Vygotsky’s Theory

Sociocultural Theory of Learning  

The way in which children learn has always fascinated psychologists and educators. Several theories of learning have been developed by theorists in relevant fields. One such theory is Lev Vygotsky’s Sociocultural Theory of Learning.

In Vygotsky’s theory, mental development such as thought, language, and reasoning process are developed through social relationships and interactions. Thus, individual’s development is influenced by culture and environment (Kristinsdottir, 2003).


Our environment impacts out learning process

Vygotsky viewed cognitive development results from dialectical process, whereby the child learns through problem solving experiences shared with someone else, such as parents, teacher, siblings or a peer (Kristinsdottir, 2003).  Initially, the person interacting with child assumes most of the responsibility for guiding the problem solving, but gradually this responsibility transfers to the child (Kristinsdottir, 2003). Language is a primary form of interaction through which adults transmit to the child the rich body of knowledge that exists in the culture (Funderstanding, n.d.). As learning progresses, the child’s own language comes to use as his or her main means of intellectual adaptation (Funderstanding, n.d.). Eventually, children can use internal language to direct their own behaviour and this transition is known as internalization.


A second aspect of Vygotsky’s theory is the idea that children’s intellectual development can be maximized when instruction is targeted at their “zone of proximal development” (ZPD) (Kristinsdottir, 2003). According to Vygotsky, the ZPD represents the gap or difference, between a child’s actual developmental level with existing abilities, and what he or she can learn, at a potential developmental level, with the guidance of a more capable person (Kristinsdottir, 2003). The full development during the ZPD depends upon full social interaction and the more the child takes benefits of an adult’s assistance, the boarder is its “Zone of Proximal Development” (Kristinsdottir, 2003). Scaffolding instruction is a teaching strategy that originates from Vygotsky’s concept of the “zone of proximal development”.

Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD)

Vygotsky believed a clear understanding of the connection between thought and language is important for the understanding of cognitive development (Kristinsdottir, 2003). He identified three different stages in children’s use of language (Kristinsdottir, 2003). At first, language is primarily used for communication. Next, children begin to use private speech such as self-talk or “thinking out loud” to guide their behaviour (Kristinsdottir, 2003). Lastly, around the time when child starts school, self-talk slowly disappear as children begin to use inner speech – verbal thoughts to guide their thinking and actions.

What teachers need to know about Lev Vygotsky’s Sociocultural Theory of Learning

Many schools have employed the traditional way of teaching in which a teacher transmits information to students. In contrast, Vygotsky’s theory promotes a learning environment in which students play an active role in learning. Roles of the teacher and student are thus changed, as teachers work together with his or her students in order to help facilitate meaning construction in students. Therefore, learning becomes a reciprocal experience for the students and teacher. It is important for teachers to understand Vygotsky’s learning theory as it has shown to improve the quality of education that children receives. Vygotsky’s socio-cultural theory provide educators plans on how to get the most from students, challenging them to reach their highest potential (KidsDevelopment, n.d.).

Scaffolding instruction which originates from Vygotsky’s concept of the “zone of proximal development” is a good teaching strategy that many teachers are employing in their classrooms. In scaffolding instruction, the teacher provides scaffolds or supports to facilitate the learner’s development (McKenzie, 2000).  The scaffolds facilitate a student’s ability to build on prior knowledge and internalize new information. The activities provided in scaffolding instruction are just beyond the level of what the learner can do alone (McKenzie, 2000).  The teacher provides the scaffolds so that the learner can accomplish the tasks that he or she could otherwise not complete, thus helping the learner through the ZPD (McKenzie, 2000). An important aspect of scaffolding instruction is that the scaffolds are temporary (McKenzie, 2000).  As the learner’s abilities increase the scaffolding provided by the teacher is slowly removed (McKenzie, 2000).  Finally the learner is able to complete the task independently. Scaffolding not only produces immediate results, but also instils the skills necessary for independent problem solving in the future (McKenzie, 2000). Research continues to show that scaffolding is an effective teaching strategy (McKenzie, 2000).

In Vygotsky’s view, the learner does not learn in isolation and studies have shown that in the absence of guided learning experiences and social interaction, learning and development are hindered (McKenzie, 2000). Therefore, it is important that teachers design activities that emphasize interactions between students and the task they are learning as well as incorporating group work so that students can interact with their peers; share their ideas and learn from each other.

In addition, it is important for teachers to design assessment methods that target students’ zone of proximal development. What children can do on their own is their level of actual development and what they can do with help is their level of potential development (Funderstanding, n.d.). Therefore, assessment methods must be designed to target both the level of actual development and the level of potential development of an individual.


Funderstanding. (n.d.). Retrieved November 18, 2009, from http://www.funderstanding.com/content/vygotsky-and-social-cognition

KidsDevelopment. (n.d.). Retrieved November 18, 2009, from http://www.kidsdevelopment.co.uk/VygotskySocioCulturalTheory.html

Kristinsdottir, Solrun. (2001). Lev Vygotsky. Retrieved November 18, 2009, from http://starfsfolk.khi.is/solrunb/vygotsky.htm

Laffier, J. (2009, November 12). Vygotsky’s Sociocultural Theory of Learning [PowerPoint Slides]. Retrieved from UOIT WebCT site:   https://connect.mycampus.ca/webct/urw/lc1238627430081.tp1244095491031/displayContentPage.dowebct?pageID=1451833366051&resetBreadcrumb=false&displayBCInsideFrame=true

McKenzie, J. (2000).  Scaffolding for Success. [Electronic version] Beyond Technology,Questioning, Research and the Information Literate School Community. Retrieved November 19, 2009, from http://fno.org/dec99/scaffold.html












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