Sociocultural Theory

Sociocultural Theory

7.4 Sociocultural Theory Whereas Piaget felt that cognitive development was constructed by children’s individual experiences in the world, Lev Vygotsky (1896–1934) focused on the essential nature of social experiences (Vygotsky, 1978). To Vygotsky, understanding the cultural and social context in which a child lives contributes to knowledge about how development occurs; hence, his the- ory is often referred to as a contextual model. The sociocultural theory of cognition there- fore emphasizes the importance of social interaction in order to facilitate individual achieve- ment. In that regard, every society has areas of intellectual emphasis. For instance, in the United States, society stresses the importance of preschool and playgroups. These social activities provide opportunities for specific kinds of intellectual growth. Engaging in “Circle Time” has meaning beyond just singing or sharing experiences. There is order, collaboration, and social structure (teacher as leader), reflecting important parts of society. Subcultures such as farmers in Iowa, Orthodox Jews in New York, and Mexican Americans in Los Angeles all provide specific kinds of learning opportunities embedded within a social context.

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Section Review Explain some contemporary alternatives to formal thought.

Different cultures may place intellectual emphasis on different areas of knowledge, influencing development from a sociocultural perspective.


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Section 7.4 Sociocultural Theory

Potential distinctions become more explicit when looking at historical differences or compar- ing, say, a child from a poor farming village in Peru with a child from a technologically rich part of South Korea. In the United States, children entering kindergarten today have different tools (and consequently, demands) than current college students had when they were in kin- dergarten. Even one generation ago, it was unusual for young children to have easy access to computer technology. Now, as today’s children explore various screen technologies, they nec- essarily learn to think differently than in the past in order to navigate that part of their world. Screen tasks that sometimes prove a challenge for older people are second nature for many young learners. This historical change influences the ways that children approach learning and problem solving.

Sociocultural theory may also help to explain some gender differences. For instance, when teachers speak more gently to girls than boys, it may lead to more acting out and lower aca- demic performance among boys (Hughes, Wu, Kwok, Villarreal, & Johnson, 2012; Silver, Mea- selle, Armstrong, & Essex, 2005). Perhaps differences in scientific ability between males and females originate from the way culture and society approach boys versus girls. Indeed, one study found that parents give more sophisticated explanations to boys than to girls during visits to a museum (Crowley, Callaman, Tenebaum, & Allen, 2001). The cultural context may promote differences in the kinds of knowledge to which each of the sexes is exposed.

Social Constructivism The changing use of technology by young children demonstrates how they construct knowl- edge based on society and culture. Hence, Vygotsky’s theory is sometimes referred to as social constructivism. From a Piagetian model, it would be predicted that a child factory worker in Bangladesh and a technologically advanced child in India would show many similarities in thought. By contrast, Vygotsky would point to the vastly different social variables that would have influenced development. Speech and written language, manners, gaming, cooking skills, and how to operate tablets and farm equipment all provide cultural “tools” that facilitate the construct development (Bodrova & Leong, 2001). At first, learning is a social experience; it then transitions to one that is individual. Whereas Piaget was a cognitive constructivist (men- tally forming schemas), Vygotsky was a social constructivist.

Zone of Proximal Development and Scaffolding Like learning to read, children first attempt to solve problems within a social context and then do so independently. Vygotsky described this change from collaborative to independent learning as a goal of education, and a more sophisticated kind of cognition (Vygotsky, 1978). Children who initially demonstrate less skill may not be less intellectual; they may simply have a larger potential range of growth. Instead of focusing on the tasks that children have learned, Vygotsky was more interested in what children are capable of learning. To under- stand a child’s level of cognitive development, Vygotsky might demonstrate how to perform a task and then observe whether or not the child could repeat the process. Vygotsky called the gap between skills (and knowledge) and the potential for learning, the zone of proximal development (ZPD). The ZPD refers to the range of activities that a child cannot perform alone but is capable of accomplishing with the assistance of a higher-skilled adult or peer (see Figure 7.7). This higher-skilled person is often referred to in research as the more knowl- edgeable other (MKO).

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