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Early Child Development and Care, January, 2005

Vol. 175(1), pp. 3747

ISSN 03004430 (print)/ISSN 14768275 (online)/05/01003711
2005 Taylor & Francis Group Ltd
DOI: 10.1080/0300443042000230311
Constructivism does not only happen in
the individual: sociocultural theory and
early childhood education
Susan Edwards*
Monash University, Australia
Taylor and Francis Ltd GECD41022.sgm
(Received 10 February 2004)
10.1080/0300443042000230311 Early Childhood Development and Care 0300-4430 (print)/1476-8275 (online) Original Article 2004 Taylor & Francis Ltd 174 70000002004 SusanEdwards Faculty of EducationMonash UniversityP.O. Box 527FrankstonVic 3199Australiasusan.edwards@education.monash.edu.au
This paper examines recent movements in the early childhood education literature that have began
to relate sociocultural explanations for human development to the early childhood curriculum. The
paper reports the findings from an investigation conducted to determine early childhood educators
conceptions of the curriculum and their understandings of its theoretical informants, including
constructivism and developmental theory. This paper reports a small sample of findings from this
larger study and examines the conceptions of the term constructivism held by three practicing early
childhood educators. In each of these examples, the educators were found to express understand-
ings of constructivism that made reference to ideas central to sociocultural explanations for learning
and development, such as the zone of proximal development and inter-subjectivity. The paper
considers these findings in relation to Vygotskys and Rogoffs theories of development and consid-
ers the implications this particular perspective holds for the field of early childhood education when
considered in relation to the more traditional cognitive constructivist perspective.
The education of young children from a predominately Western perspective has tradi-
tionally occurred with reference to theories of learning and development aimed at
describing how young children acquire an awareness and knowledge of their worlds.
Historically this influence may be traced to the earliest writings of Rousseau,
Pestalozzi and Gesell, with the later theoretical advancement suggested by Piagets
genetic epistemology holding a role of fundamental importance to conceptions of early
childhood education and curriculum. Here, as noted by many authors (for example,
*Corresponding author: P.O. Box 527, Frankston, Victoria 3199, Australia. Email: susan.
38 S. Edwards
Bredekamp, 1987; de Vries & Kohlberg, 1987; Elkind, 1993; Forman, 1993; Kamii
& Ewing, 1996; Bredekamp & Copple, 1997) during the 1980s and 1990s (and in the
now ubiquitous Developmentally Appropriate Practice guidelines), Piagets theory
was utilized to articulate a view of early childhood education that provided learning
experiences to young children that were considered suitable to their ages and levels of
development, while simultaneously enabling them to construct their own learning.
According to this argument, young children were viewed as needing to actively
explore their learning environments in order to build their own understandings of the
world and its various phenomena. This particular interpretation of constructivism
was somewhat affectionately positioned as one in which children were seen as young
scientists busily exploring and experimenting so as to construct a series of mental
schemas that were likewise considered representative of their developing understand-
ings of the external world. However, more recent theoretical discussion emerging
from both the sociocultural and postmodernist literature has served to displace this
view and left in its critically deconstructed wake a somewhat forlorn image whereby
the active scientist has been repainted as the lone scientist (Dahlberg et al., 2000);
and emphasis placed instead on the culturally situated and socially communicated
nature of knowledge and knowledge acquisition (see, for example, Lubeck et al.,
2001; Wise & Sanson, 2000; Fleer, 2002; Robbins, 2003). Here arguments regarding
the social and cultural functions of learning and development have served to empha-
size the notion that young children are active participants within their learning
communities, more so than they are either young or lonely scientists. To a large
extent, this assertion has evolved from Vygotskys fundamental premise that all
knowledge, and the knowledge-making tools (e.g. language and symbolism) afforded
to a community actually reside within a sociohistorical context (Vygotsky, 1978).
Essentially, Vygotskys argument suggests that any given community is likely to
hold a series of beliefs and knowledge practices regarding the manner in which the
world operates that have developed over the generations that collectively represent its
history. In addition, the argument likewise maintains that the beliefs and knowledge
practices of a community are located in the social customs and discourses supplied to
them via the very language and symbolism they use to communicate these, while
simultaneously participating in their continued development over the course of the
current generation. Young children, upon being born into their communities, are
viewed as gradually appropriating the knowledge, and then the psychological tools of
the people comprising their communities (John-Steiner & Mahn, 1996, p. 193). The
gradual internalization of the sociohistorical knowledge and tools held by the commu-
nity on the childs behalf are argued to occur via an interaction between two planes
of psychological development, referred to by Vygotsky as the intrapersonal and inter-
personal planes of development (Wertsch & Tulviste, 1994, p. 334), thus giving rise
to the commonly quoted explanation:
Any function in the childs cultural development appears twice, or on two planes. First it
appears on the social plane, and then on the psychological plane. First it appears between
people as an interpsychological category, and then within the child as an intrapsychological
category. (Vygotsky, 1986, p. 163)
Sociocultural theory and early childhood education 39
Accordingly, knowledge acquisition and the development of intellectual capacity are
viewed as socially and culturally defined, rather than individually constructed,
processes. While this particular view of learning and development has served to
remove the active scientist from the early childhood educational literature,
Vygotskys theory has nonetheless provided an alternative view in which development
itself may viewed as occurring within a zone characterized by the childs indepen-
dent abilities and that which he/she is able to achieve with the assistance of a more
capable peer and/or adult (Seifert, 1993, p. 18). From this perspective, sociocultural
theory represents a view of development in which interactions between children and
adults are viewed as crucial to the process of knowledge acquisition, whereby knowl-
edge itself is defined according to the sociohistorical practices, beliefs and experiences
of the community into which the child is born.
This idea is one that has more recently been expanded by Rogoff (1998, 2003),
whose version of sociocultural theory argues that development occurs on three
planes, rather than the two planes necessarily articulated by Vygotsky. According to
Rogoff, the very process of participation (i.e. through observation, social interaction
or direct teaching) within a community serves to delineate a childs developmental
capacity, to the extent that development itself becomes defined by the childs evolving
understanding of the sociocultural context in which he/she lives. As such, Rogoffs
view of development identifies three interacting planes at which development is
argued to occur: including the individual child himself/herself; the other people
within the community in which he/she lives; and the sociocultural context defining
the manner in which these same people engage in the processes of knowledge sharing
and production. Accordingly, individual development is arguably defined according
to the cultural and social contexts in which it occurs; just as the community and its
context may be shaped by the interactions of the individuals of which it is comprised.
Thus, as Rogoff explains, development is a process of peoples changing participa-
tion in the sociocultural activities of their communities (2003, p. 52). When
described as function of sociocultural participation, development itself cannot
necessarily be considered in universalistic terms with respect to both its purpose and
ultimate formation. Rather, it is argued by Rogoff (1990) that development must
necessarily involve the acquisition of those skills and knowledge practices that are of
importance to the host, rather than a generalized community:
Depending on the circumstances, both immediate and societal, as well as the individual
characteristics of the person, appropriate development may take many courses. This is not
to say that development is aimless. Although chance plays an important role in character-
istics of the circumstances and of the person, the activity of individuals and their social
partners has purpose. Development involves progress towards local goals and valued skills.
(Rogoff, 1990, pp. 5647; emphasis added)
As this argument suggests, a consideration of development from the sociocultural
perspective sees it defined not only in relation to its sociocultural origins, but also
according to the goals and skills of importance to the context from which it originates
in the first instance. As a relatively recent informant to early childhood education and
curriculum, sociocultural theory therefore raises a number of issues when considered
40 S. Edwards
in relation to the education of young children. These are likely to be a particular
interest when the traditional strength of the Piagetian and active scientist view of
learning and development as informants to the early childhood curriculum are
considered. For example, whilse previous considerations of learning and curriculum
have emphasized the individual child and the construction of his/her knowledge, how
might a consideration of the sociocultural explanation serve to reposition what is
considered appropriate developmental progress for a child? In addition, how might a
consideration of sociocultural theory in early childhood education serve to redefine
what are considered appropriate learning experiences and/or content within the
curriculum? Further, what are the implications for the manner in which learning and
the acquisition of knowledge are perceived within the early childhood classroom
from a sociocultural perspective?
Given the recent emphasis placed on sociocultural theory and early childhood
education at the theoretical level, such questions may certainly be considered worthy
of examination. However, in considering these issues it is perhaps necessary to
consider how sociocultural explanations for learning and development are perceived
at the level of practice by the educators responsible for the implementation of the
early childhood curriculum in the first instance. While consideration of early child-
hood educators understanding regarding the curriculum is not necessarily new
(Spodek, 1988), the examination of their understandings regarding sociocultural
theory, and its relationship to young childrens learning and development, is more
contemporary in its orientation than previous research concerned with educators
conceptions of curriculum (Clyde, 1989; Isenberg, 1990; Schiller, 1990). While
previous studies related to this area of investigation have examined educators
conceptions of play (Wood & Bennet, 1998) and their developing understandings of
sociocultural theory (Fleer & Richardson, 2004), the focus in this paper is on explor-
ing how the term constructivism, and its associated ideas with respect to learning and
development, were conceived by early childhood educators from a sociocultural
The study was conducted within a qualitative framework informed by a post-positivist
research paradigm. According to this approach and its associated theoretical princi-
ples, research regarding the conceptions individuals hold about their worlds should
be sensitive to the notion that reality is an essentially subjective experience (Guba &
Lincoln, 1999). By extension, studies seeking to examine the beliefs, conceptions or
understanding people hold about their worlds and/or work should reflect this orien-
tation and therefore emphasize the collection of data aimed at illuminating the issues
as they are perceived or interpreted by the participants of concern. In recognition of
this argument, the study employed the open-ended interview schedule as its principal
data collection measure. Fourteen early childhood educators participated in detailed
interviews aimed at determining their conceptions of the early childhood curriculum
and its theoretical informants. All participating educators were selected for inclusion
Sociocultural theory and early childhood education 41
in the study on the basis of their previous experience working in the sector (two years
minimum) and on their base level qualifications (at least a Bachelor of Education).
Participating educators were drawn from early childhood educational settings located
in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne, Victoria and were from both independent and
government-funded settings.
This paper reports the findings from a small section of the larger study and is
focused on the responses offered by three early childhood educators (Beth,
Maureen and Jill) when they were invited to explain their understandings of the
term constructivism in relation to the early childhood curriculum to the inter-
viewer. The data recorded during the interviews were transcribed and analyzed
within the qualitative data analysis software package NVIVO using principles artic-
ulated from grounded theory (Strauss & Corbin, 1998). Here, the main themes
arising from the data were identified in an open coding process (known as parent
nodes in NVIVO) and further defined using axial coding (referred to as child
nodes in NVIVO). All data were initially coded according to the developing open
and axial codes, and then re-coded in order to ensure that all data were exposed to
the same coding process.
While the larger study found that the early childhood educators tended to
explain their understandings of the term constructivism in relation to both cogni-
tive and sociocultural theories (see Edwards, 2003, pp. 212228), the focus in this
paper is on exploring the responses offered by those educators whose understand-
ings reflected a more sociocultural than cognitive constructivist conception of the
Coding of the data resulted in the identification of two main themes in which the
three educators understandings of the term constructivism were defined according
to two main aspects, including a social and a cultural/participatory aspect. Each of
these aspects was further characterized by two subthemes determined via the process
of axial coding, as demonstrated in Table 1.
Table 1. Educators understanding of the term constructivism as dened by open and
axial coding
Open code (main theme) Axial code (subthemes)
1. Social aspect Learning constructed by children among peers and adults
Learning and development supported by adults within the
2. Cultural and participatory aspect Purpose for learning related to the daily functioning of the
childs community
Learning characterized by participation in the community
and its activities
42 S. Edwards
As can be noted in Table 1, the educators understandings of the term constructivism
were defined according to two main aspects: in which the social interactions occur-
ring between children and adults were emphasized in the first; and the cultural and
participatory aspect of learning emphasized in the second. Each of these aspects will
now be discussed in turn.
The social aspect
The social aspect of the educators understanding of constructivism was represented
by their belief that learning occurred among children and adults, and that this in turn
was further supported by adults within the zone of proximal development (ZPD).
Maureens initial response to questioning regarding her understanding of construc-
tivism indicated that she viewed it as an active process on the childs behalf that
occurred within a socially supportive context:
I guess child initiated learning; having appropriate, facilitating appropriate interactions
that allow children to move, scaffold their learning. Providing them with opportunities, I
mean I just conjure up with constructivism children constructing their own learning and
having the support of a very caring and intuitive people around them. Constructivism
doesnt only happen in the individual, it should be, well it can be individual, but it is work-
ing with one another and building on concepts, ideas or projects within the team. I just
picture a building and in order for it to be constructed you need the scaffolding and you
need the team players.
In this explanation, Maureens understanding of the term constructivism is
expressed in largely social terms. Here, the childrens developing knowledge,
defined by Maureen as their concepts, ideas or projects are seen to occur in relation
to each other with the support of the adults involved in that environment.
Maureens belief that constructivism doesnt only happen in the individual highlights
the manner in which she viewed learning as dependent on the social situation.
This idea was further supported by Maureens reference to working together, and
this in turn to the importance of supporting or scaffolding childrens learning.
Importantly, the notion of scaffolding had earlier been associated with allowing
children to move forward in their learning. In other words, while Maureens
conception of the term constructivism represented a social dimension, it was ulti-
mately concerned with the development of learning, rather than having children
actively engage with materials or ideas without a sense of where such engagement
should be headed.
This particular reference to childrens learning was one similarly made by Beth,
whose understanding of constructivism was likewise initially social in nature:
Constructivism happens by allowing a lot of flexibility in your program, sort of setting up
small goals that they can actively, some cant construct up to the same level as others, so
we start with the easy and build on it, I think you have to be open-ended, I think children
learn a lot from each other and I think you have got to build on that. I think that they will
try to do something if they saw another child doing it.
Sociocultural theory and early childhood education 43
However, for Beth there was concern that the educator needed to identify or under-
stand childrens current levels of thinking via social discourse in order to extend their
current conceptualizations of certain topics. This idea was further expressed as Beth
explained her understanding regarding the adults role in childrens social interac-
I often find that if I have trouble explaining something I will ask the child, what do you
think that means? Or what do you think this is? So theyre giving me the answer, so they
work, they have an idea of what you are talking about, but they can construct that, they
can synthesize all that information and then give it back to you and give it to the other chil-
dren. If you give them a few guidelines, then the child will give it back to you and then you
know where they are and what to build on.
Here Beths reference to providing children with guidelines regarding the interaction
in which they are involved is crucial to her later argument that these same guidelines
later help the child move forward in his/her understanding of the topic under discus-
sion as both the child and adult work to achieve intersubjectivity. In essence, while
not necessarily employing the discourse of sociocultural theory, Beth describes an
understanding of constructivism that makes reference to the notion of the ZPD as
identified by Vygotsky and the role of social interactions in transferring socially held
knowledge from the interpersonal to intrapersonal plane of development. Or, as Beth
so adroitly described, constructivism represented the learning that occurred in the
space between what the children give back to you and then you know where they are and
what to build on.
According to both Maureen and Beths explanations, constructivism represented
the learning they saw occurring between children and adults as each engaged within
a particular social interaction. An important component of this interaction, however,
was the educators awareness that it be supported in order to extend childrens learn-
ing beyond the levels demonstrated by their current social engagements. In this
respect, both Maureen and Beth expressed a conception of constructivism that made
reference to key theoretical constructs emerging from Vygotskys account for knowl-
edge acquisition, including the intrapersonal and interpersonal planes of develop-
ment, the role of social interactions in learning and the ZPD. Accordingly, for these
two educators, the term constructivism appeared to represent a view of learning that
was essentially social in its origins and continued development. While Maureen and
Beth appeared to express this particular view in terms of a primarily Vygotskian
perspective, Jill (the third educator of focus in this paper), described an understand-
ing of the term constructivism that highlighted the cultural and participatory aspect
of development articulated by Rogoff.
The cultural and participatory aspect
While acknowledging the importance of the sociohistorical context on the intraper-
sonal and interpersonal planes of development initially identified by Vygotsky, Rogoff
emphasizes the notion that individual, interpersonal and cultural processes are not
independent entities (1998, p. 687). Rather, as Rogoff explains, the interaction
44 S. Edwards
between all three identified planes of development give rise to the construction of
knowledge as the child himself/herself participates within his/her community and so
transforms his/her existing abilities and understanding within the context of that
community (Rogoff, 1995, p. 141). Thus, participation in the cultural context in
which the child resides is seen to be as fundamental to the course of development as
the intrapersonal and interpersonal planes of development are considered in
Vygotskian theory.
The role of childrens participation in their communities as a function of their
developing knowledge was one expressed by Jill, whose understanding of the term
constructivism was contained within a detailed explanation regarding the relationship
between childrens learning and their sociocultural contexts. Here, without explicit
reference to sociocultural theory itself, Jill identified each of the intersecting planes of
development described by Rogoff (1998, 2003). Reference to the third plane of
development was represented by Jill with examples in which she detailed how she
attempted to implement learning experiences for young children that reflected the
values and process of the communities in which the children lived. Beginning with a
description of constructivism that referred to the provision of materials that stimulate
inquiry and the need for social opportunity for exploration in language and leadership,
Jill offered two examples of her teaching practice that illuminated her understanding
of the relationship between childrens learning and their broader cultural experiences
and needs:
If I highlight one of the things I require of children as part of our society, it is that when
we have lunch, we separate our papers and our food scraps. And we have a box for recy-
cling paper and we have container to put out in the compost bin outside. That those things
arent then just a practice that ends there. Why do we have those bins? What do we do with
those bins? We are about to explore making paper, because I want the children to know
that the box of paper that we collect doesnt just go into a bin, they need to know what the
process is from that point, one because they dont see it. Someone collects that paper and
it is taken out, so what do we do with it? So in a small sense then we re-create that in their
environment and I say, well I havent got the big machines, but what the big machines will
do with it, and so on through the process, and then children get their hands in and they
make their own paper. So part of it is them constructing and also to chalk and talk because
I need to explain to them what happens, they will see it but we need to explore how, where,
tie this simple piece of machinery to the machines that operate in large factories for re-
cycled paper for use in machines here and newspapers and paper bags and the like. And
the fact that it comes off the supermarket shelves.
In this example, Jill quite clearly explained the relationship she perceived between the
broader cultural experiences and operations that characterized the childrens host
sociocultural contexts and their learning. Here, the links she perceived between the
three planes of development were outlined. Reference to the community/institutional
plane of development described by Rogoff was established by Jills mention of the chil-
dren forming part of our society. The interpersonal plane was likewise identified by
Jills reference to the chalk and talk in which she argued she needed to engage in order
to explain what happens to the children, before they got their hands in to the activity
on the intrapersonal level. Therefore, in this account regarding her understanding of
Sociocultural theory and early childhood education 45
the term constructivism, Jill highlighted the manner in which the childrens personal
interactions with the material, and the interpersonal interactions between herself and
the children were linked to participation and understanding of a particular social
activity (in this case, the recycling) that was in turn contextualized according to the
broader cultural expectation that such recycled products would be made available
on the supermarket shelves. For Jill, the explanation did not end here, with a further
example of her teaching practice utilized to emphasize the interpersonal plane and the
role of social interactions in childrens learning explored. However, as in her first
example, both the sociocultural practices (the community/intuitional plane of devel-
opment) and the childrens roles as participants in these practices as learners were
The other area is composting. We have our own garden, we are putting out vegetables, the
children are actively doing it, and we eat the vegetables at the end of the process. How do
they [the vegetables] develop from here to there? And what is that? And what is the
compost doing? Because it happens in there, where they cant see it, so we need to give
them an open compost that they can see, and is it a scientific experiment and they need to
have a hands on involvement in it. So they, part of the hands on is the putting the fruit
there, what happens to the fruit scraps? And the food scraps when they go into the
compost? If they have been able to visually see it, so pairing those two elements again, so
that they have an understanding of a normal everyday process. Things that parents do at
home. Who has a compost bin at home? Who has a recycle bin to put out? I wonder what
happens to those things? Do you know? And posting questions and letting children think
about it.
Here, Jills reference to the interpersonal plane of development was represented by
the questions she posed to the children while encouraging them to not only participate
in a sociocultural activity common to their community (composting), but to simulta-
neously consider the purpose, process and outcomes of these same behaviours.
Accordingly, while Rogoff (1998) described childrens learning and development as
the participatory appropriation of community-held customs and behaviors, so too did
Jill explain childrens learning as a function of their exploration and participation
within a normal everyday process such as that represented by the composting of waste
food. This particular idea is one that Rogoff (1998) has described as the process via
which individual children learn as they participate with others in shared endeavors
that both constitute and are derived from community traditions (1998, p. 687). Here,
as Jills description regarding the recycling of the paper and the composting of the
scrap foods indicates, such shared endeavors are necessarily constituted by, and
derived from, the community practice of recycling materials for later use. As Rogoffs
(1995) argument regarding the sociocultural explanation of development suggests,
and Jills references to the child, interpersonal interactions and the larger community
indicate, a sociocultural view of learning and development positions growth as contin-
gent on the interactions occurring between each plane:
It is incomplete to focus only on the relationship of individual development and social
interaction without concern for the cultural activity in which personal and interpersonal
actions take place. And it is incomplete to assume that development occurs in one plane
and not in others. (Rogoff, 1995, p. 141)
46 S. Edwards
Jills articulation of her understanding regarding constructivism would suggest that
the three planes of development described by Rogoff as central to the process of
development and learning are evident in the early childhood classroom. As an aspect
of the educators conceptions of the term constructivism, the social and participatory
nature of learning was clearly of importance to Jill and formed an important compo-
nent of her understandings regarding learning in early childhood education.
The findings discussed in this paper indicate that the term constructivism was
conceived by Beth, Maureen and Jill in relation to key explanatory constructs in
sociocultural theory, including the ZPD, inter-subjectivity, scaffolding and the nature
of the inter-relationship between the interpersonal, intrapersonal and community/
institutional planes of development. Of interest is the manner in which these
constructs were found to be present in the educators understandings of constructiv-
ism even where the constructs themselves where referred to without direct reference
to the discourse relevant to sociocultural theory. Although the empirical basis of this
finding is small, it nonetheless indicates that sociocultural explanations for learning
and development are as relevant to the early childhood curriculum as those more
traditionally emphasized by the cognitiveconstructivist perspective. The principal
implication of this finding is the manner in which it opens consideration of the early
childhood curriculum and pedagogy to an alternative perspective to that historically
described by Piagetian theory and developmentalism. Obviously the empirical basis
of this proposition requires more detailed investigation; however, further examination
of the relevance of sociocultural theory to early childhood education may place exist-
ing practices and interpretations regarding the manner in which children are seen to
construct their learning under greater scrutiny, with a resultant shift in the nature of
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