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Sociocultural theories

Sociocultural theories are at the heart of the aspiration statement, principles, strands, and learning outcomes of Te Whāriki. On this page, you can read about sociocultural theories and how understandings derived from them are put to practical use – informing both teaching and learning. 

What's this about?

Why does this matter?

How do we apply it in practice?

A group of tamariki and kaiako singing and doing actions to a waiata

What's this about?

Theories can be described as lenses through which to understand how children learn and develop. Te Whāriki draws on sociocultural theories. These originated from the work of Lev Vygotsky in Russia, and the ideas have been developed further by other researchers and theorists.

A common idea underpinning all the different sociocultural theories is that human development is a social and cultural process.

Here, the term “culture” means more than ethnicity. It refers to all the values, understandings, and practices associated with all the contexts children experience.

Tamariki welcome visitors to Te Puna Reo Māori o Puhi Kaiti

In this brief video clip, you see the children welcoming some visitors to their ELS. How did the children develop the skills, knowledge, and confidence you see? Use the two bullet points in the paragraph below to help you consider this question.

Sociocultural theories recognise that:

  • children’s worlds – including their development – are shaped by the people, interactions, and environment around them
  • children are active creators of knowledge – they construct and modify their understandings through their experiences and social interactions.

Participation leads to development

How would the performance of the children in the video above be different if they were two rather than four years old? What you see here reflects the children’s developmental level of coordination, language, and memory.

There is sometimes a misconception that knowledge of child development is less important in a sociocultural curriculum. However, as educational psychologist Anne Smith puts it, “...learning cannot be separated from development and ‘good learning’ is in advance of development. Children advance to higher stages of development by being stimulated and guided at the outside limits of their skill by others” (page 22, 2013, Understanding children and childhood).

The idea that children reach new levels of development and maturity through connecting and participating with “people, places, and things” is at the heart of sociocultural theories.

All experiences matter

Within sociocultural theory, learning is not confined to specific spaces, places, or times. Learning includes what happens in an ELS and what happens at home and in the community. (This includes the virtual communities children may be part of.)

When children participate at your ELS they bring the “funds of knowledge” from all the other aspects of their social and cultural lives – and vice versa. This way they continue to build new and deeper understandings on the foundations of their previous learning.

Why does this matter?

Understanding sociocultural theories is fundamental to making sense of and good use of Te Whāriki. Alongside the curriculum itself, a working knowledge of sociocultural approaches helps kaiako to determine priorities for teaching and learning and feel confident that their explanations and choices about practice are well informed.

Here are examples of teaching practices that draw on sociocultural thinking. You will recognise them as practices promoted throughout Te Whāriki.

Relationships beyond the gate matter

Understanding that learning is not compartmentalised to a time or place accounts for the emphasis on fostering relationships with whānau and communities in Te Whāriki. Rather than relationships for relationships sake, sociocultural thinking advocates for relationships that help children find meaningful connections between different contexts and so increase the likelihood that they develop a positive learning identity.

One of the challenges is to build relationships that ensure all children and whānau feel able to participate and know their contributions are valued.

Kaiako matter

Sociocultural theories challenge the idea that adults teach and children learn – and that all learning is a product of teaching. However, this often leads to another misconception – that children learn best when they are allowed to “follow their interests” with little kaiako intervention.

Sociocultural approaches require kaiako to pay keen attention to what the child’s interests are and then, in a fine balance between contribution and intervention, determine how best to support and progress their learning.

Kaiako share their ideas, talents, and strengths to stimulate thinking while not insisting that children do things their way. As co-constructors of knowledge, kaiako are not expected to have all the answers.

The role of the kaiako is apparent in the word ako – where teaching and learning are understood as inextricably mixed. Kaiako learn from the child about what the child’s learning interests are, in other words by closely observing the child, the child actually teaches the kaiako how to “teach” in that particular situation.

Interactions matter

The idea that participation leads to development suggests that the quality of interactions largely determines the quality of experience and learning. Interactions can be oral, physical, spiritual and reflect diverse cultures in services.

Anne Smith put it very succinctly when she wrote: “The greater the richness of activities and interactions, the greater [children’s] understanding and knowledge will be. This is not just a one-way process from adult to child, but a reciprocal partnership where adult and child jointly construct understanding and knowledge” (Smith, 1998. Understanding Children’s Development, page 2).

In sociocultural thinking, the emphasis is on the “inter” – what happens in that space between kaiako and children. In Te Whāriki this is captured in “a tonā wā”, where time and space are recognised as significant. For Pacific, the term va’a and what happens in that space is the essence of interaction.

With this in mind, kaiako strive to increase the value and time given to interactions over the pressures of getting through the day.

Language learning and communication matters

Speech, body language, and sign language are the tools for participation. Unless members of a community of learning can communicate, their ability to participate alongside others is limited.

In a sociocultural curriculum, kaiako ensure children have plenty of opportunities to develop a solid oral foundation. Verbal exchanges go beyond instructions. Sustained conversations are valued in the knowledge that through these new learnings are constructed. Time is given for children to express ideas and respond.

Children learning from each other matters

In sociocultural terms, tools, like languages, support children to learn from each other. When children collaborate on a common interest, they develop a shared understanding and this leads to a deeper learning about what it means to be part of a community.

The notion of tuakana/teina is relevant here – one child can be more experienced than another, and through a shared interest, they find a way to learn together.

Kaiako who draw on sociocultural perspectives strive to maximise children’s opportunities to learn from each other through curriculum design.

How do we apply it in practice?

Kaiako who apply sociocultural theories to their practice are likely to have greater understanding, confidence, and satisfaction using Te Whāriki.

Developing a shared understanding of the key ideas of sociocultural theories is the first step. In a video discussing sociocultural theories, Carmel Richardson shows a clip of practice from her ELS and explains it in sociocultural terms.

Talking about practice especially social cultural theory in childhood education

This is something you might do as a team, using short videos from your context. By focusing on the same sequence of practice, there is more opportunity to develop a shared understanding.

Framing reflective questions around sociocultural approaches is another way to bring these ideas to life. Here is a sample of reflective questions that reference back to the two previous sections.

  • How does our understanding of “cultural” compare with the one described here?
  • How well do we stimulate and guide children “at the outside limits of their skill”?
  • How good is our understanding of child development trajectories?
  • Do we have shared goals and understandings around why we value relationships with whānau and community?
  • What teaching strategies do we use to strike a “balance between contribution and intervention” in children’s learning?