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H809 – Socio-cultural perspective (A8.3)

April 6, 2011

Here some ‘short’ background information to socio-cultural theory that Crook and Dymott applied to research the practice of writing.

The authors claim that the practice of writing does not only involve key tapping and screen starring, but writing seems to confront us with a rich system of socio-cultural activities. Hence, writing is a social practice and both writing and technology are mutually constitutive, and thus cannot be researched in isolation.

The following extract is from Wikipedia (2010).

Vygotsky, a psychologist and social constructivist, laid the foundation for the interactionists view of language acquisition. According to Vygotsky, social interaction plays an important role in the learning process and proposed the zone of proximal development (ZPD) where learners construct the new language through socially mediated interaction. Although Vygotsky’s social-development theory was proposed many years ago, it has then begun to serve as a foundation for the interactionists approaches to language acquisition recently and as the social interactionists model in recent years.

In contrast to the theoretical modalities in behaviourism, the approach to language acquisition emphasizing that children are conditioned to learn language by a stimulus-response pattern, the social interactionist approaches rest on the premises of both the Nativist and the Empiricist approaches.

Learning is mediated, distributed and situated according the socio-cultural theory.

Mediated learning

Vygotsky is actually known for Activity Theory, which has several different varieties. E.g. Engeström (1978) adopted it expanded the Vygotsky’s model. Mediated learning is a modern descendant of Vgotsky’s approach to learning.

He proposes that everything we do is ‘done through’, or mediated by, cultural artefacts.

As example he state that e.g. our educational institutions are developments of our culture, or that we count with numbers that are culturally developed. Learning is a social endeavour, because artefacts are all developed by a culture, they are products of social life. Learning is defined as becoming an expert in the use of the cultural artefacts (e.g. technology, symbol system, social practice).

Distributed learning

According to cultural psychologists is learning best defined as forms of participation in mediated activity, not in terms of an individual’s private mental process. Crook and Dymott (2005) claim that the study of activity in cultural psychological terms requires to adopt an analytic unit, to explore the ‘individual-acting-with-mediated-means’ not the traditional ‘individual’ of mainstream psychology. The conceptualisation of cognition views artefact not as separate context, but as fundamental part of the mental function itself. Mind is thus not something bound by the confines of the skull but instead extends ‘beyond the skin’ (Wertsch, 1991, p.27). Lave (1988) argue that cognition is ‘spread over’ the artefacts present. Human activity involves the mutual engagement with culture and social-cultural theory research this relationship and this mutual constitutive relationship can be researched.

Situated learning

Cognition is mediated by cultural artefacts that are present when we learn, yet our learning is situated with our current context. This means that:

  • people within the same culture learn in different ways depending on the mediating artefacts they have present at the time
  • people in different cultures learn in different ways because their learning is mediated by different cultural artefacts.

Socio-cultural theory  focus on measuring how ‘individual-using-technology-in-settings (Crook, 1994), how expert they become in using this cultural artefacts, not on what information an individual has in their head, or in terms of learning outcomes. Therefore qualitative research methodologies have been adopted to investigate this area, because the focus is on the process not the outcome of learning, as well as on meaning making in social settings.

Nevertheless remains the question where is the difference of Tolmies and Crook and Dymott’s approaches. A post from a H809 colleague triggered this question and let me ponder again over the differences. My first thought was where is the difference, because both acknowledge that the surrounding context influence our learning and actions. It is also not about individual and learning in a collaborative group. So what is it thoughtful

Tolmie wrote in the case study with the secondary school pupils how gender influence the outcome. He explains it as inherent trait. Girls are girls and they focus on consensus. But why is this the case, is it biological determined or is it socially determined, because girls are told you. Thus, here Crook and Dymontt with their socio-cultural theory come into play. They would explain that gender is socially constructed and determined, that learning is a social endeavour. These girls are taught to avoid confrontation, but come to a consensus, thus they are the product of the surrounding cultural context.

Honestly, I am not sure if that what I just wrote is complete nonsense or if this might be indeed explain the difference between the traditional psychological theory and the socio-cultural theory mixed. Having finished reading now both texts now, I am not really wiser because e.g. Tolmie claims in his abstract that the same technology or software (artefact) may have unexpectedly diverse effects, according to specific setting and Tolmie also claims that research and evaluation work need to gather more systemic data e.g. the interplay between technology and context, and that the whole implementation event must be examined, not just the use of the technology in isolation. That sounds pretty much the same as Crook and Dymott claim. They argue that experiments are not only not conducted under natural conditions, but they are conducted in isolation. Yet, literacy practices are not abstract skills that can be studied in isolation from the peculiarities of the situation including artefacts like writing tools.

One last try ;-). Tolmie sees a relationship between technology and context, whereas Crook and Dymott conceptualize the ‘individual-acting-with-mediational-mean’ or ‘individuals-using-technolgoy-in-settings’ relationship. Does that make sense :-?, well I doubt it.


Crook, C. and Dymott, R. (2005) ‘ICT and the literacy practices of student writing’ in Monteith, M. (ed.) Teaching Secondary School Literacies with ICT, Maidenhead, Open University Press, also available online at (Accessed 05 April 2011).

Tolmie, A. (2001) ‘Examining learning in relation to the contexts of use of ICT’, Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, vol. 17, no. 3, pp. 235–41; also available online at
(Accessed 2 December 2010).

Wikipedia (2010) Social interactionist theory. Available from (accessed 06 April 2011).

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