Sociocultural theory emphasizes the role that social relations play in an individual’s development. Vygotsky is credited with defining sociocultural theory and postulating the concept of More Knowledgeable Others (MKOs).
MKOs are people in the lives of the developing child, such as parents, teachers, and role models, that have more experience and shape the child’s development.
By extension, an individual’s values and beliefs are also influenced by social groups, religious institutions, the media and culture.
Although Vygotsky only lived a short while, his ideas have had a tremendous impact on educational psychology.
Sociocultural Theory Definition
Sociocultural theory emphasizes how learning and development are mediated by social interactions.
Here are two scholarly definitions:
- Definition 1: “[Sociocultural theory’] emphasizes the influence of social interaction and culture in development. According to Vygotsky, social interaction leads to changes in children’s thinking.” (Salkind, 2004, p. 279)
- Definition 2: “The sociocultural approach draws attention to the role played by cultural tools and signs in mediating thinking and intelligent action.” (Benson & Haith, 2010, p. 520)
According to this theory’s logic, a learner in the United States is likely to learn information in a different order and at a different pace to a learner in a traditional Indigenous African culture:
- American children might learn how to sit, wait in lines, and cross roads very quickly
- Traditional indigenous African children might be much more adept at hunting and curing meat at a very young age. As a result, their cognitive and physical development may diverge from the American child’s.
That is not to say one would be smarter than another; but their skillsets may develop at different times in life. There are, of course, pros and cons of each path; and both paths are strongly influenced by their cultural contexts.
Sociocultural Theory Examples
- Kids these days: In the 1980s, children played on the streets until dark. Today, children are rarely allowed to leave adult supervision. There is an argument that ‘kids back then’ were more independent, less coddled, and more self-confident at a much younger age.
- Digital natives: There is a perception that children who grow up in tech-connected homes have a natural ability to use technology, while ‘digital immigrants’ who learn technology at a later age never seem to be able to catch up (this theory is largely debunked).
- Kids with scissors: A child in America doesn’t learn to handle scissors until age 7 because it’s considered too dangerous. By age 7, a child in the developing world already has excellent dexterity in using blades to cut up meat for dinner.
- Single child social development: A single child has remarkable ability to communicate with adults because she spent her whole life playing with adults. Down the street, a child with five siblings seems incapable of interacting with adults but is much better at making friends in childhood.
- Academic vs street smarts: A family is very strict with their children and instils the values of discipline and hard work. They believe tough parenting leads to successful offspring. The child grows up to be very good at academic topics, but struggles with street smarts.
- Religious and spiritual development: The Williams family goes to church every Sunday morning. They listen intently to the sermons and make a habit of repeating Bible verses during the week. Their child develops a sense of Christian spirituality that feels very natural to them; but seems strange to children who do not grow up in a religious context.
- Developing respect for the environment at a young age: Children in the Amazon rainforest are taught about the spirits that exist in all living things and that they should respect the environment they share with those living things.
- Alternative medicine beliefs: A family in the Far East drinks green tea and practices Tai Chi to maintain their physical and mental health.
- Learning caste discrimination: Teenagers in a certain country are raised to believe that social classes do not mix and they should only marry someone in the same demographic group as themselves.
- Learning social norms: Standing in line and waiting your turn for service is considered very important in one country, while it is more common in another for customers to gather around the cashier and push their way to the front.
- The benefits of growing up with sports: The coach instills in her players a mentality of toughness and to never give up no matter what.
- Learning to share versus selfishness: A teacher explains the importance of sharing with others and encourages his students to be kind and polite.
- Watching role models and copying them: A third-grader carefully watches how the teacher he admires talks to students when they make mistakes. He notices his gentle tone and tried to copy it in his own interactions.
- Learned community values: Billy has been sent to a school that is heavily involved in charity and helping the disadvantaged. He develops a strong sense of community commitment.
- Individualism versus collectivism: Children from the West grow up in a society that praises individualism, while the East praises collectivism. As a result, we can see societal differences in adults in terms of attitudes toward individual vs collective action.
- Working class skills: A child of a mechanic can change a car’s brakes by age 12, while his inner-city middle-class peer is much better at reading, but struggles at practical skills.
- Gendered development: A girl grows up in a strict society that says she should only learn homemaking skills. She’s excellent a fine motor skills required for sewing, but her reading ability is sadly stunted due to her culture’s restrictive beliefs.
- Excellent singer: A child of musicians is encouraged to express herself through dance and singing from an early age. Her parents teach her how to control her voice, and she finds singing very natural. A child down the street is never taught musical skills, and doesn’t develop the ability to sing until adulthood.
Go Deeper: Sociocultural Psychology 101
1. Homeschooling over Public Education
Sociocultural theory identifies schools as one of many key institutions that influence a child’s psychological development. Indeed, schools in many countries have taken on the responsibility of teaching students about a wide range of social issues.
Parents may not always agree with the values taught in those lessons. For this reason, homeschooling has seen an explosion in development for several decades.
Parents recognize the impact that schools can have, and they have decided that the best person to teach their children about certain social issues is the parent. Therefore, parents create their own lessons, complete with learning objectives, in-class assignments and activities, as well as homework.
By controlling the content of these lessons, parents can ensure that their children internalize the perspective they want them to have.
2. Work Culture
A work culture is an informal collection of attitudes and behavior related to the working environment. Many companies try to instill a very specific work culture so that all employees have a common mindset.
Every country has a different work culture as well. For example, in some countries, such as Japan, the work culture is quite strong. Employees are expected to work incredibly long hours and view the employer as a second family. Complete devotion to that family is a job requirement.
Unfortunately, this can lead to working so hard that some employees literally work themselves to death. It is so prevalent that the Japanese have a term for it: Karoshi.
That is in stark contrast to other cultures in which employees rarely arrive at work on-time, take two-hours off for lunch, and enjoy a minimum of 6 weeks of vacation every year.
From a sociocultural perspective, it is clear how impactful society can be in shaping the individual’s work customs.
3. Gender Roles
There may be no better example of how culture can influence psychological development than the definition of gender roles. Not only are there stark differences among countries, but even within a single country those roles can change dramatically over time.
For example, in some Western cultures such as the U. S., gender roles have changed dramatically over the last 100+ years. At one time in history, men and women worked equally hard in the fields when the country had an agricultural economy.
Then the industrial revolution created a separation of duties, which was later reversed during World War I and II. The 1950s ushered in a very rigid definition of gender roles that once again designated men as the workers in society and women responsible for child-rearing.
Those roles have now changed again, with more women holding top executive positions, including CEO of some of the world’s largest corporations.
However, in some other countries, gender roles are still quite rigidly defined and women have far less freedom to pursue their individual dreams.
This is an example of how culture shapes gender roles and affects the psychological development of both men and women.
Go Deeper: Gender Roles Examples
4. Teacher Guidance
A teacher is considered a more knowledgeable other (MKO) in Vygotsky’s sociocultural theory. They interact with and guide children each and every day and have a substantial impact on a child’s development.
In fact, teachers spend nearly as much time with children as they do with their own parents. Teachers not only teach children about math and science, and reading and writing, but they also have a tremendous influence on their social and personality development.
Especially in the context of preschool and early years education, children learn how to regulate their emotions and get along with others from teachers.
From Vygotsky’s sociocultural perspective, teachers play a central role in the psychosocial development of human beings for many of their most formative years (that’s why they get paid so well).
5. Legos Make Great Porridge
It is important to point out that sociocultural influences are not unidirectional. The developing child also interacts with the environment and shapes its meaning through an existing filter of their unique personality and previous life experiences.
For example, in this video, we see students have created a slowmation video of teddy bears making porridge. Their understanding of how porridge is made is not delivered straight from society in a complete vacuum.
As the teacher explains: “Children bring to their imaginary situation their own life experiences of making porridge.”
There is an interplay of information from society and the child’s unique background. These factors are in a continuous state of reciprocating influence.
During these moments the child is negotiating a combination of sociocultural data and their own perspective and desires. This negotiation results in the kind of creative expression that only children can generate.
Key sociocultural theorists include:
- Lev Vygotsky: The father of the theory, Vygotsky came up with concepts like the Zone of Proximal Development and the More Knowledgeable Other.
- Jerome Bruner: Bruner came up with the concept of scaffolding, which emphasized the role of teachers and parents in helping extend children’s learning and development.
- Barbra Rogoff: Showed how children in different cultures develop at different paces, which challenges Piaget’s stage-based view of development. She came up with the term ‘cognitive apprenticeships’ to explain how we learn from our MKOs and culture.
- Bronfenbrenner: Highlights the importance of family, friends, community, teachers, church, society, and culture in influencing development. Bronfenbrenner came up with the ecological systems theory which shows the most to least influential social factors for a child.
- Lave and Wegner: Came up with situated learning theory, a theory that emphasizes the value of learning within social contexts, such as in the workplace or in authentic learning environments.
Sociocultural Theory (Vygotsky) vs Developmental Theories (Piaget)
Piaget believes children develop in distinct stages. All children move through these stages at roughly the same pace.
The sociocultural theory diverges from Piaget’s cognitive developmental theory because it sees social interaction as influential in speeding up, changing, slowing down, and adapting the path of a child’s development.
Sociocultural theory explains that children develop psychologically as a result of their interactions with the others in their world. Parents, teachers, peers and MKOs all have a profound effect on the developing child.
Societal institutions such as religious organizations and political parties are also highly influential. At the same time, a nation’s work culture and media present other forces that shape a child’s development.
As the child interacts with these elements, they internalize the attitudes, values, and beliefs of those entities.
We can see how strong these influences can be by looking at the different gender roles and work cultures that exist throughout the world.
Benson, J. B., & Haith, M. M. (2010). Social and emotional development in infancy and early childhood. London: Academic Press.
Berk, L. (1994). Vygotsky’s theory: The importance of make-believe play. Young Children, 50(1), 30-38.
Bruner, J.S. (1983). Child’s talk: Learning to use language. Child Language Teaching and Therapy, 1, 111 – 114.
Irvin, M. (2017). The importance of play in early childhood education. Master’s Thesis and Capstone Project. Northwestern College: Orange City. Retrieved from https://nwcommons.nwciowa.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1067&context=education_masters
Salkind, N. J. (2004) An Introduction to Theories of Human Development. London: SAGE Publications.
Vygotsky, L. S. (1934/1986). Thought and Language. MIT Press.
Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological process. Harvard University Press.