Socio-Cultural Theory


Social Development Theory
Sociocultural Theory


Problematizing the divide between individual learning/development and cultural knowledge/development

Principal Metaphors

  • Knowledge is … scope of externalized actions and interpretations
  • Knowing is … doing (i.e., appropriate action in a situation)
  • Learner is … a cultural apprentice (social actor in cultural context)
  • Learning is … participating (i.e., internalizing culturally appropriate identifications and competencies)
  • Teaching is … modeling (i.e., acting as a more-expert agent while involving learners in culturally relevant experiences)




Socio-Cultural Theory opens with the assertion that what is learnable begins as externalized possibilities, which learners gradually internalize through imitation of others, rehearsal with others, and other modes of participation in culturally relevant activities. Social interaction is thus stressed as prior and fundamental to cognition. That is, consciousness and cognition are understood as products of socialization. Hence, through their modeling and feedback, social actors such as parents, relatives, peers, and teachers play important roles in shaping and enabling one’s cognitive abilities. The learner’s situation – which comprises cultural beliefs and traditions, tools and other technologies, webs of relationship, and so on – are also of key importance in any discussion of knowledge, learning, and teaching. Commencing in the 1990s, some prominent principles of Socio-Cultural Theory that were originally authored by Lev. S. Vygotsky have been developed into major subdiscourses, including:
  • Make-Believe Play – Pretending and role play afford opportunities to test and practice wide arrays of culturally appropriate skills and identities while developing understandings of the inner dynamics of complex social situations.
  • Mediated Action (James Wertsch, 1990s) is a notion that encompasses knowers’ engagements with (i.e., incidental encounters with, deliberate uses of, etc.) all varieties of tools (both physical and conceptual) to support their actions (i.e., thinking, communications, coordinated activity, etc.). A complexified notion, Mediated Action is understood to have multiple simultaneous goals and to be associated with power and authority.
  • Private Speech – Children talking to themselves is seen as a starting point for developing sophisticated internalized thought and higher forms of consciousness, and thus an important element in learning settings. Associated constructs include:
    • Inner Speech (Inner Language) – internalized Verbal Thought – that is, speaking to oneself without vocalizing
    • Verbal Thought – reasoned thought that requires language. It begins by speaking out loud and is only gradually internalized.
  • Psychological Tools – culturally manifest means that enable sophisticated thought, including language, alphabets, numbers, mathematical symbol systems, geometric forms, technical drawings, and so on
  • Scaffolding (Responsive Teaching)  The ZPD (described below) is the basis of the teaching strategy of Scaffolding, which was articulated by Jerome Bruner and others. It refers to those prompts and supports offered by a more-knowledgeable other that, in the presence of that other, expand the range of personal knowing.
  • Tools of Intellectual Adaptation – strategies of thought, reason, and retention that children develop through their interactions with more-expert others
  • Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) – Learners are capable of more sophisticated action and thought when in the presence of a more-knowledgeable expert. The ZPD is that broadened range of immediate possibility.
Some of the theory’s close relatives offer more focused advice on matters of modeling, apprenticeship, collaboration, group work, and class discussion, including:
  • Socio-Constructivist Theory (W. Doise & G. Mugny, 1980s) – a model focused on the entanglement of individual understanding and collective possibility, highlighting that individual cognitive development in enabled in group settings … which, in turn, renders those social interactions more sophisticated … which, in turn increases individual development … and so on.
  • Zone of Reflective Capacity (R. Tinsley & K. Lebak, 2000s) – an adaptation of the Zone of Proximal Development (see above), applied to adult’s capacities for reflecting on and elaborating what is learned through extended collaborations with similarly minded peers.


Socio-Cultural Theory fills in some blanks left by learning theories that focus on individual cognition. For example, it offers an account of how human knowledge is not only perpetuated from one generation to the next, but how it evolves and gets elaborated. That said, with its focus on the enculturation of the situated knower, Socio-Cultural Theory is not especially concerned with the complexities and dynamics of internal cognitive processes. Consequently, it offers useful insight into how individuals with very different personal histories can arrive at deeply compatible understandings of the world. However, it provides limited insight into the converse: how individuals with very similar personal histories can have fundamentally incompatible world views. As such, among educationists, it is often considered an important complement to Radical Constructivism or other theories focused on individual cognition.

Authors and/or Prominent Influences

Lev S. Vygotsky

Status as a Theory of Learning

Socio-Cultural Theory is a theory of learning.

Status as a Theory of Teaching

Socio-Cultural Theory is not a theory of teaching. However, because it is focused on human interactivity in cultural settings, it offers some immediately useful advice on formatting and engaging in educational action (As discussed in the Synopsis, above).

Status as a Scientific Theory

Socio-Cultural Theory meets all our criteria for a scientific theory of learning.


  • Inner Speech (Inner Language)
  • Make-Believe Play
  • Mediated Action
  • Private Speech
  • Psychological Tools
  • Scaffolding (Responsive Teaching)
  • Socio-Constructivist Theory
  • Tools of Intellectual Adaptation
  • Verbal Thought
  • Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD)
  • Zone of Reflective Capacity

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2023). “Socio-Cultural Theory” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

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