Lev Vygotsky

Overview of Social Learning Theory

Lev Vygotsky (1896 – 1934), was a Russian Psychologist who developed the social developmental theory.  “He disagreed with Piaget that these stages occur naturally, they are taught through educational intervention.  Social interactions greatly influence development, (Rosenthal, 2005).”  In Vygotsky’s Social Learning Theory, the “interdependence of social and individual processes, (Steiner & Mahn, 1996, p. 191).”   According to Vygotsky, all human activity takes place in a cultural context & three underlying themes exist in his writings to define the nature of this interdependent relationship (Steiner & Mahn & 1996)….

Individual human development has origins in social sources. (Steiner & Mahn, 1996).

The earliest sources of human development comes through interaction with our primary caregivers (Steiner & Mahn, 1996).  Vygotsky disagreeed with Piaget’s characterization of learning as a universal process.  In Social Learning Theory, Vygotsky asserts that learning and development occur within a specific cultural context.  This learning occurs as socially shared activities with primary caregivers, develop into internalized cognitive processes (Steiner & Mahn, 1996).  During the first years of our lives, all learning activities are highly dependent upon caregiver interaction.  In this respect, all learning activities occur as forms of social interaction, as caregivers provided opportunities for guided participation.  Gradually, we claim greater responsibility for this learning process by initiating social participation independent of caregivers.   We internalize the effects of these cumulative social learning opportunities.  Learning is a culturally-defined process that occurs through our interactions with others.

“An operation…initially represents an external activity reconstructed and begins to occur internally, (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 56-57).”

“An interpersonal process is transformed into an intrapersonal one, (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 57).”

“The transformation of an interpersonal process into an intrapersonal one as a result of a long series of developmental events, (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 57).”

Semniotic mediation is the key to knowledge construction, (Steiner & Mahn, 1996).

Vygotsky uses the term ‘Semniotic’ to describe “language; various systems of counting; mnemonic techniques; algebraic symbol systems; works of art; writing; schemes, diagrams, maps and mechanical drawings, (Steiner & Mahn, 1996, p. 193).”  These ‘semniotic tools,’ “mediate social and individual fucntioning and connect the external and the internal, the social and the individual, (Steiner & Mahn, 1996, p. 192).”  The process of learning requires an internalization of external behaviors through our interactions with others.  Through the use of tools such as langugage, art, math, or writing, this process of learning occurs as we internalize lessons we garner through social interaction.  Vygotsky that these semniotic tools, mediate the construction of knowledge internally, and are socially derived concenpts.  In other words, children don’t invent the wheel independently when they utilize language to describe abstract concepts as an internal thought process. They learn this language within a historically and culturally relevant setting.   The term “cognitive pluralism” (Steiner & Mahn, 1996, p. 193), is useful in describing the fact that multiple culturally relevant semniotic tools of socially-mediated learning can exist in a diverse society.

“Mediation is the key is the key in this approach to understanding how human mental functioning is tied to cultural, institutional, and historical settings since these settings shape and provide the cultural tools that are mastered by individuals to form this functioning. (Wertsch, 1994, p. 204).”

It is critical to understand this process of development through what calls “genetic analysis” (Steiner & Mahn, 1996, p. 193).

In his study of human development, he is not interested in describe the end product of learning as a series of stages.  Instead he is interested in describing the process of development as a sociocultural process.  Vygotsky refuse Piaget’s notion of schema as a universal concepts that can adequately describe the developmental process in all historical and cultural contexts (Steiner & Mahn, 1996).  The term “genetic analysis” (Steiner &  Mahn, 1996, p. 193), to describe how changing external phenomena can become integrated as a psychological construct of cognitive understanding.

The Zone of Proximal Development

“We propose that an essential feature of learning is that it creates the zone of proximal development; that is, learning awakens a variety of internal developmental processes that are able to operate only when the child is interacting with people in his environment and in cooperation with his peers. Once these process are internalized they become part of the child’s independent developmental achievement. (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 90).”

POINT ONE – “to help explain the way this social and participatory learning took place.  Vygotsky (1978)  developed the concept of the zone of proximal development, (Steiner & Mahn, 1996, p. 198).”

Vygotsky (1978) defines the zone of proximal development as “the distance between the actual developmental level as determined through independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers, (p. 198).”

POINT TWO – “Learning results in mental development and sets in motion a variety of developmental process that would be impossible apart from learning, (Vygotsky, 1978, p 90).”

Vygotsky notes that learning and development are separate processes.  learning requires interaction with one’s social environment and is essential for the process of development to occur.  Learning is culturally organized and precedes mental development.


Steiner & Mahn, (1996) note the benefits of a sociocultural approach are that it allows for an understanding of individuals, “dynamically, within their social circumstances, in their full complexity, we gain a much more complete and a much more valid understanding of them.  We also gain, particularly in the case of minority children, a more positive view of their capabilities and how our pedagogy often constrains…what they do and what they are capable of doing. (p. 202).” Applying Vygotsky to al learning environment can provide insight in enabling a construction of knowledge within a proximal zone of development and understanding how classroom learning can occur as a sociocultural process (Steiner & Mahn, 1996).


John-Steiner, V., & Mahn, H. (1996). Sociocultural approaches to learning and development: A Vygotskian framework. Educational psychologist, 31(3-4), 191-206.
Rosenthal, H. (2005). Vital Information and Review Questions for the NCE and State Counseling Exams. Routledge.
Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society (M. Cole, V. John-Steiner, S. Scribner, & E. Souberman, Eds.).  Retrieved from:  http://home.fau.edu/musgrove/web/vygotsky1978.pdf
Wertsch, J. V. (1994). The primacy of mediated action in sociocultural studies. Mind, Culture, and Activity, 1(4), 202-208.

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