Sociocultural Learning Theory

Is this Really Needed in Schools Today?

Sociocultural learning theory is based on the work of Lev Vygotsky. The main premise is that our understanding stems from our social interactions. Sounds obvious, right? Especially for those who teach in middle or high school! Colleagues and I talk daily about how social our middle level kiddos are! Socialcultural theory gives us a structure to maximize on this trait if we are puposeful in our planning.

There are three areas of sociocultural learning theory, and if we plan for each of these in coaching situations and in the classroom, we will boost student and staff learning.

What is it, really?

  1. Social Interaction: Knowledge and understanding stem from interaction with others. As we communicate with others, we develop and grow.
  2. The More Knowledgeable Other: Someone who has a greater understanding and a higher level and ability than another in a relationship should model desired behaviors and actions, as well as give support.
  3. Zone of Proximal Development: Language and learning occurs within this zone. These are the skills learners can do with guidance from others who can already do them independently.

What Does it Look Like?

When I think about my growth as a teacher, there are certain people who immediately come to mind- teachers I talk openly with, who are willing to be honest with me when I share areas I need to grow, and who help me by sharing strategies and letting me observe them as they teach. Considering Vygotsy’s Socioculteral Theory and the peer coaching format, it makes perfect sense that reflecting on our work, learning from each other’s strengths, and pushing each other’s thinking and practices has helped us grow.

Social Interaction: As we communicate with others, we develop and grow. Peer coaching is most rewarding when teachers form these relationships on their own versus being paired by administration. One of the goals of peer coaching is to reduce teacher isolation. In my own practice, I have two peer coaching relationships. Both were formed organically out of our own needs. Both relationships took time to develop as we learned to trust each other enough to share the issues and concerns we had about our practice. Our interactions are informal and cyclical- its a lot like having a really high-functioning, 24/7,  professional learning community!

The More Knowledgeable Other: One person might be more knowledgeable in one area while the other has more experience in another area. Peer coaching focuses on individual growth with two important goals being to increase student learning and to promote collaboration among colleagues. In my peer coaching relationships, we each have different strengths, and the “more knowledgeable other” changes based on the current topic. One of my peer-coaching relationships is with our school’s instructional coach because is my role as a reading specialist I also coach teachers. Our instructional coach is the more knowledgeable other in terms of strategies for teaching adults while I am the more knowledgeable other in terms of literacy strategies. We learn from each other’s strengths daily!

Zone of Proximal Development: Learning occurs within our personal learning zone, which is a bit beyond what we can do independently. The wonderful thing about peer coaching is that it is specific to each person’s needs. Understanding our own needs requires reflection (another goal of peer coaching), and when we’re honest with ourselves about areas we need to grow, and we’ve formed a trusting relationship with a colleague (or two), we can work with them on the best approach to learning within our zone.


Social Development Theory (Vygotsky). (2016, September 8). Retrieved from




Friday Reflection: What Can We Do to Support Each Other So That We All Reach Our REAL Potential?

Why Take Time to Reflect?

Reflecting on learning and making plans for success accelerates growth. In our classroom, students reflect on their learning often. We do this at preset points in the process, and we do it naturally when one of us realizes it’s time to take a minute to look at what we’ve been struggling with or accomplished. We also do it every Friday because it provides closure for the week and sets the stage for Mondays when we set weekly goals.

Friday Reflection

Each Friday includes a theme relating to one of the characteristics we need in order to overcome adversity, media of some kind, reflection prompts, and a brief class discussion with compliments for us as a group or for individual students. The entire process takes 20 minutes or less once students get the hang of it, and provides huge dividends when done consistently.

Weekly Theme

“Nothing is impossible. The word itself says ‘I’m possible.’” -Audrey Hepburn


Animated short Zero directed by Christopher Kezelos. The producer, Zealous Creative, describes the film: In a world that judges people by their number, Zero faces constant prejudice and persecution. He walks a lonely path until a chance encounter changes his life forever: he meets a female zero. Together they prove that through determination, courage, and love, nothing can be truly something.

This film is incredible- it captivated my daughter when she watched it, my students when they watched it, and my colleagues when they watched it! Even if you do not think you’ll use this reflection, I recommend watching Zero!

(I know this is a given, but be sure to view the video before playing it for students. It is appropriate for middle school and high school, but please view it through your students’ lenses before showing it to them; it addresses sensitive social issues. This reflection does not go into depth on these issues, but as students study stereotypes and discrimination the next several weeks, we will use this video as means to recognize the stereotyping and discrimination in our society.)

For younger students, substitute the movie with a book with a similar theme. Oneby Kathryn Otoshi, is a story about accepting each other’s differences.

*My students watched this video twice this week as we discussed the Notice and Note Signposts. We use signposts to uncover the themes the video presents. (For more information about teaching the Signposts, see “Three Things I Learned by Doing My Own Signpost Assignment” and “Evolving Understandings: Dig Deep with Signposts“)

Reflection Prompt

Zero is born into his place in society and not allowed to break out of it. Eventually, he does bust out because he and his friend believe they are something, they have courage, and they have love.  Looking back on our first 9 weeks of this school year, what have you achieved that seemed impossible in August? Which people in your life and what behaviors and mindsets helped you achieve it? (Consider all of your family members, friends, and teachers.)


  • Think about the time we’ve spent together since August, and consider how you’ve grown more comfortable each week. Think about Zero and the challenges he was able to overcome once he met his friend who accepted him. Use your experiences in this class and Zero’s experiences in overcoming his challenges to answer this question: What do people need in order to feel safe enough to learn? *I will ask students if they think it would be valuable to list these things on an anchor chart so that we can see them and think about them daily. Most will think it’s a good idea, and then we’ll have a good part of our learning about how to learn from 1st Quarter right there for us to use during 2nd Quarter.
  • What compliments do you have for each other? (This question is intentionally left open-ended because kids will surprise you once they’re comfortable enough to share. I ask the question regardless of the stage my class is in and share my own compliments if students aren’t ready to be open with each other yet.)


What types of reflections do you do with students at the end of the quarter or semester? The more we share, the more we learn!

Increase Thinking: 3 Simple Changes Will Make a World of Difference

Truth:  I am not a “quick thinker.”

Truth:  My mom and dad wouldn’t agree with that admission. Growing up, I was certainly “quick to react,” and I was described as having a “quick tongue.”

Truth: Reaction is what happens in the absence of strategic thinking.

Strategic thinking- thinking that maneuvers, changes, and grows can only happen if we are offered time. Time to process new information, synthesize it with prior knowledge, rethink, rearrange and revise, and decide how to share. In a classroom of 30-40 students, allowing each child that time sounds impossible.

Another truth:  I loathe the silence that happens after I ask my students a question.  For example:

“So, I’m thinking we should take extra time to read independently today since we had to cut it short yesterday.  What do you guys think?”

Blank stares.  A cricket under the bookcase.  Someone’s mom calls, and his phone vibrates.

Me again, kneeling on the carpet, “Seriously guys, do you think you need that time? Or do you have it covered at home?”

Someone raises her hand.

I bite.  I’m desperate.  I cannot wait for think time.

“Can I get a drink?”

Truth: Some students feel uncomfortable being an integral part of their learning.

Truth: Some students sit and wait for us to speak for them.

Truth: We’ve taught them to do this.

Here are few simple changes, to how we ask students to share their thoughts, that will make a huge difference for all students:

  • Wait time:  We all know what it is, but do our students?  Create a thinking culture by explaining why you pause after asking students a question.  Let them know you value “thoughtful thoughts” and not just their first thoughts.
  • Think About It:  Instead of asking “Why do you think…”, ask “Think about why… and photo- sky thinking best onewhen you have your thoughts ready, raise your hand, even if you don’t want to share.”  Once the majority of students are ready, say, “Keep your hand up if you want to share your thinking.”  It’s incredible how quickly this one works.  Students who never want to share, will begin thinking instead of letting others answer. They’ll also start sharing after only a few rounds of phrasing questions this way.
  • Turn and Talk:  It should be named “Turn and Process” because that’s really its purpose.  This strategy is tried and true, but it isn’t used nearly often enough.  I’ve found it particularly useful during lessons in which I’m modeling a certain skill. For example, pausing to allow students to turn and process what they notice me doing as I revise a sentence in a piece of writing, helps them pinpoint the important moves I make as a writer.  They are keen to observe once they realize their observations are important to their classmates.  Turn and talk very clearly places value on all thinkers. As kids are talking, be sure to confer with groups, and catch pieces of what students discuss, so that you can ask them to share out when the class comes back together. Letting them know that you value their thinking will open the door for sharing.

Simple changes.  Big impact.

Looking for a BIG change?

This week students began running whole-class discussions without raising hands.  We’ve worked on it for a couple of months, and this week they’re ready to run with it.  Teaching students how to have stimulating academic discussions without teacher direction at each turn makes a pointed statement to what we value:  their thinking.  More to come on the steps we took to get here.  Thanks to Alfie Kohn and his column ‘Your Hand’s Not Raised? Too Bad: I’m Calling on You Anyway‘ on  It was a reminder that the small changes written about above lead to big changes once students begin valuing their thinking too.

Teachers, what do you do to get every person thinking in your classroom?  I’d love to hear your ideas and tips no matter what grade level- preschool to college!  Thanks!