What is the sociocultural theory of learning?

What is the sociocultural theory of learning?

By Dr Jeremy Koay

A limited view

A common misconception of the sociocultural theory of learning (SCT) is the idea that learners passively receive knowledge from experts, that is teachers or other adults, and that learning is basically a passive copying process.

This misconception is mainly due to a misinterpretation of the theoretical claim that mental functioning develops as a result of external social interaction, which leads to internal psychological activity. It is important to note that this development is not passive, but that it involves an active, and frequently creative, reasoning process (Lantolf, Thorne & Poehner, 2015).

A holistic view

To quote Lantolf, Thorne and Poehner (2015), SCT argues that while human neurobiology is necessary for higher order thinking, the most important forms of human cognitive activity (e.g., memorising, reasoning, summarising, concluding) develop through interactions within social and material environments.

Rather than presenting an extensive discussion of SCT, I will focus on the idea of scaffolding in the theory. SCT suggests that learners do not miraculously learn by themselves. The theory suggests that interactions with others; teachers or peers, help learners to accomplish tasks, and that this would be much more difficult without this input. It is my hope that an understanding of SCT will lead us to a learning-centred classroom practice and put an end to the teacher-centred vs. learner-centred debate.

Theory and practice

A sound understanding of SCT suggests that teachers play an important role in a learning environment. They can scaffold a learning process by giving helpful suggestions in the process of doing tasks, asking questions, drawing tables and charts, and giving feedback concerning the students’ group work (Behroozizad, Nambiar & Amir, 2014). These forms of support are removed when learners are capable of performing particular tasks independently.


Behroozizad, S., Nambiar, R. & Amir, Z. (2014). Sociocultural theory as an approach to aid EFL learners. The Reading Matrix, 14(2), 217-226.

Lantolf, J. P., Thorne, S. L. & Poehner, M. E. (2015). Sociocultural theory and second language development. In B. VanPatten & J. Williams (Eds.). Theories in second language acquisition: An introduction (pp. 207-226). New York: Routledge.

Dr Jeremy Koay is a New Zealand-based independent researcher and an education consultant at EduMaxi. He obtained his PhD in Applied Linguistics from Victoria University of Wellington in 2015. His research interests include Discourse Analysis, Genre Analysis and TESOL.

Image source: shutterstock.com/Lisa S.

  • ChongTM
    Posted at 13:04h, 21 March

    Hi, i find your article very interesting, especially the part on SCT putting an end to the teacher-centred vs student- centred debate. I don’t know if you are aware that here in Johor schools 21st century learning is all the craze where the emphasis is on student- centred activities. It’ll be very helpful for teachers here if you can shed some light on this issue in relation to SCT.

    • Jeremy Koay
      Posted at 13:27h, 22 March

      Hi ChongTM. Thanks for keeping me posted with the direction that schools in Johor are heading. The idea of promoting and fostering 21st century skills sounds like an exciting move. In my view, at the core of 21st century skills are elements such as critical thinking, adaptability, team work and social justice. In order to incorporate these elements well in an ESL classroom, I believe teachers play an important role in planning activities that reflect this aspiration. Also, I don’t think a learner-centred classroom will diminish teachers’ active participation in the learning process. In fact, I am not convinced that the notions of learner-centred and teacher-centred are two ends of a spectrum. Rather than debating whether learners or teachers are more important in the classroom, I would ask myself whether learning has taken place. From the SCT point of view, learning will take place because human beings interact actively with both social and material environments and they will learn something out of it.

      Going back to the teacher-centred vs. learner-centred debate, I believe it is necessary for teachers to actively, deliberately and strategically design activities that meet learners’ needs or those that promote 21st century skills. Based on SCT’s idea of scaffolding, teachers’ feedback and support for helping learners achieve a particular task is crucial. Can we say learners are more important than teachers? I’m yet to be convinced.

      You might find this link interesting https://elt.oup.com/feature/global/21st-century-skills/?cc=global&selLanguage=en