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

Vygotsky and 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 affect how learning takes place.

According to Vygotsky, children are born with basic biological constraints on their minds. Each culture, however, provides "tools of intellectual adaptation." These tools allow children to use their 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, another might use tools like reminders or rote memorization.

Piaget vs. Vygotsky: Key Differences

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 is that while Piaget's theory suggests that development is largely universal, Vygotsky asserts 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.

In his text, "Social and Personality Development," 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.

The Zone of Proximal Development

An important concept in sociocultural theory is known as the zone of proximal development. According to Vygotsky, this "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, 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.

Practical Applications for Vygotsky's Sociocultural Theory

Sociocultural theory has gained popularity in recent years, particularly in educational settings. Here's how this theory can be put into practice in the real world.

In the Classroom

Understanding the zone of proximal development can be helpful for teachers. In classroom settings, teachers may first assess students to determine their current skill level. 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 a more knowledgeable peer, but eventually, their zone of proximal development will expand. Teachers can help promote this expansion by:

  • Planning and organizing 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. 
  • Using hints, prompts, and direct instruction to help kids improve their ability levels.
  • Scaffolding, where the teacher provides specific prompts to move the child progressively forward toward a goal.

In Socialization and Play

Vygotsky's theory also stressed the importance of play in learning. Teachers and parents can use 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 foster learning include imaginary play, role-playing, games, and reenactments of real events. Such activities help promote the growth of abstract thought.

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4 Sources
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  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.

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Additional Reading
  • Shaffer DR. Social and Personality Development. Wadsworth, 2009.