognitive, behavioural and environmental influences. The author emphasises the importance of observing and modelling the behaviours, attitudes and emotional reactions of others. Moreover, Bandura (1977, p. 22) states that ‘learning would be exceedingly laborious, not to mention hazardous, if people had to rely solely on the effects of their own actions to inform what to do. Fortunately, most human behaviour is learned observationally through modelling: from observing others one forms an idea of how new behaviours are performed, and on later occasions this coded information serves as a guide for action.’


Teaching and learning have been hugely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. To understand to what extent teachers have adapted to online teaching and learning, three teachers in my school were invited to share their experiences of teaching online using the Microsoft Teams platform during the school closures between 2020 and 2021. As part of the teaching and learning directive in the school, all teachers were expected to use Microsoft Teams to deliver online lessons. As a result, the teachers had to ensure that they learnt quickly and negotiated the challenges associated with delivering lessons online. In exploring their experiences, they were asked three questions: as a way of understanding how observing and modelling helped them to develop online teaching skills as part of their professional development; to illuminate their perceptions of the importance of learning by observing and modelling others; and to consider how they use modelling in the classroom to develop and build confidence in their students. The three questions that teachers were asked are:

  1. As a teacher leader, to what extent has modelling been part of your own professional development?
  2. How have you used modelling to share good practice and develop other teachers?
  3. To what extent do you feel that modelling benefits and impacts students’ learning?

The teachers’ experiences vary and demonstrate the value of continually learning through observing and modelling others’ actions and behaviour.

Social learning and teacher professional development

Driscoll (1994, p. 8) defines learning as ‘a persisting change in human performance, or performance potential, as a result of the learner’s interaction with the environment’. Similarly, Weinstein and Mayer (1986, p. 1040) consider learning ‘as the relatively permanent change in a person’s knowledge or behaviour due to experience’. In the context of teacher learning and development, Eraut (2004) purports that the term ‘informal learning’ has been used in adult education for many years and provides a simple contrast to formal learning or training that suggests greater flexibility or freedom for learners. Moreover, Eraut (2004) recognises the social significance of learning from other people, but also implies greater scope for individual agency than socialisation. This is important in the context of teachers learning and developing their skills, particularly for the purpose of this article, where online learning techniques are shared by the expertise and support of others. Indeed, Bandura’s (1977) social learning theory is useful in understanding teacher learning as it is characterised by key components that underlie observational learning, including: (1) attention, where events and behaviours are modelled; (2) retention, where symbolic coding, cognitive organisation and behaviours are rehearsed; (3) reproduction, where behaviours and actions are reproduced or copied and then displayed, and feedback is sought and received; and (4) motivation, where the individual has impetus through external and self-reinforcement. Naturally, the teacher’s willingness to learn by observing and modelling is dependent upon their self-efficacy. Mark et al. (2011) concluded that individuals with high levels of self-efficacy are more likely to view difficult tasks as something to be mastered rather than something to be avoided, while individuals with weak self-efficacy are more likely to avoid challenging tasks and then focus on personal failings and negative outcomes as a result. In the context of the three teachers in this article, they all demonstrated high levels of self-efficacy and sought to work closely with others in their departments or faculties to ensure that they had the necessary skills to deliver teaching and learning. Despite the information technology and software challenges, the teachers saw the value of learning from and with others as a means to developing their practice and bringing them up to speed in ensuring that their students benefited from the change.

Malikah, Isabel and Rebecca (these names are pseudonyms) all valued learning from their colleagues (other teachers) through modelling.

‘Staff who have more experience with Teams created short “how to videos”, for example, how to schedule a meeting. The videos being there enabled me to link with a particular member of staff if I required more support. To learn more intricate skills, such as how to share PowerPoint or video, I used the internet as my modelling go to.’ – Malikah

‘Modelling is paramount to the process of teaching a foreign language. Therefore, it has been a huge part of my development as a teacher. [With] remote learning [it is] essential to use some modelling strategies for students to access the work. The difficulty here was using modelling to fit the target language purpose, giving instructions in English rather than in French or Spanish because of the IT issues or students’ reluctance to use their microphones.’ – Rebecca

‘Modelling is an important part of professional development as it supports the school’s expert teaching model. The current online lessons via MS Teams have been challenging due to issues such as: out-of-date laptop apps, e.g. Windows 7; poor Wi-Fi connections, despite having access to 5G; and [the] system crashing. This makes modelling extremely challenging. MS Teams is about learning on the job and picking up ideas through trial and error. Faculty meetings were productive in ironing out issues. Teachers who are more proficient with MS Teams provided further practical ideas to [help me] navigate to improve teaching. These short forums enabled me to make use of further technical skills to improve my lessons and content.’ – Isabel

The three quotes above demonstrate the importance and value of modelling for the teachers. While Malikah was able to learn from others through the use of ‘how to videos’ and could follow up with any questions or difficulties that she experienced, Isabel found faculty meetings useful in helping her and the teachers in her faculty to explore and consider a range of solutions to the challenges that they faced.

The impact on students

The teachers reflected on the impact of modelling on students’ learning. While the transition to online teaching and learning was challenging, the teachers all considered ways to ensure that their students made progress.

‘Teaching online has made it difficult to be consistent with modelling and if I were observed it would be [a] disaster trying to explain difficult concepts and modelling good answers to questions. Getting all students to feel safe with others by switching on cameras and answering questions would have been a regular bonus. Generally, I have used modelling to improve my teaching through challenging students to process information from a different viewpoint and, as such, not to agree with every point but to provide a different view. Having a mostly SEND Year 10 GCSE group has helped with modelling; slowing the pace of the lesson; encouraging talking and getting students to share their ideas by teaching each other (in breakout rooms on MS Teams).’ – Isabel

‘The presence of modelling enabled me to set up and deliver my lessons in the manner that I would have done had I been teaching in the normal teaching and learning setting. The impact on the students was that they were able to engage with the lesson in a way that they would not normally do. [For example] students who were generally quiet in the classroom grew in confidence online; answering questions, reading out loud and submitting homework and assessments.’ – Malikah

Isabel was able to contrast teaching online with face-to-face teaching and its impact on her students. She recognised the importance of making sure that students feel safe online, particularly her SEND students, whom she encouraged to develop their arguments and to learn from their peers using modelling. In contrast, Malikah felt that she was able to set up her teaching in the same way as she would if it were face to face. The main impact for her on her students was that it gave students who would ordinarily be quiet in lessons the confidence to share their ideas and participate more fully in lessons.


Overall, the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted teaching and learning, moving teaching from face to face to online for many teachers and their students. This has created opportunities for teachers to work together to model good practice so that the transition to online teaching and learning could be enhanced. Social learning theory has been used to understand how teachers observe and model online learning in the context of the pandemic, learning from others to develop their practice. Despite the challenges identified, the new ways of working have encouraged the teachers to consider and explore MS Teams, learning and developing their practice by modelling others.


Bandura A (1971) Social Learning Theory. New York: General Learning Press.

Bandura A (1977) Self-efficacy: Toward a unifying theory of behavioral change. Psychological Review 84(2): 191.

Darling-Hammond L, Hyler ME and Gardner M (2017) Effective Teacher Professional Development. Palo Alto, CA: Learning Policy Institute.

Driscoll MP (1994) Psychology of Learning for Instruction. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn and Bacon, A Division of Paramount Publishing Inc.

Eraut M (2004) Informal learning in the workplace. Studies in Continuing Education 26(2): 173–247.

Mark MM, Donaldson SI and Campbell B (2011) Social Psychology and Evaluation. The Guildford Press.

Weinstein CE and Mayer RE (1986) The teaching of learning strategies. In: Wittrock MC (ed) Handbook of Research on Teaching, 3rd ed. New York: Macmillan, pp. 315–327.

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      Author(s): Bill Lucas