Vygotsky’s Sociocultural Theory believes children learn from their culture, mentors, and their influences and then adapt it to their current situations. It also says children have a “zone of proximal development,” which starts with what they know and extends to what they can learn with guidance.

An overview of Sociocultural Theory?

The sociocultural theory was created by Russian psychologist Leo Vygotsky in the early 1900s. His theory was in response to the leading idea of the time: Behaviorism.

It stresses that social interaction and the role of those around us is the most significant element of our psychological development. According to sociocultural theory, human learning is mainly drawn from how we interact with others and the influence of figures we believe are more skilled and trusted examples.

It differs from other theories at the time, which focused on how individual behaviors could be explained as part of each instance. Instead, Vygotsky theorized that our psychological development is guided by people senior to us in mentor-type roles, such as teachers, doctors, parents, and other authority figures. This includes the society and social groups we are raised in, values and beliefs from our family, mentors, and the cultures we grow up in.

Vygotsky’s ideas did not receive much attention until years after his death. His views were not widely known in Russia until after the end of Stalin in the 1960s, coming to the United States and abroad some twenty years later.

Why is Sociocultural Theory critical?

Sociocultural theory is essential as it was a massive shift away from beliefs that all humans developed based on biological instinct, seeing us as more akin to animals. His work was led by his understanding that children learn from interactions, process them, and then exhibit similar behaviors in their contexts.

On a basic level, this viewpoint leads to the modern view of a child’s development and how important it is for teachers to understand their children’s environments. Not only from a developmental perspective but also from how the classroom and learning environment can make students more comfortable and aid their development. Equally, it highlights how behavior is often a symptom of a child’s background and upbringing.

What are the critical aspects of Sociocultural Theory?

There are notable areas of Sociocultural Theory that have grown in influence over time.

Vygotsky theorized that we develop psychological tools like writing, language skills, and strategies for learning. Which of these take on the most important in our lives is defined by the culture we grow up in, meaning we learn to develop the tools that have shown value in our upbringing and reflect our cultural values and needs. Simplified, we know what tools are most prominent or valuable in our development and use them accordingly.

The scope of a child’s development was crucial to Vygotsky’s work. He believed learning in children should be mostly related to where they were in their development, which led to him arguing that in what is called a zone of proximal development. The zone of proximal development (ZPD) essentially refers to what a person cannot understand or do alone but can achieve with guidance; the difference between what can be completed independently and what they can achieve with guidance or collaboration. Scaffolding is now a common phrase in classrooms and extended from here.

Another crucial part of Sociocultural Theory is private speech. This relates to how children speak to themselves to guide their actions. This was seen as critical, as it proved that children were acting beyond instinct and how it developed with age. Private speech starts aloud but extends into internal conversations, much more akin to how adults process their decisions. Vygotsky believed that you could see how children use their influences and the information they are given as part of this process, developing new skills and evolving language from others, guiding how they think and act.

How can I use Sociocultural Theory in the classroom?

Teachers will use Sociocultural Theory consistently without realizing it. For the most part, it comes with assessing what a child can do and then considering what they will be able to do with instruction and guidance to stretch their capabilities.

Teachers can use Sociocultural Theory by:

  • Scaffolding: Scaffolding in teaching is when a teacher strategically puts support into a lesson. Providing support for children to practice and consolidate a particular skill, perhaps by giving a writing frame, word bank, or structured task sheet.
  • Using their peers: Grouping students together to discuss ideas can bridge children’s gaps in their learning. Equally, children can work together and collaborate to solve problems.
  • Differentiation: By knowing what your students are capable of, you can challenge them in a way that helps their progress. The challenge that reflects their zone of proximal development will allow children to expand their knowledge, unlike tasks that are too difficult and give the child no scope to learn.
  • Adult guidance: The teacher or teaching assistants in the room can work with a child or group of children, allowing them to encourage correct perceptions and tackle misconceptions. It is essential that this is used as a tool and that adults are then used elsewhere to enable children to develop and exhibit independent learning.
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