1.2 Vygotsky's Sociocultural Learning Theory

“What a child can do with assistance today she will be able to do by herself tomorrow.”

— Lev Vygotsky1

Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky’s (1896-1934) sociocultural learning theory emphasizes the role of social interactions with parents, caregivers, and peers in cognitive development.

Key Concepts from Vygotsky's Sociocultural Learning Theory

Excerpt from LIS 516: Youth Development and Behavior in a Digital Age by Dr. Katie Davis and the University of Washington


Dr. Katie Davis, University of Washington

Cognitive Tools
Cognitive tools help us learn. Cognitive tools are anything that helps a child process information: things like maps, clocks, books, music, mnemonic devices, etc. They help learners form meaning and understanding.Before facilitating a meeting of the robotics club, Jacqui prepares a “cheat sheet” with examples and explanations of basic concepts. 
Zone of Proximal Development
The Zone of Proximal Development is the “sweet spot” for learning. The “ZPD” exists in between the range of tasks that a young person can perform on their own, and those they can only do with significant help. For example, a teen struggling to learn how to code can be supported by mentors or peers who guide her in solving problems. Through this scaffolding, she gains more confidence and advances her skills.At a meeting of the robotics club, Mateo is struggling to program his robot. He knows how to make it do simple tasks, but he wants to do something far more advanced. Mateo is trying to move from a task he has mastered to one that is outside of his abilities--in other words, he is trying to move through a “ZPD” by himself. 
Other people support learning through social scaffolding. Like the temporary platforms used by builders during the construction of a building, social scaffolding is the provision of “just in time” cognitive tools and support to help a learner move to a new stage of mastery. Scaffolding can come from adults or peers, or from other sources like online forums or web searches.Jane, another participant, notices Mateo’s frustration and shows him a similar program that she is working on. With the help of Jane’s example, Mateo is able to figure out how to make his own robot do new things. 


Blogger and former teacher JoEllen describes her personal experience with scaffolding and the ZPD in this excerpt from her cuppacocoa blog. She describes how she learned to parallel park: “It wasn’t until a friend sat in my car and gave me the crucial tip to wait until the side-view mirror lined up just so with the parked car in front, that I finally figured it out. He got in the driver’s seat and showed me, and then he then sat in the passenger’s seat and coached me while I tried again...

I was in the zone of proximal development for parallel parking. There was a good amount of driving technique I had down, but I needed some coaching to get parallel parking down. A friend was there, he saw what I was doing, knew how to fix it, and showed me the way.”

Read the rest of her post, The Zone of Proximal Development.

Scaffolding Explained


Alberta Education

Putting sociocultural learning theory into practice

“I really like group tasks. I like breaking people up into teams, I love the idea of peer-mentoring… That’s a great way to start building community.”

— Librarian at an urban western library

Vygotsky’s sociocultural learning theory can be seen in the relationships and shared purpose principles of connected learning. Social scaffolding strategies include:

  • Showing or demonstrating techniques and activities, not just describing them2
  • Connecting learning to prior knowledge by asking youth to share their ideas and experiences2
  • Encouraging youth to learn from each other through group discussions and projects
  • Providing opportunities for peer feedback


What new possibilities for “cognitive tools” have emerged for young people in the digital age? Have any types of cognitive tools fallen out of use in the past few decades?


Vygotsky focused on learning that takes place through:

  • Role models
  • Social interaction
  • Repetition and practice
  • Focused attention

The “zone of proximal development” refers to:

  • Activities the learner has mastered
  • Activities the learner can do when supported by scaffolding
  • Activities the learner cannot achieve on their own
  • Vygotsky focused on learning that takes place through social interaction.
  • The “zone of proximal development” refers to activities the learner can do when supported by scaffolding

1: Interaction Between Learning and Development by Lev Vygotsy, 1978.

2: 6 Scaffolding Strategies to Use With Your Students, by Rebecca Alber. Edutopia, 2014.