Social constructivism

Social constructivism (or socioculturalism) posits that the creation of knowledge cannot be separated from the social environment in which it is formed. While cognitive constructivists are concerned with understanding mental representations, social constructivists are more concerned with the ways in which knowledge is constructed through social interaction.

The emphasis within this paradigm is on human relationships and on learning through participation (activity) in social contexts (communities). The overall purpose of education is for learners to co-create knowledge and form identities. Learning is situated and occurs continuously through collaboration between the person and the social context. It involves more than just intellectual aspects; it also involves knowing oneself (constructing identity) and enculturation - picking up the jargon, behaviour, and norms of a new social group, and adopting its belief systems to become a member of the culture.

Please Note: We have grouped social constructivism and socioculturalism into one paradigm, however they have slight differences in focus. Social constructivists focus more on how learning is facilitated through social interaction, whereas socioculturalists focus on knowledge creation as a collective process. 

Key Principles

  • Purpose of education is for learners to co-create knowledge
  • Learning is co-constructing knowledge and norms through social interaction
  • The emphasis is on human relationships, learning through participation (activity) in social contexts (communities)
  • Learners are active participants
  • Teachers facilitate social interactions and collaborative work 

Key Theorists

Lev Vygotsky, 1896-1934

Vygotsky was a Russian psychologist who argued that all cognitive functions originate in (and must therefore be explained as products of) social interactions and that learning did not simply comprise the assimilation and accommodation of new knowledge by learners; it was the process by which learners were integrated into a knowledge community.

He introduced the idea of zone of proximal development (ZPD) to describe how learning should be matched in some manner with the child's level of development. He argued that to understand the relationship between development and learning we must distinguish between two developmental levels: the actual and the potential levels of development. The actual refers to those accomplishments a child can demonstrate alone or perform independently. This is in contrast with potential levels of development as suggested by the ZPD -- what children can do with assistance. The ZPD was regarded as a better, more dynamic and relative indicator of cognitive development than what children accomplished alone.


Jean Lave, (year of birth unknown) and Etienne Wenger, 1952-

Jean Lave is an American social anthropologist. Etienne Wenger is a Swiss educational theorist. They view learning as participation in the social world, suggesting learning as an integral and inseparable aspect of social practice.

Learning is the process by which new comers become part of a community of practice and move toward full participation in it. Learners' participation in the community of practice always entails situated negotiation and renegotiation of meaning in the world. They understand and experience the world through the constant interactions by which they reconstruct their identity (i.e., becoming a different person) and evolve the form of their membership in the community as the relations between new comers and old-timers who share the social practice change. In their view, motivation is situated because learners are naturally motivated by their growing value of participation and their desires to become full practitioners.

Concepts & Practices in Health Professions Education

Cognitive apprenticeship

In cognitive apprenticeship, teachers promote learning by making explicit their tacit knowledge or by modeling their strategies for students in authentic activity. Learners are challenged with tasks slightly more difficult than they can accomplish on their own and must rely on assistance from and collaboration with others to achieve these tasks. The goal of cognitive apprenticeship is for learners to work independently. The concept underpins residency programs in medical education.

Collaborative learning

Collaborative learning is an umbrella term for a variety of educational approaches that involve groups of learners working together to solve a problem, complete a task, or create a product. This concept can be traced to multiple different origins. For example, Vygotsky's zone of proximal development, and indigenous ways of knowing and learning. 


  • Brown JS, Collins A, Duguid P. Situated cognition and the culture of learning. Educational Researcher. 1989;18(1):32-42.
  • Collins A. Cognitive apprenticeship. In Sawyer RK, ed. The Cambridge handbook of the Learning Sciences. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; 2006, pp. 47-60.
  • Collins A, Brown JS, Holum A. Cognitive apprenticeship: Making thinking visible. American Educator. 1991;15(3):6-11.
  • Collins A, Brown JS, Newman SE. Cognitive apprenticeship. Thinking: The Journal of Philosophy for Children. 1988;8(1), 2-10.
  • Daniels H, ed. An Introduction to Vygotsky. 3rd ed. New York: Routledge; 2017.
  • Daniels H. Vygotsky and Pedagogy. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge; 2016.
  • Lave J. Situating learning in communities of practice. In Resnick LB, J. M. Levine JM, & S. D. Teasley SD, eds. Perspectives on Socially Shared Cognition. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association; 1991, pp. 63-82.
  • Robbins P, Aydede M, eds. The Cambridge Handbook of Situated Cognition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; 2008.
  • Vygotsky LS. Mind In Society: The Development Of Higher Psychological Processes. Harvard University Press; 1980.
  • Wenger E. Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press; 1998.
  • Wenger E, McDermott RA, Snyder W. Cultivating Communities of Practice: A Guide to Managing Knowledge. Harvard Business Press; 2002.

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