Osmosis sounds lovely in theory but there is no scientific evidence that sticking a book under your pillow will work. Except maybe to give you a neck ache. Which would actually make learning harder. (Chronic pain interferes with cognitive flexibility and makes adapting our learning to a change much more difficult according to a 2018 study by Stephen Cowan.)

Learning by observation on the other hand works quite well for humans. Anthony Bandura is arguably the best known researcher in this area. The Bobo Doll experiments illustrate that children will watch and repeat what they see if there is no negative consequence for that action. (Not to digress too far again but researchers have explored the links between video game violence and real world aggression making some alarming connections)

We are most likely to use observational learning in specific situations and from specific people. Those include:

  • people we believe are nurturing and kind;
  • people who we see as authority figures; or otherwise admire in some way;
  • people who share characteristics or traits with us;
  • when the people we are learning from watching are rewarded for their behaviour;
  • when we ourselves have a history of being rewarded for imitating behaviour;
  • if we are unsure of what to do or the situation is new to us; we lack confidence (in knowledge or ability).

Recently I have had a few reminders of the benefits of observational learning for me.

Watching friends use a horse riding simulator before I did set me up to truly maximize the time I had for my experience. I was able to spend much less time working on the most basic mechanics and had the opportunity to do a little more advanced work than they did, despite the fact we are all experienced and decent riders.

People posted many of the Agility Association of Canada regional courses last weekend and are posting the CPE Nationals courses this weekend. For each course map I see I plot out how I would run Sally, and Yen, and mull over what changes I would make for Dora. If I am curious about how an individual handled a line I ask for clarification.

I don’t know why this ribbon is sideways, sigh.

I attended a horse show last weekend (as a participant!) and watched other people ride carefully thinking about what changes I would make if I were riding their test. I watched a friend’s dressage lesson and thought about what I would say if I were instructing, then checked how my advice differed to the coach’s. (We were in alignment – although had we not been that would have been learning too).

Don’t doubt that our animal partners learn from observation as well. Set up learning opportunities for all of you to make the most of the time and energy we invest into bettering ourselves. Watch people you admire, that you want to learn from. Just like with your dog, or horse, set yourself up for success.

If you don’t have the money to invest in a “gold” spot at FDSA test a “bronze” spot – but PICK a gold student or two to focus on and watch. Can’t find the time to attend a weekend seminar or event? That’s ok – can you find two hours to audit or observe? The learning in that experience will stand you in good stead moving forwards.