Understanding the Sociocultural Perspective

Enhance your understanding of basic principles and best teaching practices as they are viewed through a sociocultural lens.

By Ann Whittemore

Two young boys waiting at a stoplight

What is Sociocultural Perspective?

From the 1920s until his death in 1934, Lev Vygotsky conducted many studies on child development and the learning process from a linguistic and social point of view. His studies lead to a series of assumptions that are the basis of the sociocultural perspective. He emphasized the importance of society and culture as a primary mode of, or mediator for, the learning process. Adults, cultural collateral, and society all play a major role in how a child conceptualizes, categorizes, and applies meaning to new information or experiences. There are five main assumptions that have come to define the sociocultural perspective:                                   

  • Adults convey the ways in which children should interpret and respond to the world; this is done through formal and informal conversation. Adults mediate meanings through language, art, symbolism, literature, and music. They assign emphasis and meaning to each according to cultural or societal norms.
  • Every culture provides physical and cognitive tools to make daily life productive and efficient. These tools differ from culture to culture and are given more or less significance depending on the culture.
  • Language and thought become more independent in the first few years of life. As thought and language emerge, the child goes through a process to develop these skills, beginning with self-talk, then inner speech, and finally internalization which is the process by which a child understands language from an adult and then internalizes it as a part of himself.
  • Children are able to perform difficult tasks when they are assisted by a more advanced individual.  This differentiated by a child’s actual developmental level and the level of potential development when assisted by an adult or more competent individual.
  • Challenging tasks promote or increase cognitive growth. This is typically known and the ZPD or zone of proximal development. This is the space between the child’s actual development and his potential development with support, scaffolds, and adult intervention.
  • Play allows children to strengthen and grow in cognition. Play is a medium in which children entertain the notions of culture and society as well as develop linguistic mastery. They stretch themselves as they imitate the adults around them; they begin to facilitate their own understanding of the world as it has been portrayed by those they observe.

What Does this Mean for the Classroom?

The Vygotskian Theory in the classroom has teachers engage learners in tasks that they can complete successfully on their own, tasks with minimal assistance, and some that would require assistance. As a teacher, you would provide scaffolding which allows the child to become more proficient. Group work or collaborative learning is key in a sociocultural classroom. It offers students the opportunity to work together to problem solve, develop linguistically, and complete multifaceted tasks they may not be able to do on their own. Learners should be engaged in activities similar to the activities of the adults in their culture. Provide them with an opportunity to role play. This enables learners to engage in tasks they see adults do, which can be an intrinsic motivator as well as an organic mode of understanding the world around them. Debates, writing environmental protection letters, school newspapers, playing house, cooking; all of these things engage children socially and linguistically while also challenging them academically.

Why Use a Sociocultural Perspective?

A sociocultural perspective is completely organic; it works within the normal perimeters of the child/adult relationship. Here is an example. A child and her mother are standing at the corner. The light is red, the mother points to the red hand, puts her hand up and explains, “This means stop. The red hand means stop. We can’t cross the street until we see the green walking man.” The small child puts her hand up, mimicking her mother, and says, “Red stop.” When the light turns green the mother points to the green man and says, “We can walk now, see the green man.” The child responds and says, “Green man.”

The mother has mediated the learning experience through verbal, gestural, and symbolic ways. She has conveyed a social norm (rule) as well as taught the child green, red, and crossing the street. This is how we learn. We listen, mimic, practice, and then try it on our own. We use the assistance of the masters or adults around us to help us accomplish more than we are able to complete alone. Think about how you teach children in your classroom. Your natural inclination is to show them how to do something, break the task up into digestible bits, give guidance and structure to their practice, ask thought-provoking questions, and allow the students to arrive at the solution on their own. It is very similar to the mother and the child crossing the street. I like to think of the apprentice/master relationship. The master shows, coaches, models, and allows the apprentices to take on increasingly difficult tasks as they develop. The sociocultural perspective allows for organic growth linguistically, socially, and cognitively while mediating through a child’s existing culture and development.