Lev Vygotsky’s Socio Cultural theory: Explained with Examples

Lev Vygotsky is credited with setting up the framework for sociocultural theory. The objective of sociocultural theory is to understand how an individual’s mental functioning is tied to their culture, history and the institutes they have been a part of. The sociocultural view of the world focuses on the roles that human interactions and culturally structured activities have in cognitive functioning that affect psychological growth. According to this concept, social interaction causes ongoing step-by-step changes in children’s minds and behaviour, which might differ substantially between cultures.

Essentially, Vygotsky’s theory proposes that growth is dependent on interaction with others and the tools that culture gives to help people construct their own perspectives. Cultural tools can be passed down through imitative learning, in which one person attempts to imitate or copy someone else; instructed learning, in which one remembers the teacher’s instructions and then uses these instructions to follow and keep themselves in check; and collaborative learning, in which a group strives to comprehend each other and collaborate together to learn various specific skills.

Life of Vygotsky
In 1913, Vygotsky began studying at Moscow University. However, he received admission on the basis of a lottery system as at the time there was a special 3% quota for Jewish students that worked in his favour. During his time there, he branched out to different disciplines like humanities, social sciences and the arts. Before getting into psychology and the education sphere, he took to law school for a brief duration. 
He was a great master of psychology, frequently referred to as the “Mozart of Psychology” due to the sheer volume of concepts and theories he developed in such a short period of time. This excellent intellectual unfortunately met his untimely demise at the age of 37 caused to tuberculosis. Many believe that had he lived on to complete a full life, he would have contributed even more and possibly carried out more definitive experiments to improve his existing theories.

What is Lev Vygotsky’s Sociocultural Theory?

  1. Overview of the Theory
    Vygotsky believed that human development and learning is a process that occurs through social interactions. These social interactions, according to Vygotsky’s theory, often involve family and the community. He further said that these interactions are the key means through which children learn and acquire behaviours. These behaviours will improve their cognitive processes in relation to their own culture and persons in their immediate social proximity. Vygotsky’s theory is distinguished by the substantial emphasis placed on culture. He believes that learning happens on two levels: social and individual. His philosophy integrates intellect and the social environment. Interacting with a more informed individual will help children learn the methods of thinking and behaving that make up a culture. Vygotsky noted that social contact causes long-term changes in a child’s thinking and behaviour. These attitudes and behaviours would differ across cultures. The sociocultural theory of development examines the impact that peers or older individuals, as well as their cultural ideas, have on children’s learning.
  1. Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD)
    The Zone of Proximal development is one of the most important components of Lev Vygotsky’s sociocultural theory. The ZPD is understood as the theoretical area between what the learner is able to do without guidance and what the learner can do with assistance or guidance from an adult or a higher skilled peer. There are three stages within the ZPD:
    1. Can’t Do even with Guidance
    2. Can Do With Guidance
    3. Can do Alone (Independently)

He argues that without external assistance, the child cannot reach their full potential with respect to their learning capabilities. This gap that can be identified is known as the Zone of Proximal Development. While some fundamental concepts may be easy to grasp for the child, it is the more complex applications of these concepts or entirely new concepts themselves where the guidance or assistance of the skilled peer/ adult is required. This helps us understand that the Zone of Proximal Development offers the best chance to acquire new skills. This is a reason why players or students with coaches or tutors specifically tend to be more well-versed in their area of expertise than an individual with no guidance.

  1. Language and Private Speech
    Vygotsky maintained that language emerges through social interactions for the purpose of communication. Vygotsky considered language to be man’s most powerful tool, a method of communicating with the outside world. Language is the main mode of communication between an adult and their child which amounts to the only arena for learning possibilities for the latter. Transmission of the information is heavily dependent on the language spoken by the adult and child, according to Vygotsky. He further understands that language in itself is an intellectual tool that becomes quite powerful in certain situations. He divides speech into social speech (which begins at the age of 2), private speech (which develops around the age of 3 for self-regulation) and this manifests into inner silent speech (typically around the age of 7). Vygotsky stressed the importance of Private speech and attributed it to social interaction development leading to higher cognitive capabilities based on their usage of private speech.

  2. Scaffolding
    Scaffolding arises out of the idea of the Zone of Proximal Development. Teachers often employ this in classrooms when tackling a more complex concept that requires multiple stages of learning. They provide the students with basic tools required for learning and then set small-scale achievable targets that can be easily completed by the students. This step is important in order to build the confidence of the students within this subject and enable them to complete the tasks independently without the need for assistance. Scaffolding always takes place within the Zone of Proximal Development which emphasises the existence of a More Knowledgeable Other (MKO).
  3. MKO: The More Knowledgeable Other
    The more knowledgeable other (MKO) is self-explanatory; it refers to anyone who understands or has a higher competence level than the learner in relation to a specific action, process, or idea. Although the impression is that the MKO is an instructor or an elderly person, this is not always true. Many times, a child’s classmates or an adult’s children will have greater knowledge or experience. This involves the importance of peers as taking on the role of the More Knowledgeable Other. In today’s modern era, MKOs need not even be human beings. Electronic and machine-like alternatives have already been in existence and with the growth of the Artificial Intelligence Industry, the MKO for each individual child can be catered specifically to their needs leading to an efficient all-round development of the child.
  4. Unique Factors in Lev Vygotsky’s Sociocultural Theory

Lev Vygotsky’s sociocultural theory is compared regularly to Jean Piaget’s version of children’s cognitive development.
Piaget: Focused on the individual during social interactions. Believed that cognitive development occurred universally in a stage by stage manner. Ignored the importance of Language.
Vygotsky: Focused more on the social aspect of social interactions. Emphasised cultural factors in cognitive development, without any mentioning of stages. Stressed the role of Language in cognitive development.    

Also Read: Piaget- Contributions and Biography

Practical Applications of Lev Vygotsky’s Sociocultural Theory

  • Cooperative Learning
    Cooperative Learning related to the ZPD where students rely on each other to accomplish tasks that they would not be able to do on their own. Teachers can make use of this where they assign tasks specifically to promote a collaborative culture amongst the students. These tasks would facilitate the use of social and internal speech within the Zone.
  • Lesson Planning

When the MKO is in charge, for example, a teacher, they have the ability to use scaffolding, as explained above, to break up certain complicated tasks into smaller components that are achievable by the students, building their confidence in the process.

  • Reciprocal Teaching

Reciprocal teaching is a modern educational technique that uses Vygotsky’s theories to enhance students’ comprehension of literature. In this approach, the teacher works alongside the students to help them learn and practise the four essential abilities summarising, questioning, clarifying, and predicting. Over time, the teacher’s influence on the process decreases.