Julia Scherba de Valenzuela, Ph.D.
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Sociocultural Theory

Current conceptualizations of sociocultural theory draw heavily on the work of Vygotsky (1986), as well as later theoreticians (see, for example, Wertsch, 1991, 1998). According to Tharp and Gallimore (1988) "This view [the sociocultural perspective] has profound implications for teaching, schooling, and education. A key feature of this emergent view of human development is that higher order functions develop out of social interaction. Vygotsky argues that a child's development cannot be understood by a study of the individual. We must also examine the external social world in which that individual life has developed...Through participation in activities that require cognitive and communicative functions, children are drawn into the use of these functions in ways that nurture and 'scaffold' them" (pp. 6-7). Kublin et al (1998) succinctly state that "Vygotsky (1934/1986) described learning as being embedded within social events and occurring as a child interacts with people, objects, and events in the environment" (p. 287).

Considering the contributions to sociocultural theory to understanding the development of communication, Adamson and Chance (1998) argued that

    ...There are two particularly noteworthy aspects to a Vygotskian approach to social interactions. First, it is fundamentally cultural. Caregivers are agents of culture (Trevarthen, 1988) who set an infant's nascent actions within an intimate setting that is deeply informed by the caregiver's cultural knowledge. Caregivers cannot help but view infants' expressions as meaningful within the human sphere of their own culture. Infants, in complement, are quintessential cultural apprentices who seek the guided participation of their elders (Rogoff, 1990).
    Second, the notion of a zone of proximal development reveals a pattern of developmental change in which a phase of adult support precedes a phase of independent infant accomplishment. Each cycle begins with a newly displayed behavior, such as a smile, a visually directed reach, or a babble. The adult's reaction and interpretations transform the infant's emerging behavior into a social act. In essence, the child induces the adult to recruit the act for communication (Bakeman, Adamson, Konner, & Barr, in press). After many experiences of supported expression, the child gradually masters an action that is qualified with cultural meaning. The act has passed through the zone of proximal development during which the adult has educated the child in its use. (p. 21)
Clearly, sociocultural theory is much more complex than this brief description might lead one to believe. Nonetheless, the aspects described above are important components to consider when examining the communicative and cognitive development of learners. Below are a few links to websites with more information on Vygotsky and sociocultural theory:

http://www.gwu.edu/~tip/vygotsky.html
http://www.oise.utoronto.ca/~gwells/NCTE.html
http://carbon.cudenver.edu/~mryder/itc_data/constructivism.html

References:
Adamson, L. B., & Chance, S. E. (1989). Coordinating attention to people, objects, and language. In A. M. Wetherby, S. F. Warren, & J. Reichle (Eds.), Transitions in prelinguistic communication  (pp. 15-38). Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes.

Kublin, K. S., Wetherby, A. M., Crais, E. R., & Prizant, B. M. (1989). Prelinguistic dynamic assessment: A transactional perspective. In A. M. Wetherby, S. F. Warren, & J. Reichle (Eds.), Transitions in prelinguistic communication  (pp. 285-312). Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes.

Tharp, R. G., & Gallimore, R. (1988). Rousing minds to life: Teaching, learning, and schooling in social context. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.
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Vygotsky, L. (1986). Thought and language. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
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Wertsch, J. V. (1991). Voices of the mind: A sociocultural approach to mediated action. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
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Wertsch, J. V. (1998). Mind as action. New York: Oxford University Press.
 
 


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Last updated: July 30, 2002