Saheed A. Gbadegeshin, Bismark O. Appiah, Daniel Boateng & Marko Susimetsä
The sociocultural conception of man sees a person as the product of his or her environment. Whereas the biological conception of man stresses genetic heredity and the cognitive conception of man prioritises internal cognitive functions and information processing, the sociocultural conception of man focusses on the environmental and cultural factors. From their very birth, human beings begin to interact with their environment, first through the main senses, but later through language, texts and other kinds of media, as well as the communities and subcommunities that they participate in. All these interactions shape their thinking, including the language and communication methods that they learn. And because everyone even in the same culture has different kinds of experiences, we all shape up to become our own kinds of individuals.
Background of the Sociocultural Conception of Man
The sociocultural theory was propounded by psychologist Lev Vygotsky (1896–1934). Vygotsky had interest in developmental psychology and he focused on the learning process by understanding individual’s surrounding circumstances and how individual behaviours are shaped by the environment, social and cultural factors. More specifically, he tried to explain how individual and social processes were interdependent in learning and development.
Vygotsky’s sociocultural thinking was vastly different from the cognitivist school of thought with which it co-existed. Whereas cognitivists saw the individual cognitive development as the key to understanding learning and as a prerequisite for interacting with the world, Vygotsky saw that cognitive development happens first in the interpsychological plane – in interaction with other people – and is then internalised by the individual (Vygotsky, 1978). In short, the theory stresses the importance of the environment to individual cognitive growth, especially when it comes to language. Learning a language is not the result of cognitive development – it is the learning of language that develops cognition.
For example, the theories of linguistic relativity (linguistic determinism and linguistic influence) state that the structure and internal meanings of a language that we learn determine or at least shape and affect our ability to view and understand the world – our cognition. Put very simply, this means that if our language has many different words for snow and another language only has two or three words for it, we learn to see more variety in snow and we reinforce this ability in our culture by using all these different words and later by teaching the same language – the way of observing and interpreting our environment – to the next generation. Similarly, a farmer could look up at the sky and see weather patterns and signs of rain coming in later in the day, whereas a city-dweller might only see a sky and some clouds.
Vygotsky’s sociocultural theory is also discussed in relation to four aspects of human learning: human cognitive development, tools, Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) and community of practice. Mind denotes mental function of individuals which is socially distributed; thus, mind depends on social interaction and communication (van Lier, 2008). In fact, “learning, thinking and knowing are relations among people engaged in activity in, with, and arising from, the socially and culturally structured world” (Lave & Wenger, 2008, p. 51).. The tools serve as enablers that help mind and communications to move from social plane to psychological plane. Examples of tools are language and symbols. ZPD refers to distance between actual and potential performance levels. Lastly, community of practice is a process of being a member of a society. (van Lier, 2008)
In summary, the sociocultural theory explains that mental functioning of individual humans is associated with their culture, history and institution. Thus, this mental functioning depends on social interaction of the individuals with their surroundings, which are influenced by culture. Furthermore, the social participation enriches the psychological development of the individuals. This theory has three themes: individual development, human actions and examination of human development and actions. The first theme states that humans develop their mental functioning when they are in interaction with their environment. Thus, social environment is a primary source of such development. The second theme states that human actions are shaped by semiotics. Semiotics are tools and signs, which facilitate learning and understanding. Examples of semiotics are language, measurement or counting systems, mnemonic techniques, arts, writings, schemes, diagrams, maps and mechanical drawings. The last theme states that assessing the first two themes determines the progress of mental functioning in a social environment. The sociocultural theory posits that learning happens when people interact with their environment. (Cf. Rogoff, 1995; Alfred, 2002; Scott & Palincsar, 2006)
It should be noted that this cultural or linguistic determinism does not mean that every individual growing up in the same culture will become identical to each other. Rather, as Lemke notes:
Every community is heterogenous, and no individual learns and enacts all the roles in an institution. Cultures articulate across diverse subcommunities; they are never uniform or universally shared in their entirety among all or even most members […] Our individual ways of living and making meaning are different according to not only to which communities we have lived in, but also to which roles we chose or were assigned to by others – how we presented ourselves and how we were seen and treated by others. (Lemke, 2001)
Applications of Sociocultural Theory in Education
Teachers and educators need to have philosophical understanding of humanity and cultures and knowledge on different learning theories, pedagogical models and teaching methods. One of most popular approaches to learning today is constructivism. Although there exist multiple approaches to constructivism, the underlying theory “suggests that the ability of individuals to learn relies heavily on pre-existing knowledge and understanding, and the ways in which humans build on that knowledge” (Leicht, Heiss & Byun, 2018, p. 136). While the original concept is from Piaget’s cognitive research, Vygotsky’s (1978) sociocultural theory also sees knowledge accumulating on top of previous knowledge and goes even further by drawing our attention to the cultural historicity of this process: it is not only individuals who construct knowledge, but whole cultures and communities. This thinking has had a very strong effect on how we think about learning today and the sociocultural theory is cited as one of the theoretical basis for cooperative or collaborative work methods in classrooms.
In the following, we will first look at Vygotsky’s concept of the zone of proximal development in more depth and then review modern sociocultural theorists approaches to education.
Zone of Proximal Development
The concept of Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) was mentioned above, but it deserves a more in-depth discussion. In the sociocultural learning theory, the ZPD demonstrates construction of knowledge and draws attention to the importance of guidance. Vygotsky visualised his idea in three concentric circles: the innermost circle represents what a child can do unaided, the second circle what they can do with help or guidance and the outermost circle is completely beyond the learner’s skills. Vygotsky showed that it is important for teacher to challenge their students at the level of the second circle, the ZPD, and that this meant that they had to know the student’s present skills and abilities. Giving students tasks that they already know how to do will undermine their motivation and decrease their interest, while challenging them at too high a level will also demotivate them by making the goal seem unachievable. At the ZPD level, with proper support, referred to as scaffolding, the learners will still face a challenge, but it is not too much to discourage them.
Several authors have criticised the possibility of applying the ZPD in practice. Shayer (2002) argues that ZPD seems to be ineffective in language classrooms because it was used to only focus on individual verbal items or morphosyntactic elements as found in traditional grammar. Similarly, Matusoy and Hayes (2000) argue that ZPD is sometimes a social constraint. They explained that participation of an activity by a child who is not willing, or because of less knowledge, will be forced to accept views of others as a form of imposition which will not influence the natural structures of a child’s actions. Additionally, Lambert and Clyde (2000) argued that Vygotsky’s ZPD impedes learning processes and lessens the learner’s role to one of inactivity and dependence on others.
However, it seems that many of these critical writers have been trying to find and use strict teaching tools or methods based on the concept of ZPD. These also include methods where teachers ascertain student’s reading levels and then restrict them to reading material suitable for their ZPD. This seems counterintuitive, since constant challenge, even if it is only at the ZPD level, may tire the learner and make reading seem like an ordeal to them, rather than something pleasurable. It is unclear if such strict interpretations were ever Vygotsky’s purpose. Rather, his concept works better as a general guideline for teachers to consider the present skills and knowledge of their students and try to level their teaching properly. Similar thinking also appears in the writings of Comenius, the 17th century education philosopher:
[T]here is in the world no rock or tower of such a height that it cannot be scaled by any man (provided he lack not feet) if ladders are placed in the proper position or steps are cut in the rock, made in the right place, and furnished with railings against the danger of falling over. (Comenius, in 1896 English translation, p. 238)
This idea of scaffolding is widely used in modern classrooms and it is an intrinsic part of many pedagogical models, including apprenticeship training as well as collaborative learning, where learners of different levels interact and help each other to develop their skills and knowledge in tasks that are carefully designed by teachers to challenge the present general knowledge level of the students. But, like the critique above indicates, it is not always possible to consider every students’ ZPDs when the student group is very heterogeneous and such teaching methods give, perhaps too optimistically, heavy responsibility to the higher skilled learners to teach and help the less skilled ones.
Modern Approaches of Sociocultural Theory to Education
Sociocultural theory has been applied to various fields of studies and human activities. Focusing on teaching and learning, the sociocultural theory has been applied to culture, language, communication, emotion, interaction, special education and history. The theory proposes that people learn their cultural identity through interactions with their community (cf. Lantolf, 2000, 2010; Lerman, 2001). According to Norton (2006), Lantolf (2010), Anh and Marginson (2013) and Edwards (2014), people create their identity after their integration into a new community. Teachers are often the first representatives of the work culture on specific fields that the learners’ encounter and thus their attitudes are very important in supporting the learner’s identity development.
Furthermore, Lantolf and Poehner (2010), Allahyar and Nazari (2012), Swain and Lapkin (2013) and Behizadeh (2014) affirmed that the sociocultural learning theory is useful for language learners and their teachers on second language acquisition. They stated that imitation, mediation and use of tools were important aspects of the sociocultural theory. Gindis (2003) and Kozulin and Gindis (2007) attested that the theory could be used systematically to improve learning of people who have difficulties in languages.
Arievitch and Haenen (2005), Turuk (2008) and Edwards (2014) argue that it is important for to develop “focused support” for learners while considering their personal conditions. This argument leads to modern individualised learning. They also argued that teachers should trust learners and allow them autonomy. On the other hand, Kozulin (2002; 2004), Kozulin, Gindis, Ageyev and Miller (2003) and Barnard and Campbell (2005) stress that teachers still have an essential role as mentors for the learners. All these points of views affect modern pedagogical models and teaching methods (Leicht et al., 2018), especially collaborative and cooperative learning.
The sociocultural theory also applies to communication, interaction, participation, collaboration and mediation (Warschauer, 2005; Freeman, 2010; Anh & Marginson, 2013). Additionally, Mahn and John-Steiner (2002), Johnson and Golombek (2003), Warschauer (2005), Wang, Bruce and Hughes (2011) and Feryok (2013) stated that it plays a significant role in the development of the cognitive level of learners. This is affirmed in the work of Johnson and Golombek (2003), Barnard and Campbell (2005), Edwards (2005) who found that the sociocultural theory was relevant in developing self-confidence, skill or competence, and even mental abilities.
Overall, the sociocultural conception of man posits that to learn is to be a part of a learning community. Humans learn better when they have a sense of belongingness and identify themselves with the group that they are part of. Related to learning communities, active participation has a high influence on personal learning. Interaction and good collaboration with peer-learners and teachers enable learners to acquire new skills or competence. Furthermore, dialogic learning promotes better understanding. According to Gutierrez (2006) “dialogic activity has the potential to support cognitive and linguistic development as most learners did not find macro problem solving task relevant to their language lesson and therefore referred it as assignment to do after the ‘proper’ task on language”. Also related to dialogical skills, Johnson (2006) and Lantolf (2006) argue that open-mindedness is a pathway to successful learning as it facilitates learners’ cognition and learning capability.
Similarly, prior learning is not a small part of current or new learning because sociocultural knowledge enables people to process existing information and consider it for future use. Likewise, understanding language is a prerequisite for any further learning due the fact that learning communication skills is essential for sociocultural interaction.
Sociocultural research also warns us that digital tools are tools, not replacements for humans. Warschauer (2005) argues that “computer should not be viewed as an end in itself but just another device to promote language learning”. He adds that “teachers, researchers and students should need to observe how mediation occurs at micro level, how it intersects with and contributes to a broader social, cultural, historical and economic trend”. Finally, dynamic assessment is better than traditional assessment. Since learning occurs in various ways, personal differences in learning cannot be completely evaluated through traditional assessment methods. Yildirim (2008) states: “dynamic assessment is a useful framework to be used in the language classrooms as it focuses on potential rather than final achievement”.
Recommendations to Teachers and Educators
Sociocultural theory has had an important role in the development of our understanding of human beings and their learning. Based on the theory and research, it is possible to propose a variety of advice on how to design teaching activities. One of the main aspects is context. The era of “one cap fits all” had elapsed. Teachers need to treat the learners individually and understand their conditions. Among others, Packer and Goicoechea (2000) state that learning is designed for the purpose of transformation of an individual who is constructed in a social context through practical engagement. Also, focusing on important areas to be learned is essential for teachers. Nassaji and Swain (2000) attest that teachers should concentrate on important areas of learning because students are able to acquire new knowledge themselves within their Zone of Proximal Development.
Understanding of oneself while appreciating students’ identity is important. Lantolf (2000), Torres-Velasquez (2000), Norton (2006), Anh and Marginson (2013) and Edwards (2014) emphasize that teachers and educators should assess themselves. In other words, they should have self-knowledge so that they can understand the importance of their students’ individual identities. In multicultural contexts, Torres-Velasquez (2000) advise that it is critical that teachers also learn about their own cultural identity before considering their student’s ethnic and cultural identity. Johnson and Golombek (2003) argue that teachers should teach themselves before teaching others: teachers and educators need to know how different tools work to create a meditational space in which teachers can externalize, develop and reconceptualise their understanding in activities connected to teaching. Similarly, Edwards & Daniels (2004) advise that teachers should remember that they are a part of learning, because everyone is equally shaped and being shaped by the environment.
Teachers should ask for necessary tools before teaching. According to Barnard & Campbell (2005), teachers need to be provided with an appropriate theoretical foundation – as well as technical expertise – before embarking on teaching students. Johnson (2006) openly advises teachers and educators that teachers should recognise their own assumptions about themselves as teachers as well as their students, their teaching practices and the curriculum that they follow. Thus, it is important for teachers to develop right attitude towards their teaching.
In addition, teachers should employ dynamic assessment to facilitate learning. For instance, Lantolf & Poehner (2010) state that development is a progress achieved from one level of mediation to another level of mastery: therefore, considering various forms of assessment is much better than traditional assessment. Likewise, teachers should give autonomy to their students. Many of above-listed scholars recommend that teachers and educators should try to have trust and confidence in their students. They argued that giving students autonomy enhances learning. Most importantly, teachers should engage their students: sociocultural theory centres on interaction, participation, collaboration and communication. The scholars recommend that teachers and educators should promote dialogue and discussion in their teaching. They emphasized that making students active would enable them to learn.
The sociocultural conception of man shows that human beings are both the creators of their culture as well as participants in it. Following the idea of linguistic influence, we see teachers as one of the many factors in the cultural environment that can affect the developing world view and cognition of students. Thus, teachers have an important role in the creation and development of culture – they are not only teaching their students facts, but also ways to look at the world and ways to interpret their environment. At best, this process allows the students to identify themselves with not only the school community, but the field that they are studying. The teacher needs to both support the student, and the development of their self-image and identity, with positive experiences while challenging them at the right level to make sure that they will have the skills set that they need in their adult life.
Correction to article 17.3.2023: typo corrected and two references updated.
Saheed A. Gbadegeshin (MSc, MBA), a PhD candidate at Turku School of Economics, University of Turku, recently finished his teacher studies at Häme University of Applied Sciences . He is an expert in technology commercialization, entrepreneurship, SME internationalization and Africa Market entry. Some of his research interests are commercialization, high technology, lean startup methodology, business internationalization, entrepreneurship education, vocational education and sociocultural learning theory.
Bismark O. Appiah (MSc), a teacher trainee at Arcada University of Applied Sciences, Finland, recently finished his teacher studies at Häme University of Applied Sciences. His research area and expertise include international market entry, service marketing, leadership, change management, retail business, pedagogy and healthcare finance.
Daniel Boateng (MSc), a teacher trainee at Laurea University of Applied Sciences, Finland, recently finished his teacher studies at Häme University of Applied Sciences. His research area includes, but is not limited to, international market entry, sociocultural in education with a special interest in intercultural communication, human resources management, academic progression among the youth of immigrant background and client centered healthcare.
Principal Lecturer PhD Marko Susimetsä has worked at HAMK Häme University of Applied Sciences since 2006. His work includes development projects and teacher education. His interests include intercultural competence, education philosophy and history of education.
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