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This page was originally authored by Jane Mighton (2008).

Socio-cultural Theory


Lev Vygotsky

Lev Vygotsky “discovered the connecting links between sociocultural processes taking place in society and mental processes taking place in the individual” (Gindis, 1999, p. 333) in his studies of handicapped Russian children and their cognitive development. In the last two decades of the twentieth century, Gindis noted there was an upsurge of interest in Vygotsky’s work and a renewed examination of his perspectives (p. 333). Rogoff, Lave and Wenger, and Cole as well as many others in their research and writings further expand on Vygotsky’s perspectives to develop and refine the Socio-cultural Theory of learning.


McLoughlin and Oliver (1998, p. 128) describe socio-cultural learning theory:

In socio-cultural theory the learner is regarded as an apprentice in a culturally defined, socially organised world. Intrinsic to this notion of apprenticeship is the recognition that asymmetric relationships are beneficial to the child’s development. Adult-child interaction scaffolds or assists the emerging competencies of the learner. Learning therefore becomes a form of assisted performance.

Lev Vygotsky and Socio-Cultural Theory

Vygotsky’s perspectives included intermental to intramental functioning, mediation of thinking by signs and tools, and the development of higher order thinking (Robbins, 2007). Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development concept is considered important in understanding the relationship between sociocultural and mental processes (Hall, 2007).

Intermental to intramental functioning.

"Any function in the child's cultural development appears twice, or on two planes. First it appears on the social plane, and then on the psychological category, and then within the child as an intrapsychological category. This is equally true with regard to voluntary attention, logical memory, and formation of concepts, and the development of volition. We may consider this position as a law in the sense of the word, but it goes without saying that internalization transforms the process itself and changes its structure and functions, social relations or relations among people genetically underlie all higher functions and their relationships" (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 163 as cited in Hung & Nichanie, 2002, ¶ Theoretical Foundations).

“Any higher mental function necessarily goes through an external stage in its development because it is initially a social function” (Vygotsky, 1981, p. 162 as cited in Doolittle, 1995, p. 5).

“Learning awakens a variety of internal developmental processes that are able to operate only when the child is interacting with people in his environment and in cooperation with his peers … Learning is not development; however, properly organized learning results in mental development and sets in motion a variety of developmental processes that would be impossible apart from learning. Thus learning is a necessary and universal aspect of the process of developing culturally organized, specifically human, psychological functions” (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 90 as cited in John-Steiner & Mahn, 1996, p. 198).

“Any higher mental function necessarily goes through an external stage in its development because it is initially a social function. This is the center of the whole problem of internal and external behavior … When we speak of a process, “external” means “social”. Any higher mental function was external because it was social at some point before becoming an internal, truly mental function” (Vygotsky, 1981, p. 162 as cited in Doolittle, 1995, p. 16).

Mediating tools

“The central fact about our psychology is the fact of mediation” (Vygotsky, 1982, p. 166 as cited in Cole & Wertsch, ¶ The Primacy of Cultural Mediation).

“Signs and words serve children first and foremost as a means of social contact with other people. … the specifically human capacity for language enables children to provide for auxiliary tools in the solution of difficult tasks, to overcome impulsive action, to plan a solution to a problem prior to its execution, and to master their own behavior” (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 28 as cited in Doolittle, 1995, p. 18).

"Language; various systems of counting; mnemonic techniques; algebraic symbol systems; works of art; writing; schemes, diagrams, maps and mechanical drawings; all sorts of conventional signs and so on" (Vigotsky, 1981, p. 137 as cited in John-Steiner & Mahn, p. 193).

“Casting lots, tying knots, and counting fingers” (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 127 as cited in Kozulin, 2002, p. 19).

“Various systems for counting; mnemonic techniques; algebraic symbol systems; works of art; writing; schemes, diagrams, maps, and mechanical drawings; all sorts or conventional signs, and so on” (Vygotsky, 1981, p. 137 in Cole & Wertsch, ¶ The Primacy of Cultural Mediation).

“Our studies show that the child has little motivation to learn writing when we begin to teach it. [He or she] feels no need for it, and has only a vague idea of its usefulness. In conversation [however,] every sentence is prompted by a motive. Desire or need lead to request, question to answer, bewilderment to explanation.” (Zygotsky, 1986, p. 181) in Doolittle, 1997, p. 94).

Lower order to higher order thinking

"For children who used signs and auxiliary operations, the task required not memory so much as the ability to create new connections or new structures. It required a rich imagination and sometimes well developed forms of thinking. That is, the task required the use of psychological qualitities that are not essential to direct remembering. (Vygotsky, 1987, p. 308 as cited in Robbins, p. 51).

"to think is to remember for the young child, for the adolescent to remember is to think" (Vygotsky, 1987, p. 309 as cited in Robbins p. 52).

“We believe that the two processes—the development of spontaneous and of nonspontaneous concepts—are related and constantly influence each other. They are parts of a single process: the development of concept formation which affected by varying external and internal conditions but is essentially a unitary process, not a conflict of antagonistic, mutually exclusive forms of thinking” (Vygotsky, 1986, p. 157 as cited in John-Steiner & Mahn).

Zone of Proximal Development

“The zone of proximal development defines those functions that have not yet matured but are in the process of maturation, functions that will mature tomorrow but are currently in an embryonic state. These functions could be termed the “buds” or “flowers” of development rather than the “fruits” of development” (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 86 as cited in Doolittle,1995, p. 3).

“The distance between the actual developmental level as determined through independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers” (Zygotsky, 1978, p. 86) in John-Steiner p. 198

“What lies in the zone of proximal development at one stage is realized and moves to the level of actual development at a second. In other words, what the child is able to do in collaboration today he or she will be able to do independently tomorrow” (Vygotsky, 1987, p. 211 as cited in Doolittle, 1997, p. 85).

Instructional Design/Instructor Role and Socio-cultural Theory

Doolittle(1997) used Vygoskian’s sociocultural theory as the foundation for cooperative learning. Relevancy of learning activities had roots in Vygotsky’s perspective that reading and writing situations should be situated in “purposeful and meaningful uses of language” (Doolittle, p. 87). Cooperative learning included teacher and other students which was supported by Vygotsky’s perspective that learning occurs “through interactions with others” (Doolittle, p. 87). The actual and potential development within the zone of proximal development was applied in relation to assessment; “Teachers need to monitor students in coooperative groups closely for two main reasons: first, to insure that each student is being sufficiently challenged (that is, to see that students are given tasks that lie within their zones of proximal development), and second, to determine that each student is learning the intended material” (Doolittle, p. 95). In 1995, Doolittle wrote that each child has his/her own zone of proximal development for each social context, and the teacher’s role was to present stimulating activities and provide resources within this zone of proximal development. As for cooperative learning, the social skills are the “socio-cultural signs and tools to mediate and navigate their interactions with others” (Doolittle, 1995, p. 17).

Hung and Nichani (2002) examined learning clubs, learning communities, and communities of practice from a Vygotskian perspective. The following excerpt describes the instructor’s role in teaching and designing. The essential role of education therefore is to facilitate construction of knowledge through experiential, contextual and social methods in real-world environments. The learning environment should reproduce the key aspects of community of practice: authentic activities sequenced in complexity, multiple experiences and examples of knowledge application, access to experts and a social context in which learners collaborate on knowledge construction. The focus is on the learner: education should be conceptualized as a learning process rather than a teaching process. … The teacher is a coach, who provides guidance that gradually decreases, as learners become more proficient and who, models, mediates, diagnoses, and scaffolds (¶ Communities of Practice).

Hung and Nichani (2002) claim that Networks and telecommunication technologies can now bridge the divide between real communities of practice and school-base communities” (¶ Implications for Schools and Classrooms). They contend that a close alignment of class and practice can be facilitated by these technologies and is necessary to learn the genuine skills and knowledge of the practice area.

Kozulin (2002) did a critical appraisal of the mediational approach to learning and appraised using Vygotsky’s Sociocultural Theory. Examples of human mediation provided by Kozulin were modelling, providing feedback, and scaffolding.. Vygotsky identified mediating tools such as “casting lots, tying knots, and counting fingers” (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 127 as cited in Kozulin), and Kozulin described higher order mediating tools, such as signs, writing, formulae, and graphic organizers which he considered to be cognitive tools.

Technology and Distributed Learning: An Application of Socio-cultural Theory

Hall (2007) designed an online faculty professional development course, Designing an Online Activity, using Vygotsky’s socio-cultural learning theory to inform the design. Pre-teaching included a teaching note on student-centered learning. “This pre-teaching task followed Vygotsky’s concept of the importance of teaching concepts before they are used in activities, and that this should focus on concepts not on content” (p. 103). An interactive group activity was planned which included scaffolding (prescribed topics) and guidance from an expert. Individuals contributed to a group wiki to develop understanding, and students were encouraged to edit group members’ contributions. A group chat was incorporated so learners could start to use the psychological tool (scientific concept) more competently; instructor support was not provided, but each member supported one another in tool use. Learners discussed an authentic problem. The final activity was an individual activity to assess what level of learning was achieved in the zone of proximal development.


Cole, M. & Wertsch, J. V. (no date). Beyond the individual-social antimony in discussions of Piaget and Vygotsky. Retrieved February 14, 2008, from

Doolittle, P. E. (1995). Understanding cooperative learning through Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development. Paper presented at the Lilly National Conference on excellence in College Teaching, Columbia, South Carolina.

Doolittle, P. E. (1997). Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development as a theoretical foundation for cooperative learning. Excellence in College Teaching, 8(1), 83-103. Hall, A. (2007). Vygotsky goes online: Learning design from a socio-cultural perspective. Retrieved February 14, 208, from

Hung, D. & Nichani, M. R. (2002). Bringing communities of practice into schools: Implications for Instructional technologies from Vygotskian perspectives. International Journal of Instructional Media, 29(2), 171-183.

John-Steiner, V. & Mahn, H. (1996). Sociocultural approaches to learning and development: A Vygotskian framework. Educational Psychologist, 31(3), 191-206.

Kozulin, A. (2002). Sociocultural theory and the mediated learning experience. School Psychology International, 23(1), 7-35.

McLoughlin, C. & Oliver, R. (1998). Maximising the language and learning link in computer learning environments. British Journal of Educational Technology, 29(2), 125-136.

Robbins, J. (2007). Young children thinking and talking: Using sociocultural theory for multi-layered analysis. Retrieved February 14, 2008, from

See Also

Online Master of Education Program in Curriculum, Education, and Technology Reform, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

Learning and socio-cultural theory: Exploring modern Vygotskian perspectives conference. (2007). Conference papers. Research online. University of Wollongong, Australia. Thirteen conference peer-reviewed papers in Volume 1, issue 1.

Rogoff, B. (2003). The cultural nature of human development. Parts of the book online.,M1

Description of Michael Cole’s artifacts and artifact-mediated action.