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Lev Vygotsky and Social Learning Theories

Social learning theories help us to understand how people learn in social contexts (learn from each other) and informs us on how we, as teachers, construct active learning communities.  Lev Vygotsky (1962), a Russian teacher and psychologist, first stated that we learn through our interactions and communications with others.  Vygotsky (1962) examined how our social environments influence the learning process.  He suggested that learning takes place through the interactions students have with their peers, teachers, and other experts.  Consequently, teachers can create a learning environment that maximizes the learner's ability to interact with each other through discussion, collaboration, and feedback.  Moreover, Vygotsky (1962) argues that culture is the primary determining factor for knowledge construction.  We learn through this cultural lens by interacting with others and following the rules, skills, and abilities shaped by our culture.

  1. Developing Learning Communities
  2. Community of Learners Classroom
  3. Collaborative Learning and Group Work
  4. Discussion-based Learning (Socratic Questioning Methods)
Instruction that supports social learning:

  1. Students work together on a task
  2. Students develop across the curriculum
  3. Instructors choose meaningful and challenging tasks for the students to work
  4. Instructors manage socratic dialogue that promote deeper learning. 

Vygotsky argued, "that language is the main tool that promotes thinking, develops reasoning, and supports cultural activities like reading and writing" (Vygotsky 1978). As a result, instructional strategies that promote literacy across the curriculum play a significant role in knowledge construction as well as the combination of whole class leadership, individual and group coaching, and independent learning.  Moreover, teachers need to provide the opportunity to students for a managed discussion about their learning.  Discussion that has a purpose with substantive comments that build off each other and there is a meaningful exchange between students that results in questions that promote deeper understanding.  Discussion-based classroom using socratic dialogue where the instructor manages the discourse can lead each student to feel like their contributions are valued resulting in increased student motivation. 

The teacher, or local topic expert, plays the important role of facilitator, creating the environment where directed and guided interactions can occur.  Many other educational theorists adopted Vygotsky's social process ideas and proposed st
rategies that foster deeper knowledge construction, facilitate socratic student discussions, and build active learning communities through small group based instruction.

In essence, Vygotsky recognizes that learning always occurs and cannot be separated from a social context. Consequently, instructional strategies that promote the distribution of expert knowledge where students collaboratively work together to conduct research, share their results, and perform or produce a final project, help to create a collaborative community of learners. Knowledge construction occurs within Vygotsky's (1962) social context that involves student-student and expert-student collaboration on real world problems or tasks that build on each person's language, skills, and experience shaped by each individual's culture" (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 102).


Vygotsky, L.S. (1978) Mind in Society:  The development of higher psychological processes.  Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press.

Vygotsky, L.S. (1962).  Thought and Language.  Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. (Original work published in 1934).