There is a tendency to think of imitation as the "lowest" form of learning — "mere" imitation — and as having little place in the exalted reaches of adult and higher education. Nevertheless, Blackmore (1999) — whatever you think of the more specific claims of her thesis — has reclaimed it by demonstrating not only how effective a form of learning imitation is, but also the sophistication required in order to be able to imitate.
Compared with the behavioural model of learning, which is a form of time-conflated evolution — of several potential responses to a situation, one or two are reinforced, and so on — imitation gets straight to the point. The teacher demonstrates or models (whether or not she is aware of so doing), and the learner imitates. There are no "wrong" answers or dead ends: the quality of the learning is purely in the faithfulness of the reproduction of the action which has been demonstrated...
- and of course the ability to select what it is appropriate to imitate (no, sticking out your tongue just so at the point of throwing the clay is not an essential feature of learning to be a potter)
- and the ability to put oneself in the shoes of the demonstrator (there's a world of difference between watching the chef toss a pancake and feeling the weight of the pan yourself).
The potency of imitation as a component of learning in social situations has been developed by the social learning theorists, associated particularly with the work of Albert Bandura, and it is undoubtedly a potent factor in developing the social infrastructure of the class group in educational settings. Students may model their conduct and attitudes on the teacher or on a leader within the student group — for better or for worse.
It also has implications for learning in the cognitive and psychomotor domains as well as the affective: and it goes on regardless of the intentions of the teacher. It can be argued that since it goes on willy-nilly, it is worthy of much more attention than it normally receives.
One of the most interesting contributions of the "cognitive revolution", making use of new imaging techniques to examine brain functioning since the 1990s, has been the discovery in monkeys of "mirror neurons". These are neurons which fire both if the animal does something itself, and if it observes the action being done by another (which can mean either seeing or hearing, apparently). These neurons are claimed by researchers to constitute a neurological basis for imitation. At the time of writing in 2010, such neurons have not been discovered in humans. Whether this is due to inability to be as invasive in researching human brains as in animal experimentation, or whether the greater plasticity of the human brain makes such dedicated cells unnecessary or even undesirable is not clear.
There is an excellent, if dated (2000) and perhaps over confident, paper; Mirror Neurons and imitation learning as the driving force behind "the great leap forward" in human evolution by V.S. Ramachandran here (accessed 9 February 10) For once--given that this is cutting edge stuff--I would recommend Wikipedia as a source for the present state of research and debate.
Modelling oneself on someone (a "role-model") is a more generalised and sophisticated variation on imitation, based on the tacit question, "What would so-and-so do in this situation?" It is an important issue in the socialisation of young people, for whom role-models might be parents, or prominent peers, or media figures, and has a venerable history (such as the original Mentor, and Thomas ŕ Kempis' "Imitation of Christ", one of the great spiritual classics of all time).
"Do as I say, not as I do" is not an option.