Sociocultural Theory of Cognitive Development

Sociocultural theory is an emerging theory in psychology that looks at the important contributions that society makes to individual development. This theory stresses the interaction between developing people and the culture in which they live. Sociocultural theory also suggests that human learning is largely a social process.

Sociocultural theory of development
Illustration by Brianna Gilmartin, Verywell

An Introduction to Sociocultural Theory

Sociocultural theory grew from the work of seminal psychologist Lev Vygotsky, who believed that parents, caregivers, peers, and the culture at large were responsible for developing higher-order functions.

According to Vygotsky, learning has its basis in interacting with other people. Once this has occurred, the information is then integrated on the individual level:

Vygotsky was a contemporary of other great thinkers such as Freud, Skinner, and Piaget, but his early death at age 37 and the suppression of his work in Stalinist Russia left him in relative obscurity until fairly recently. As his work became more widely published, his ideas have grown increasingly influential in areas including child development, cognitive psychology, and education.

Sociocultural theory focuses not only how adults and peers influence individual learning, but also on how cultural beliefs and attitudes impact how instruction and learning take place.

According to Vygotsky, children are born with basic biological constraints on their minds. Each culture, however, provides what he referred to as 'tools of intellectual adaptation.' These tools allow children to use their basic mental abilities in a way that is adaptive to the culture in which they live. For example, while one culture might emphasize memory strategies such as note-taking, other cultures might utilize tools like reminders or rote memorization.

Piaget vs. Vygotsky: Key Differences

So how does Vygotsky's sociocultural theory differ from Piaget's theory of cognitive development?

First, Vygotsky placed a greater emphasis on how social factors influence development. While Piaget's theory stressed how a child's interactions and explorations influenced development, Vygotsky stressed the essential role that social interactions play in cognitive development.

Another important difference between the two theories was that while Piaget's theory suggests that development is largely universal, Vygotsky suggested that cognitive development can differ between different cultures. The course of development in Western culture, for example, might be different than it is in Eastern culture.

The Zone of Proximal Development

An important concept in sociocultural theory is known as the zone of proximal development.

According to Vygotsky, the zone of proximal development "is the distance between the actual development level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem-solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers."

Essentially, it includes all of the knowledge and skills that a person cannot yet understand or perform on their own yet but is capable of learning with guidance. As children are allowed to stretch their skills and knowledge, often by observing someone who is slightly more advanced than they are, they are able to progressively extend this zone of proximal development.

Observations About Social Learning Theory

In his text, "Social and Personality Development," author David R. Shaffer explains that while Piaget believed that cognitive development was fairly universal, Vygotsky believed that each culture presents unique differences. Because cultures can vary so dramatically, Vygotsky's sociocultural theory suggests that both the course and content of intellectual development are not as universal as Piaget believed.

Practical Applications for Vygotsky's Sociocultural Theory

Sociocultural theory has gained popularity in recent years, particularly in educational settings. Some examples of how this theory can be put into practice in the real world:

In the Classroom

Understanding the levels of the zone of proximal development can be helpful for teachers. In classroom settings, teachers may first assess students to determine their current skill level. Once this has been ascertained, educators can then offer instruction that stretches the limits of each child's capabilities. At first, the student may need assistance from an adult or more knowledgeable peer, but eventually, their zone of proximal development will expand. 

  • Teachers can plan their instruction and lessons. For example, the teacher might organize the class into groups where less skilled children are paired with students who have a higher skill level. 
  • Hints, prompts, and direct instruction can be used to help kids improve their ability levels.
  • Educators might also utilize the concept of scaffolding, where the teacher provides prompts to move the child progressively forward toward a goal.

Socializing and Play

Vygotsky's theory also stressed the importance of play in learning. Teachers and parents can utilize this knowledge by providing children plenty of opportunities for play experiences. Vygotsky believed that through playing and imagining, children were able to further stretch their conceptual abilities and knowledge of the world. 

Types of play that can further learn include imaginary play, role-playing, games, and reenactments of real events. Such activities help foster the growth of abstract thought.

Was this page helpful?

Article Sources

Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial policy to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Forman EA, Kraker MJ. The social origins of logic: the contributions of Piaget and Vygotsky. New Dir Child Dev. 1985;(29):23-39.

  2. Meijer J, Elshout JJ. The predictive and discriminant validity of the zone of proximal development. Br J Educ Psychol. 2001;71(Pt 1):93-113.

  3. Sanders D, Welk DS. Strategies to scaffold student learning: applying Vygotsky's Zone of Proximal Development. Nurse Educ. 2005;30(5):203-7. doi:10.1097/00006223-200509000-00007

  4. van Oers, B., & Duijkers, D. (2012). Teaching in a play-based curriculum: Theory, practice and evidence of developmental education for young children. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 44, 1–24. doi:10.1080/00220272.2011.637182

Additional Reading

  • Shaffer, D. R. (2009). Social and Personality Development. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.