Sociocultural Psychology In Learning Activities Education Essay

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The theories of sociocultural psychology can be summarised by saying that learning does not take place in isolation but in a social and cultural context. Engaging students in collaborative learning activities will enable them to progress more rapidly than if they were dictated to in the traditional style of teaching. When the teacher is no longer seen as the 'expert' and the students passive recipients of teaching, there is more progress and more motivation. The cognitive, motivational and social benefits of this new style of learning can be clearly seen. This essay will outline these benefits while defining various aspects of sociocultural psychology and examining how they fit together and in the learning context.

Changes in Attitudes

In previous years, attitudes towards language learning have been determined by culture, in that the English language has been seen as superior and the teaching of the language as the dominance of one culture over another (Sharpling & Smith, 2004, p.i.). This has changed for the better as we have become multicultural and language teaching and learning is seen as a process of negotiation which is sensitive to the strengths of all cultures rather than seeing one as being the norm and the others as different. Also, there has in the past been a distinction between native language teachers and non-native with people questioning whether the non-native speaker will be able to teach adequately. This has also changed for the better: "Within a globalised teaching profession, this debate is gradually resolving itself through the realisation that teaching skills, as well as good language proficiency, are an essential key to success in the classroom." (Sharpling & Smith, 2004, p.iii)

Learning is now constructed as a collaborative process between the teacher and the learner, and also within learners in a peer environment. Learning is constructive rather than reproductive, with learners generating new meanings for themselves rather than simply learning phrases by rote, and is a social, cultural, interpersonal and intrapersonal process (Shuell, 1996, p.743, cited by Ushioda, 2003, p.91). These changes in attitudes towards the learning process have precipitated a great change in the classroom environment which leads to more autonomy for the student and perhaps more motivation. But before these processes are discussed, it is first necessary to outline theories of sociocultural psychology so that the processes may be understood.

Sociocultural Theory

Sociocultural psychology was first postulated by Vygotsky (1896-1934) and further developed by psychologists in the West but not until years after Vygotsky was working (John-Steiner & Mahn, 1996, p.192). This was due to the lack of communication between Soviet Russia and the western world. The essence of Vygotsky's theories is that children learn and grow in a culturally rich environment where their minds are shaped by the events that occur around them and particularly with the interactions they engage in. Vygotsky (1981, p.63) criticised psychologists for seeing children as being adults in small bodies. He believed that the changes which take place with learning are qualitative changes and can be compared to both revolution and evolution.

In application to second language acquisition, these theories can be applied to adult learners who may be seen in the position of the child in some respects. Vygotsky (1933, p.1-2) discussed play and playfulness as being important processes for learning, and that when games are imposed they may be greeted with displeasure but when they are generated from the group they serve a function not only for pleasure but to enhance the learning process. We may see this in terms of language learning as the language games that are played in the classroom and the pleasure and learning which can be derived from these. As most learning opportunities are accomplished through face-to-face interaction, the role of the classroom is considered important as a learning environment (Hall & Walsh, 2002, p.187) and should be pleasurable.

There are a number of different aspects of sociocultural theory which can be applied in the language learning context, and these interact as will be seen, but for the benefit of definition and explanation, they will be presented separately initially and then considered in the further discussion.

Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD)

Vygotsky's Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) can be described as being the process by which 'more competent peers' and adults enable a child's learning and development (Tudge, 1992, p.155). The ZPD is defined by Vygotsky (1978, cited by Ushioda, 2007, p.10) as "the distance between the developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers." Therefore, the ZPD is different for each individual learner and is fluid over time, it is the difference between what the learner can achieve on their own and what they can achieve with the help, or 'scaffolding' of their peers or teacher/parent.

The role of the teacher/parent is to mediate and support the learners' intrinsic motivation. Mediation is a sociocultural concept and is important as teachers cannot give the learner motivation, it must instead come from within (Deci 1996, p.10, cited by Ushioda, 2007, p.12).


Scaffolding can be defined as a supportive environment. It is a metaphor which can be used as a verb (to scaffold) or a noun (to provide scaffolding). The teacher's role is to scaffold the students' learning and students can scaffold each others' understanding of a concept by discussing it. Scaffolding should be seen in the context of the ZPD in that the focus is ostensibly on the learner, whereas in fact the locus of control remains with the teacher or more competent peer until such time as the learner crosses the zone and becomes competent (Lantolf & Thorne, 2006, p.274). Scaffolding leads to autonomy in that once the learner has become competent they will then be autonomous in that particular aspect and will no longer need the scaffolding.


Vygotsky's view of mediation is that the higher forms of mental activity are mediated by symbolic means (Lantolf, 1994, p.418). This mediation may be compared to a physical mediation with the world by the use of tools such as a hammer, and in this way language and other symbol systems are seen as tools. Vygotsky reasoned that the use of these symbolic tools will empower humans to organize and control their mental processes. This is not an ability with which we are born, but it has to be learned by culture. So that the child will begin by being mediated and controlled by others, and then with collaboration will gradually learn the process of mediation so that they are then self-mediating.

Social-Private-Inner Speech

Inner speech is related to mediation in that it appears when the mediation process is directed inwards. The self-controlled linguistic mediation mentioned above is referred to by Vygotsky as inner or private speech (Lantolf, 1994, p.419), it begins as speaking out loud to oneself but becomes internalised. It appears when a person is referred to as 'talking to themselves' when they are concentrating on a task. Vygotsky stressed that the importance of inner speech is not in its operation but in its meaning (Lantolf & Thorne, 2006, p.94). So that perhaps only a half-sentence will be spoken but the speaker understands themselves and the process will enable them to complete their task.

Collaborative Learning in ELT

Collaboration involves a meaningful core activity and "the social relations that develop as a result of jointly constructed goals for the common endeavor." (Donato, 1994, p.287) It also involves the recognition of individuals as a part of the collaborative activity and each of these individual's contributions towards the larger goal. Collaborative groups build coherence and knowledge which is distributed among the members, thus the collaborative process "co-constructs new knowledge that goes beyond any knowledge possessed by a single member in isolation" (Donato, 1994, p.287).

In Erikson's theory of stages of development, the stage industry versus inferiority refers to learning competencies. If the learning experience is of failure then the learner will develop a feeling of inferiority (Williams & Burden, 1997, p.31). The competitive situation will inevitably result in failure for some, as it pits learners against each other. Therefore it is crucial for the teacher to foster a collaborative environment or to alternate between co-operative and individualist activities.

The benefits of collaborative learning in an English Language Teaching (ELT) context are that it promotes a sense of shared control and responsibility, independence, social skills and a sense of belonging. Collaboration creates opportunities for social interaction and communication, and for students to learn from each other. This is where the ZPD and Scaffolding are important. It makes the thinking and learning processes explicit, that they are externalised through social talk, so that there is mediation and the inner speech as mentioned above. Collaboration encourages co-regulation between students and also self-regulation. These are important aspects of the learning process.

Context should not be seen as an independent variable, but the 'person-in-context' is important as there is a mutually constitutive relationship between the person and the context in which they act (Usioda, p.218). This relationship is dynamic, complex and non-linear. Thus we learn as an interaction rather than by a one-way street.


The best kind of motivation is seen as being intrinsic motivation, that is when the person is motivated to do something as an end in itself, for the self-sustaining pleasure and reward of enjoyment, interest, challenge or skill and knowledge development (Griffiths, 2008, p.21). This is in contrast to extrinsic motivation which is seen as doing something as a means to an end, so that the action of learning is not the reward in itself but will enable the learner to gain a qualification and employment, or other ends such as pleasing the teacher or parent, and avoiding punishment. Intrinsic motivation is believed to promote spontaneous learning and is powerfully self-sustaining, and can also lead to more effective learning.

However, it should not be assumed that intrinsic and extrinsic motivation are completely separate, in that a person can be motivated to join a course by the extrinsic motivation of gaining a qualification, but while studying for the course they may gain some intrinsic pleasure from the learning that takes place. Thus intrinsic and extrinsic may be seen as working in concert.

As stated previously, motivation is not something that can be given to students. Instead of asking 'how can we motivate our students?', we need to ask 'how can we create the conditions within which students will motivate themselves?' This will involve giving students new and different activities, materials and working methods, thus broadening the scope of their experience. By fostering students' autonomy (see below), giving them responsibility for making choices and setting their own goals, by feeding their sense of curiosity, challenge and desire to know, and by allowing them to experience success and skill development, they will develop intrinsic motivation for their language learning.

Intrinsic motivation is not only based in the learner's need to be competent and effective, but also to be "self-determining and autonomous in their pursuit of

Competence." (Ryan & Deci 2000, cited by Ushioda, 2007, p.12).


The concept of autonomy was imported originally from the fields of politics and moral philosophy (Smith, 2008, p.395). There are two classic definitions of autonomy. Autonomy is defined as 'the ability to take charge of one's own learning' (Holec's (1981, p.3, cited by Benson, 2006, p.22). The word 'ability' can be replaced by 'capability' in this definition and 'take charge of' may be replaced by 'take responsibility for' and 'take control of ' one's own learning. Another definition is that autonomy is a capacity 'for detachment, critical reflection, decision-making, and independent action' (Little, 1991, p.4, cited by Lecture Notes).

The levels of autonomy may be relevant in that the learner may be coming from a position of having previously been in a directional setting so may feel uncomfortable in being given complete control and responsibility for their own learning. Formal education may lead to teacher dependency which would be the opposite of autonomy. There may be a period of adjustment when the learner is moving from one level of autonomy to another, and gradually gaining more confidence in the language so that they would be able to use it outside of the classroom in an entirely autonomous manner. Changing from passive to active is a transition and does not simply happen suddenly.

There is a tension between approaches to teaching where autonomy is seen as something which learners lack so they need to be 'trained towards' and other approaches for which autonomy is the starting point so that any learner is ready and able to exercise some control over their own learning (Smith, 2008, p.396). This demonstrates a discrepancy between attitudes towards learners and may be based around the presumption of the difference between adult learners who are assumed to be more motivated and child learners who may be learning less voluntarily.

Complete autonomy of the student is not necessarily beneficial in the classroom environment. If students are given more choice in tasks then they may prefer the task that is easier as they know they will perform well and it will be less work for them, which may be seen as undermining positive motivation (Stipek, 1996, p.105, cited by Ushioda, 2003, p.91). Therefore complete autonomy may not be viable, but a comprehensive and holistic approach would be preferable.


Sociocultural psychology helps to illuminate the cognitive, motivational and social benefits of engaging students in collaborative learning activities. This essay has drawn on sociocultural theory to illustrate how collaborative learning will enhance the learners' development and will benefit in their learning process. Citing the theories of ZPD, Scaffolding, Mediation and Social-Private-Inner Speech, all of which benefit from the collaborative process, it has been demonstrated that a collaborative approach will result in better learning. A deeper understanding of the social and cultural form of the language being learned will arise, and the students will be more motivated and autonomous in their learning activities.