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Sociocultural Theory Text

Sociocultural Theory: an Analysis
Casey Leach


With the general evolution of the understanding cognitive development and push for civil rights, a newer look on the classroom and methods of facilitating take into account individual needs and the necessity to have equity to accommodate those needs (Emdin, 2016). Dating back to the early to mid 20th century, psychologist Lev Vygotsky theorized the significance of background experiences that lead to developmental skills, which are still recognized today.  These include the person’s cultural, environmental, and personal experiences throughout their life. His idea was “...a theory about the development of human cognitive and higher mental function. The theory especially emphasizes the integration of social, cultural and biological elements in learning processes and stresses the socio-cultural circumstances‘ central role in human‘s cognitive development.” (Aimin, 2013, p 162). Sociocultural theory guides the pedagogical practices of establishing equity, modern discourse and relevancy, and creating empathy in the classroom through recognizing and implementing individualized experiences.


The layout of sociocultural theory (Vygotsky, 1978) was broken down into three general categories: the inner core being what the individual already knows, the outer ring being what the individual can learn and understand, and the outermost ring being what the individual learns, but needs additional support and ideal conditions of the individual to be met (Aimin, 2013). The structure/layout of individual’s development, however, may be not be true and could lead to assumptions, so it is to looked at in perhaps a different light; the core being the understanding and background of the student and their cultural identities, the middle ring being what the facilitator must know about the core of the student and incorporate into further understanding, and the outermost ring being what might be within reach that the student, but needs further exploration (Emdin, 2016). Having these “rings” as a means of defining student development is now becoming a main component to establishing a greater dynamic between the facilitator and students in an education setting (Desai, 2010). The main breakdown of the theory is recognizing the social and individual experiences of the student and the facilitator, while the facilitator creates equitable solutions to meet their needs and wants. Specifically, when understanding the students, a teacher must first understand the background and surrounding community of the student to cater to their developmental successes and interests (Emdin, 2016).  When the teacher considers an understanding of students’ social and cultural context, students are able to be a contributing force to the classroom engagement, and have greater interest and relevance to their learning, giving them incentive to improve.

The discussion of sociocultural importance in education has a significant tie to creative outlets in art classes (Emdin, 2016) . People learn of such emphasis through (a)  an implementation of sociocultural differences, such as race, gender, and the specific surrounding area, (b) establishing various cultural classroom dynamics, and (c) create a greater empathetic understanding between students and facilitators. It is imperative that discussion and having a space to discuss differences in cultural and societal aspects of a student’s life, as students need to still have connections to their personal lives in and out of school for a better quality of understanding and appreciating their education (Emdin, 2016). Utilizing the theory of a sociocultural education is mostly through the necessity of acknowledging, respecting, and empathizing with the communities and backgrounds of the student body in order to have a greater, more personalized engagement to the school and lessons/projects (Emdin, 2016).


Colorblindness in Education

Recognizing educational issues surrounding “colorblindness” (Desai, 2010)  and focusing on Eurocentric models of art are among the first recognition and reforms that should be considered in the classroom (Davis, Sumara, & Luce-Kapler, 2015). To be colorblind is when a teacher does not consider the racial culture of other students of color in an effort to make the class an equal opportunity setting. Many white teachers have believed that to say they cannot see race in their students, which removes and ignores the culture from the student’s experiences and lives (Desai, 2010). The main concern in equality is that not every student is on an equal field, and cannot fit into the mold of what the teacher is expecting.  The concern with equality is that equality often seeks to set everyone to be alike and on a similar playing field, which not every can fulfill. To deliberately ignore societally imposed structures in and out of school setting erases hardships, history, and personal significance of people of color (Keifer-Boyd, Amburgy, & Knight, 2007). The ignorance of colorblindness divides and continues to impose structural discrimination in subtle ways, and minority students are often left with not being able to have connections to the educational experience and facilitators (Girod, Pardales, Cavanauch, & Wadsworth, 2005). When a teacher does not incorporate and appreciate the various backgrounds of their students, the environment of the students no longer meets their sociocultural needs, making them less engaged and interested in learning. Recognizing disparities in socioeconomics, seeing the importance of culture, and finding ways of incorporating cultural elements into projects aid in establishing equity and empathy in a classroom. To see and implement strategies that surround the lives of the students ties in their background knowledge and comfortability in a class, engaging them with the lessons.

Equitable and empathetic incorporation

Teachers can facilitate and structure equitable accessibility to learning in relation to the sociocultural needs of the students (Emdin, 2016). Through understanding the wants and interests of the students, it is the responsibility of the teacher to include their personal lives, backgrounds, and community to understand the students and build an empathetic environment. A teacher who immersed themselves in artistic and societal discourse need to consider ways of incorporating the content in an (a) equitable and (b) empathetic manner. Having “co-generative dialogues”  to open the floor to thoughts, questions, and concerns of the students allow a more individualistic approach to their creative process, and gives students the chance to critique or discuss what is relevant to them and how the teacher can provide to those interests and/or concerns (Emdin, 2016). The approach also allows students to have a voice that might not be heard, an option to explore what they want and open up to their peers and teacher. Such dialogue occurs when there is a trust and understanding between the students and teachers; the teacher in response to the student must consider the sociocultural aspects of the students life, interests, and background, and appreciate and listen to the student’s efforts. To commend and cater to what they say and are interested in also drives their thought process, and establish empathy and common interest, motivating students’ learning/engagement. Making the experience relevant to them, and building a community in the classroom that isn’t closed off from their lives outside of the room, establishes equity through incorporating their sociocultural backgrounds as they are able to simply be themselves (Delpit, 1988).

Facilitators have the power to command and control the environment of the class. Having such power means that it must be recognized and restrained, thus the need for understanding equity in a classroom. Equity, in this sense, is when additional support, references, and concepts surrounding the background of the students are taken into account and utilized in the unit planning, discussion, and surrounding environment of the classroom (Delpit, 1988). Understanding the students on a more personal and cultural level generates the equity and empathy in an art setting, and students are more inclined to communicate their wants and needs, building a stronger community and trust. It is the responsibility of the teachers to maintain the dialogue, listen, and respond accordingly. Keeping relevant with the students and recognizing the privilege of controlling that environment is what constantly needs to be checked with teachers (Delpit, 1988). Teachers have the ability to set and manage the class, lessons, and interactions of the students; it’s important for the teachers focus on the possible questions, interests, or concerns of the students, and surround the work around them and what they need/want to look and think about.

Discussion of Media

To aid in recognizing societal discourse and create a better, equitable dialogue for the students is to discuss the issue with media, such as when there were/are racist and stereotypes of cultures. Looking at modern examples of art and incorporating not just the negative views of the portrayal of people of color, but the recent artists who generate dialogue of race and class. The content explored in the classroom may lead to projects that surround their community and personal life. If the facilitator incorporates the collaboration of the community in the classroom, in the surrounding area, and throughout the school, students can have their voices heard and understood, as well as learning content relevant to their lives that they will value (Emdin, 2016).

Historical Context

Lev Vygotsky had first coined the term socioculturalism during the constructivist era, in discussion with human development, their mental capacity, and their environment (Aimin, 2013). He established what is known as the “Zones of Proximal Development" in reference to learning capabilities, with the core being what someone is familiar with already, the next ring being what they can learn, and the final ring being what they could be capable of later on or if the conditions are met (Aimin, 2013). Learning from others and context could be essentially amplified were the student placed in a comforting and recognizable environment. It was merely in the context of general humanistic development, but marks an important educational study in ways of determining how learning is approached and improved on based on the background experiences and knowledge of students. Studying the needs of cognitive development and improvement in learning leads to individualized educational resources and methods of authentic teaching. To note however, sociocultural theory, with its established “zones of proximal development,” may lead to stereotyping and generalizations which could be quite harmful in an education setting, which is why Vygotsky stated that this is not a educational theory, but a theory of human cognition (Vygotsky, Cole, John-Steiner, Scribner, & Souberman, 1978).

With the general study of human development, there was a need to push for equity in educational practice, and ways to incorporate socioculturalism without generalizations and set standardized teaching (Desai, 2013). Thus, including aspects of the lives of the student would improve their learning as the conditions to connect, inspire, and relate to the subject matter is what generates greater learning. Particularly in art education, there was an emergence of authentic education that advocated for incorporating students needs into lesson planning (Davis et al., 2015). Authentic education branched off into other more individualized forms of educational theories and pedagogies, and one of the more recent ones are sociocultural theory in education. Surrounding the lessons to the needs of the individual revisits Vygotsky's concepts of environmental impact on the person that aids or hinders cognitive development and critical thinking, and emphasizes bringing in aspects of the person’s lives into their learning to bring relevance to their experiences and push their abilities to learn (Vygotsky et al., 1978). To bring in elements of a student’s life into the classroom develops that connection they have in their lives to enrich their learning experiences (Emdin, 2016).

Key Figure

To consider the implementation and significance of sociocultural theory, it ties back to the man who created the theory in the first place.  Lev Vygotsky was a Soviet psychologist and theorist that emerged in the early 1900s with his work in developmental psychology (Vygotsky et al., 1978). However, his work was not considered in the US until the 1980s, when the social constructivist movement advocated for a different, more holistic approach for education (Davis et al., 2015). Following closely to the work of Karl Marx, Vygotsky believed that the individual and their cognitive development is based on the nurturing environment. If the environment meets the need of the person, then their developmental skills will be at their greatest. His work was with the intention of improving on and specifying Marx’s communist theories in human intellect (Vygotsky et al., 1978). His belief was that if society was in its idealist state of communism, then the person’s needs of learning were catered to on an individualistic scale as oppose to standardization and disparities in socio economics, leading to greater forms of learning and economic improvements (Vygotsky et al., 1978).

Practical Example

There are several methods that incorporates sociocultural theory, as the main focus is introducing relevance and personal experience and thought into the lessons and classroom. Equity and generating critical thinking in the students experiences validates possible thoughts or questions that they may have, and art is an outlet to explore the possibilities of those experiences. Christopher Emdin discusses such ways of incorporating the students’ outside lives through what he calls the “seven C’s,” which are (1) co-generative dialogues, (2) co-teaching, (3) cosmopolitan, (4) context, (5) content, (6) competition, and (7) curation (Emdin, 2016). A common interest with students have been with media, which can be applied to each pedagogical approach in sociocultural theory.

Co-generative dialogues are structured exchanges where the students and teacher develop strategies for instruction that focus on the students' socioemotional and academic needs. Being upfront and accepting feedback or recommendations from students aid in the drive and relevance in the students’ learning (Emdin, 2016). Introducing discourse that may be difficult to discuss is important for students to think about and respond to; bringing in current events in the news and discussing them prior to class allows students to vent their thoughts. Knowing what they are listening and what they want to respond to makes for new projects that are important to the individual; the teacher is now co-teaching with the students, and collaborating with their interests and questions. One way of approaching dialogue would be to ask the students of their favorite thing(s) to do in their free time, such as video gaming, and use that interest in the classroom discussion (i.e. “How do you think the artists of a game wanted to represent people of different races? Do you think they did a good job?”).

Allowing students to feel as though they're not simply attending school but are active contributors to the class and school is a significant way to connect them to lessons. Student contribution is the cosmopolitan method of bringing context to the class (Emdin, 2016). Having them participate in the planning and aid in the classroom is a simple support to make the students feel closer to the school and classroom; poster design is a great public project for students to exhibit their ideas and creations. Additionally, potentially making small group competition and group challenges may bring the students closer, make them more willing to work together, and share ideas more comfortably (Emdin 2016). In an art setting, however, competition may be disencouraging or may not elicit a positive space for students wanting to create art, so perhaps having inclusive activities and icebreakers as a means of bringing in friendly competition and games to the class. Competitions to define vocabulary or demonstrate a technique, such as sorting games or Pictionary would give incentive to create and understand content rapidly and playfully. Students not only need to feel comfortable in the presence of the teacher, but their fellow students as well.

Bringing in context of various backgrounds of artists establishes a sense of connection to various cultures, making a more personalized space for people of different backgrounds. Contextual supports tie closely to bringing vibrance and moving away from colorblindness in the class, and opens the students to discourse that might cross their mind, or they may experience often (Desai, 2010). Racially motivated stereotypes, such as Vogue Magazines April 2008 issue with Lebron James being posed as King Kong holding a white model, and discussing its issues with these stereotypes could lead to projects surrounding redesign or social justice in art and the classroom (Keifer-Boyd et al., 2007). Having potentially controversial content that students witness and may have thoughts about helps create a space that makes them more comfortable to discuss these feelings, and have a greater connection to their thoughts on artmaking as well as critical thinking skills (Emdin, 2016).

Having these connections could, in turn, lead to students curating their ideas as the facilitator co-teaches the class based on the feedback of the students. To understand the curation of students and the teacher, one method could be to observe videos of themselves teaching. Seeing the dynamics of the class from a third person perspective aids the teacher in understanding things they might not have noticed, such as bias, attitudes, and specific behaviors and responses from students. It ties into bettering the facilitators co-teaching method(s), and gains a better view on how to approach classes and set an environment welcoming to everyone.


With students having vastly different lives from the teacher and their peers, it important to give them a space to contribute their ideas, voices, feelings, and creativity in an equitable manner. Sociocultural theory, first published by Lev Vygotsky, surrounds the idea that people’s lives and development are dictated by their background and nurture, and when the conditions are met with the person’s needs, they cognitively flourish. As educator, it’s imperative to meet those needs in ways that will allow students to be put in the forefront of the classroom, and cater to them through engaging pedagogy. With the aid of recognizing and reforming colorblindness in the classroom, looking at and using Emdin’s 7 C’s, and incorporating moments of interest and significance in the students’ lives, the needs of the students will mostly met, and they will have a greater connection to the school, peers, and teachers. Ultimately, it is up to the teacher to understand what they can do for the student, and make sure that the student has the platform they need to succeed, and/or find enjoyment and comfort in the class.


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Aimin, L. (2013). The Study of Second Language Acquisition Under SocioCultural Theory. American Journal of Educational Research, Vol. 1, No. 5. Science and Education Publishing. 162-167
Emdin, C. (2016). For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood…and the Rest of Y’all Too. Boston, MA. Beacon Press.
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Vygotsky, L. S., Cole, M., John-Steiner, V., Scribner, S. Souberman, E. (1978.). Mind in Society: Development of Higher Psychological Processes. Harvard University Press. Cambridge, MA.
Lisa Delpit (1988) The Silenced Dialogue: Power and Pedagogy in Educating Other People's Children. Harvard Educational Review: September 1988, Vol. 58, No. 3
Girod, M., Pardales, M., Cavanauch, S., & Wadsworth, P. (2005). By Teens, For Teachers: A Descriptive Study of Adolescence. American Secondary Education, 33(2), 4-19. Retrieved from
Sociocultural Theory Text

Sociocultural Theory Text