While each year thousands of studies are completed in psychology and education, there are a handful that over the years have had a lasting impact on education and learning.

In a series of Extra Credit articles, I have been highlighting several seminal studies that have had a profound impact on teaching and learning.   

The sixth article in this series explores how simple observation has a profound impact on thinking and behavior.



It was thought, prior to Albert Bandura’s classic (1961) study, that our actions were determined by genetics and classical or operant conditioning. Bandura, however, demonstrated that our actions are powerfully influenced by what we observe.

The Study – The “Bobo Doll” Experiment

Albert Bandura, conducted this famous psychological study at Stanford University. Called the “Bobo Doll” experiments because a Bobo Doll (see Bobo Doll Study Original Footage) was a critical prop for the experiment.

In the study, preschoolers were randomly assigned into three groups. One watched an adult who was verbally and physically aggressive towards a Bobo doll. The second group watched an adult essentially ignore the Bobo doll. The third group (a control) was not exposed to any modeling. After the modeling, the children were sent to a room with the Bobo doll, and their behavior was observed and recorded.

The children exposed to the aggressive model were more likely to exhibit aggressive behavior towards the doll, while the other groups showed little imitative aggressive behavior.

Subsequent experiments that showed similar aggressive acts recorded on videotape yielded similar results. Moreover, children exposed to aggressive modeling often displayed aggressive tendencies months later.

Bandura also found some gender differences that have also withstood the test of time. Boys, on average, were more physically (but not verbally) aggressive than girls. Also, both boys and girls displayed more aggressive behaviors when observing a same-sex model.

General Implications

A great debate in psychology revolves around the nature vs. nurture question. That is, how much of our personality, behavior, intelligence, etc., is the result of our genes, and how much is the result of the environment? Now taken as common sense, Bandura added an important nuance to the debate by hypothesizing that powerful learning can be much more direct. We can simply observe and learn.

Part of the impetus for Bandura’s work came from the growing influence of television. What exactly was the impact on young children who were exposed to ever-increasing adult-oriented content on television? Bandura’s work was even referenced for the initial adoption of the television and movie rating systems.

The implications for parents are abundantly clear. Most every pediatric clinician will tell you that what you do speaks much louder than what you say. Via evolution, children have developed phenomenal observational skills. David Thomas of Daystar Counseling Ministries, Inc. in Nashville, gave this example at a very recent session he conducted at Currey Ingram’s Neuroscience and Education conference that we co-host with Vanderbilt University. He modeled a parent saying, “I am not disappointed with you,” with a slightly raised voice and disappointing tone. He then asked, “What do you think the child is hearing?” He went on to say that it is totally OK to be disappointed in your child, just convey and model exactly that feeling, otherwise the message is very confusing. And, in this talk, he was modeling desired behaviors for the parents in the room, as well.

Implications for Education

How do educators take advantage of this shortcut to learning? First, we must realize we are, indeed, role models. Our actions are being carefully scrutinized. When we, ourselves, exhibit the behaviors we expect our students to display, we are well on our way.

The strength of observational models might simply be based on the fact that this learning model has been around as long as people have wanted to communicate complex information to each other. The apprentice, internship and mentoring learning models are at their heart, observational.

In addition, “observations” of modeling do not have be from real life. Teachers use great literature, for example, with characters who model desired (and undesired) qualities. Here at Currey Ingram, our students participate in weekly creative drama activities in grades K-6 and have that option for grades 7-12, including a robust improv offering in our high school. Improv and role-play elements are commonplace even in our academic classes. And, activities such as reader’s theatre and shadow-puppet theatre are used for younger students who are learning how to read with meaning and inflection.

Modeling can be vitally important for students who do not intuitively understand social skills. Many very bright students have this difficulty, and the great news is that these behaviors and skills can be successfully taught and modeled. Such students might work with a speech-language pathologist to watch videos to learn desired speech patterns or social skills. The therapist might even turn off the sound on a scene from a popular TV show or movie and ask the kids to read body language (e.g., are they angry, mad, sad?, are they standing too close?, etc.). This is another form of “modeling” and observing desired behaviors.

Another more global example is our “social skill of the month” program in our Lower School that pairs a social skill with our character trait of the month (e.g., caring, work ethic, responsibility). This practice includes the modeling of a desired behavior (e.g, eye contact, handshake, turn-taking) throughout all classes and then modeling and reinforcing that behavior for an entire month.


Thanks to researchers like Bandura and current-day social psychologists and authors such as David Thomas, we have a great deal of “proof” that modeling works. And, for the most part, it is “free” and quite simple to do.

As we are all with our children perhaps more often this summer, and even in some possibly stressful situations (e.g., a long drive or airport delay), we would be wise to remember that learning continues all year long and that we can impart some very valuable lessons well before school opens again this fall. Have a wonderful summer, and thank you for reading.

Dr. Jeffrey L. Mitchell is head of school at Currey Ingram Academy.


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