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Social constructivist theory has its roots in the work of Piaget, with notable differences; while Piaget viewed the child as a ‘lone scientist’, working, experimenting and discovering things on their own, social constructivism places added emphasis on the interaction between the learner and others.
Social constructivism gives priority to language in the process of intellectual development. “Dialogue becomes the vehicle by which ideas are considered, shared and developed” (Pritchard, 2014. p26). The dialogue is often with a teacher or other more knowledgeable person, but dialogue with peers can be of equal value.
Vygotsky (1896-1934) was a cognitivist, but rejected the assumption made by Piaget that learning could be separated from its social context. Vygotsky argued that cognitive functions originate in and are products of social interactions.
“Every function in the child’s cultural development appears twice: first, on the social level and, later on, on the individual level; first, between people (interpsychological) and then inside the child (intrapsychological). This applies equally to voluntary attention, to logical memory, and to the formation of concepts. All higher functions originate as actual relationships between individuals.”
– Vygotsky, 1978. p57.
For Vygotsky, we should not look for explanations of human behaviour “in the depths of the brain or the soul […] but in the external conditions of their societal life” (Van Der Veer in Daniels, Cole & Wertsch, 2007. p21).
He referred to the people we learn from as more knowledgeable others. A more knowledgeable other is often a teacher, parent or other knowledgeable adult, but could just as often be a peer who has a firmer grip of the topic being studied.
Zone of Proximal Development
Vygotsky referred to the process of learning through social interaction as occupying the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD), suggesting that when learners are in the ZPD they are well positioned to develop their understanding of a subject beyond what they already know. This can be summarised as:
- When tasks can be easily achieved by learners without help, they are likely to become bored.
- When tasks are beyond the learners’ current ability even with help, they are likely to become frustrated.
- When tasks are achievable with the help of a more knowledgeable other, learners are in the zone of proximal development and can learn effectively.
Vygotsky also developed the concept of scaffolding to describe the teacher’s role in supporting learners’ development while in the ZPD.
The principles of scaffolding are:
- Build interest in the subject and engage with learners
- Break the task into smaller sub-tasks (or chunks)
- Keep learners focused on completing sub-tasks without losing sight of the overall goals
- Deploy more knowledgeable others to support learners
- Model possible ways of completing the task which learners can imitate and eventually internalise
– Bates (2016), p46.
“The analogy of constructing a building is useful here. Scaffolding is essential in the early stages to support the structure as building work progresses but can be withdrawn as the shell of the building is complete. In the same way, learners will need support at appropriate times, at an appropriate level and by appropriate people, thus emphasising the importance of social interaction in the learning process.”
– Bates (2016), p47.
In the classroom
The idea of the zone of proximal development can be applied in the classroom in many forms:
- testing prior knowledge of understanding of the subject to identify more knowledgeable others in the class
- getting class members to share their experiences, or splitting the class into smaller groups to help learners who might be intimidated by speaking in front of a whole class
- breaking down any major task into smaller sub-tasks, making them appear more manageable
- allowing early successes keeps learners motivated, but don’t let them become complacent!
- challenging learners to move beyond their comfort zones by listening to the experiences of others, thinking carefully about what might be relevant to them, and adopting this information to build their own knowledge
- emphasising that even the quietest, least confident student invariably has something to contribute to the learning of others
View of knowledge
Social constructivism emphasises the role of language and culture in cognitive development. For Vygotsky, language and culture play essential roles both in intellectual development and how humans perceive the world.
“Humans’ linguistic abilities allow them to overcome the natural limitations of their perceptual field by imposing culturally-defined sense and meaning on the world.”
– UC Berkeley, 2016. p9.
Language and conceptual schema that are transferred through discussion are social phenomena, therefore learning is essentially socially constructed. Knowledge is not just constructed (as Piaget argued), it is co-constructed.
View of learning
Vygotsky agreed with Piaget that learners respond not to external stimuli (as behaviorists argued), but to their interpretation of those stimuli. Piaget, however, had overlooked the social nature of language, and as a result Vygotsky claimed that cognitivists failed to understand that learning is collaborative.
This idea contributed to the claim that there are two distinct developmental levels:
- actual development is the level that the learner has already reached, and the level at which the learner is capable of solving problems independently
- potential development is the level of development that the learner is capable of reaching under the guidance of a teacher or in collaboration with peers
Maturation and development of ability happens most efficiently, and most effectively, in social settings. Piaget’s view of the learner as a ‘lone scientist’ ignores the importance of this fundamental idea.
View of motivation
Behaviorists view motivation as extrinsic – learners react to positive and negative external stimuli and reinforcements. Cognitivists view motivation is essentially intrinsic – learners’ motivation is based upon their own internal drive to learn. Social constructivists see motivation as both extrinsic and intrinsic.
Because learning is a social phenomenon, learners are partially motivated by rewards provided by the community in which they learn; recognition from the teacher & peers can be a powerful motivator, for example. However, because knowledge is actively constructed by the learner, learning also depends to a significant extent on the learner’s internal drive to engage with the wider group in order to learn.
Bates, B. (2016). Learning Theories Simplified. Los Angeles: Sage.
Daniels, Cole & Wertsch (eds) (2007). The Cambridge Companion to Vygotsky. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Pritchard (2014). Ways of Learning: Learning Theories and Learning Styles in the Classroom. 3rd edition. Oxford: Routledge.
Vygotsky (1978). Mind in Society. London: Harvard University Press.
UC Berkeley (2016). Learning: Theory and Research, a teaching guide for Graduate Student Instructors. [Online], available from: http://gsi.berkeley.edu/media/Learning.pdf