World-renowned psychologist from rural Alberta changed the way we think about learning

One of psychology’s trailblazing social scientists started his life of learning on a farm in Mundare, Alta., before going on to redefine the world’s understanding of factors that influence how we learn.

Psychologist Albert Bandura, an internationally renowned researcher and Stanford University professor for 57 years, died July 26 at age 95.

“Bandura’s theory of social learning is a must,” said Ana Klahr, a University of Alberta psychology instructor who says his research and theories are a core piece of all introductory classes.

“It is a very essential part of the core psychological theories that are engaged even today.”

Bandura grew up in Mundare, about 85 kilometres east of Edmonton, where he was the youngest of six children. His parents, both immigrants from Eastern Europe, lacked formal education and didn’t speak English but “instilled the love of learning” in their children, says a memorial tribute published on the Stanford University website.

Groundbreaking research

After receiving his high school diploma from Mundare’s sole school, Bandura attended the University of British Columbia where he accidentally developed an interest in psychology, after signing up for a morning class in the subject solely because it fit his work schedule, says the Stanford article. 

He then made his way south of the border to attend the University of Iowa where he did his postgraduate studies, earning his master’s degree in 1951 and his PhD in 1952.

Bandura’s Bobo doll experiments of the 1960s brought new insights on learning through observation as well as the impact on children when adults modelled aggressive behaviour. (Submitted by Stanford University)

Bandura is best known for his Bobo doll experiments, which began in 1961, with their groundbreaking insights into aggression and the significance of observation as a tool of learning. 

The experiments involved groups of preschool children watching adult behaviour around the inflatable, bottom-weighted toy, Klahr told CBC Edmonton’s Radio Active in an interview.

Children who were exposed to an adult behaving aggressively with the doll would reproduce the behaviour, she said. The children who observed placid behaviour, however, were not violent with the toy.

The concept of learning through observation was a departure from the commonly held belief that learning came about through operant conditioning — that is, through reward or punishment, Klahr said.

“Albert Bandura pretty much said, yes, those are valid reasons and valid theories of how we learn, but aside from that, another reason why we learn is because we observe other people doing things,” Klahr said. 

“The way in which Bandura was particularly influential … is that he said the individual is indeed affected by the environment.”

His research saw him called to testify before United States government committees looking at violence on television.

Bandura received the Order of Canada in 2014 and the U.S. National Medal of Science, awarded to him in 2016 by then-president Barack Obama. (Submitted by Stanford University)

During his career, Bandura wrote or co-authored 17 books and hundreds of scientific papers, and accumulated numerous honours including the Order of Canada in 2014 and the U.S. National Medal of Science in 2016.

His discovery of learning through observation grew into his theory of social learning, said Klahr. He also developed the concept of self-efficacy, which asserts that a person’s belief in their abilities can affect how they think, act and feel.

Klahr said that Bandura’s work in cognitive learning — that is, that humans can learn from mental processes ranging from attention and memory to language and judgment — continues to be relevant to today’s social and behavioural scientists.

“We use all of these resources in order to learn and navigate our environment, to modify our environment,” she said. 

“If you compare our species to other animals, we are the species that modify their environment probably the most. And that and that in turn will also impact our biology and also our behaviour.”

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