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According to the writings of Aristotle, imitation is the first way in which people learns. Today, although the science of imitation and the potential role of ‘mirror neurons’ is not fully understood, it is known that even this basic behaviour of imitation is itself learned (1). Imitation is seen in animals as well as in humans, with documented research highlighting ‘the essential role that social learning and imitation play in propagating behaviour that allows animals to occupy an ecological niche which might otherwise be closed to them’ (2).

Psychologist Albert Bandura was the first to propose a comprehensive theory of social learning in 1977, which went beyond the more commonplace theories of behavioural learning. While social learning theory recognises the importance of experience that leads to reinforcement, its key contribution is the idea that individuals learn through observing and then imitating others. A key point for vocational teaching is that a balance needs to be sought between allowing learning through experimentation and trial and error (with its resulting rewards – success, and punishments – failure), and allowing learning through imitation. As explained by Bandura:

Although behaviour can be shaped into new patterns to some extent by rewarding and punishing consequences, learning would be extremely laborious and hazardous if it proceeded solely on this basis … it is difficult to imagine a socialization process in which … vocational activities … are taught to each new member by selective reinforcement of fortuitous behaviours, without the benefit of models who exemplify the cultural patterns in their own behaviour… (2)

Closely following the action of learning by watching, imitating then involves trying to implement what has been observed. While learning from an expert clearly has its benefits, the act of imitating another may often work best when the individual being copied is situated a little closer to the learner’s own experience and can understand where the learners’ difficulties are (3). For this to work, imitating becomes entangled with explanation and instruction.

There are dangers inherent in imitation, however. In Alexander’s rather damning critique of the learning taking place by nursery nurse trainees through college and through work placements, she found that students were far more concerned with ‘fitting in’ than with learning:

Instead of developing a coherent body of knowledge that enables them to work effectively with the children in their care, they are developing a set of performance skills that enables them to imitate what they see happening in the workplace. (4)

Of course, there is always the risk that inappropriate behaviours such as dangerous or limiting procedures could also be learnt from participating in the work environment (5) and vocational teachers – both in and out of the workplace – need to be vigilant for evidence of this in order to correct it.
Both watching and imitating combined with being coached and practising is central to an apprenticeship.


(1) Jones, S. (2005). The Role of Mirror Neurons in Imitation: A commentary on V. Gallese, “Being like me: Self-other identity, mirror neurons, and empathy.”. 205-210. In Hartley, S. N. & Chater (eds.) Perspectives on Imitation, Vol 1. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Retrieved on Aug. 2, 2012
(2) Sanditov, B. (2006). Essays on Social Learning and Imitation. Doctoral thesis, Universitaire Pers Maastricht.
(3) Lave, J. & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated Learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
(4) Alexander, E. (2001). Dispositions for Learning in Childcare Students. Childcare students: learning or imitating? Presentation to the British Educational Research Association Annual Conference, 13-15 September 2001, University of Leeds, Leeds.
(5) Billett, S. (2000). Guided Learning at Work. Journal of Workplace Learning, 12(7), 272-285

The article is from the report “How to teach vocational education: A theory of vocational pedagogy” by Bill Lucas, Ellen Spencer and Guy Claxton, The City & Guilds Centre for Skills Development (December 2012)

Lucubrate Magazine August 2019

Seventeen effective pedagogical methods in vocational education
Learning by Imitation

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