Vygotsky’s Sociocultural Theory

The field of child development has recently seen a dramatic increase in research demonstrating that development and culture are closely interwoven. The contributions of Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky (1896–1934) and his followers have played a major role in this trend. Although Vygotsky proposed his ideas in the 1920s and early 1930s, they remained virtually unknown in North America until the 1980s, when questioning of Piaget’s theory spurred psychologists and educators to search for alternative approaches to understanding cognitive development.


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Vygotsky’s (1934/1987) perspective, commonly referred to as sociocultural theory, focuses on how culture—the values, beliefs, customs, and skills of a social group—is transmitted to the next generation. According to Vygotsky, social interaction—in particular, cooperative dialogues with more knowledgeable members of society—is necessary for children to acquire the ways of thinking and behaving that make up a community’s culture. Vygotsky (1934/1987) believed that as adults and more expert peers help children master culturally meaningful activities, the communication between them becomes part of children’s thinking. As children internalize features of these dialogues, they can use the language within them to guide their own thoughts and actions and to acquire new skills. The young child instructing herself while working a puzzle or preparing a table for dinner has begun to produce the same kinds of guiding comments that an adult previously used to help her master important tasks.


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