Expansive Learning and Activity Theory (Engestrom – 1987)

Another social learning model which has been expounded in a rather profound, dialectical, and somewhat philosophical way, is Yrjö Engeström’s expansive learning theory (Engestrom, 1987). Viewing psychology to be “at the limits of cognitivism” (ch. 2, p. 1) Engestrom took upon himself the challenge to construct a “coherent theoretical [instrument] for grasping and bringing about processes where ‘circumstances are changed by men and the educator himself is educated'”(ch 2., p. 8). Although the following summary of his theory is rather brief a more detailed reading can be found in Learning by Expanding (Engestrom, 1987), the publication in which the theory was first introduced, or in one of Engstrom’s more recent articles (such as,  Engestrom, 2000a; 2001; 2009; 2010).

It should be noted that Engestrom’s target was not merely a theory of learning but something much more comprehensive, i.e., “a viable root model of human activity” (Engestrom, 1987, ch. 2, p. 8). To guide him toward this objective, he set for himself some rather stringent initial criteria: (a) “activity must be pictured in its simplest, genetically original structural form, as the smallest unit that still preserves the essential unity and quality behind any complex activity ” (ch. 2, p. 8);  (b) “activity must be analyzable in its dynamics and transformations [and] in its evolution and historical change…no static or eternal models ” (ch. 2, p. 8); (c) “activity must be analyzable as a contextual or ecological phenomenon [concentrating] on systemic relations between the individual and the outside world” (ch. 2, p. 8); and (d) “activity must be analyzable as culturally mediated phenomenon [sic]…no dyadic organism-environment models will suffice [he insisted upon a triadic structure of human activity]” (ch. 2, p. 8).

To find his theoretical starting point, Engestrom identified three previous lines of research that met his initial requirements (Engestrom, 1987, ch. 2, p. 9):

  1. Theorizing on signs – consisting of research beginning with the triadic relationship of object, mental interpretant, and sign by C.S. Pierce, one of the founders of semiotics, down through Karl Popper, who posited a conception of three worlds (physical, mental states, and contents of thought)
  2. The genesis of intersubjectivity – the continuity studies of infant communication and language development, founded by G. H. Mead
  3. The cultural-historical school of psychology – consisting of ideas that began with Vygotsky and reach maturity with Leont’ev

The first line of research, theorizing on signs, he rejected as a model because it “narrows human activity down to individual intellectual understanding [and provides] little cues for grasping how material culture is created in joint activity” (Engestrom, 1987, ch. 2, p. 15). The second—though it includes the social, interactive, symbol-mediated construction of reality—he also rejected, because its construction “is still conceived of as construction-for-the-mind, not as practical material construction” (ch. 2, p. 22). The third, he accepted as a starting point, because it “gives birth to the concept of activity based on material production, mediated by technical and psychological tools as well as other human beings” (ch. 2, p. 32). On this premise he erected what he referred to as the third generation of cultural-historical activity theory, starting with Vygotsky’s “famous triangular model in which the conditioned direct connection between stimulus (S) and response (R) was transcended by ‘a complex mediated act’…commonly expressed as the triad of a subject, object, and mediating artifact” (Engestrom, 2001, p. 134). This common expression of Vygotsky’s model is referred to by Engestrom as the first generation of activity theory (Engestrom, 1999, pp. 1-3; 2001, p. 134).

Engestrom considered the insertion of mediating cultural artifacts into human action to be revolutionary, providing a way to bind the individual to his culture and society to the individual:

The insertion of cultural artifacts into human actions was revolutionary in that the basic unit of analysis now overcame the split between the Cartesian individual and the untouchable societal structure. The individual could no longer be understood without his or her cultural means; and the society could no longer be understood without the agency of individuals who use and produce artifacts. This meant that objects ceased to be just raw material for the formation of logical operations in the subject as they were for Piaget. Objects became the cultural entities and the object-orientedness of action became the key to understanding human psyche….The concept of activity took the paradigm a huge step forward in that it turned the focus on complex interrelations between the individual subject and his or her community. (Engestrom, 2001, p. 134)

For Engestrom there was still one important limitation of Vygotsky’s model; it focused on the individual. Engstrom overcame this by drawing on Leont’ev’s famous example of the primeval collective hunt which “showed how historically evolving division of labor has brought about the crucial differentiation between an individual action and a collective activity” (Engestrom, 1999, “Three Generations of Activity Theory”, para. 3). Beginning with a ” general mode of biological adaptation as the animal form of activity may be depicted” (Engestrom, 1987, ch. 2, p. 33), Engestrom applied Leont’ev’s ideas to complete a “derivation…[by] genetic analysis” (ch. 2, p. 33) and demonstrate evolutional “ruptures” in the three sides of the biological adaptation triangle. Individual survival is ruptured by the emerging use of tools.  Social life is ruptured by collective traditions, rituals, and rules. And collective survival is ruptured by division of labor.[1]

Through further derivations in line with Leont’ev’s differentiation of the individual action and the collective activity, he took “what used to be separate ruptures or emerging mediators” (Engestrom, 1987, ch. 2, p. 35) and converted them to “unified determining factors” (ch. 2, p. 35), thus completing a graphical representation of what he referred to as the second generation of activity theory (1999, pp. 1-3; 2001, p. 134). This model accounted not only for individual actions, but for collective activity of a community.

Note that in the second generation model what used to be biological adaptive activity has been transformed into consumption and placed in subordinate relation to three dominant aspects of human activity: (a) production, (b) distribution, and (c) exchange (Engestrom, 1987, ch. 2, p. 36). Marx (Marx, 1973, p. 89 as cited in Engestrom, 1987) explained the relationship between these three dominant aspects of human activity and the individual aspect of consumption as follows:

Production creates the objects which correspond to the given needs; distribution divides them up according to social laws; exchange further parcels out the already divided shares in accord with individual needs; and finally, in consumption, the product steps outside this social movement and becomes a direct object and servant of individual need, and satisfies it in being consumed. Thus production appears to be the point of departure, consumption as the conclusion, distribution and exchange as the middle (…). (ch. 2, p. 36)

Two examples of how this model might be instantiated in the representation and analysis of a specific activity are given in Engestrom (2000a, p. 962). The first example, represents the subject—in this case a physician—engaged in the activity of reviewing patient records prior to meeting with the patient. The object of this activity is the patient records. The expected outcome is an understanding of the patient’s history and the purpose of the visit. Notice that the interaction between the subject (the physician) and the object (the patient records) is mediated by the physician’s medical knowledge, a tool which he leverages to interpret the records and formulate an understanding of the patient’s general health condition. Continuing the scenario, the second example represents the activity of examining and diagnosing the patient, in which the patient becomes the object and his preliminary assessment the intended outcome.

Building on the second generation triangular model of human activity, Engestrom described “the minimal model for the third generation of activity theory” (Engestrom, 2001, p. 136) as requiring at least two interacting activity systems. An example of this model can be found in Engestrom (2010, p. 6). This example depicts the activity of a home healthcare care worker engaged in completing a list of routine tasks while visiting the client’s home, and this in relation to the client’s activity of “maintaining a meaningful and dignified life at home while struggling with threats such as loneliness, loss of physical mobility and the ability to act independently, and memory problems commonly known as dementia” (p. 6). This model of two activity systems in relation to one another is the minimal model for third generation activity theory.

Engestrom (2001) summarized the following five principles of his revised activity theory as follows:

1. Prime unit of analysis: “A collective, artifact-mediated and object-oriented activity system, seen in its network relations to other activity systems, is taken as the prime unit of analysis” (p. 136).

2. Multi-voicedness: “An activity system is always a community of multiple points of view, traditions and interests” (p. 136).

3. Historicity: “Activity systems take shape and get transformed over lengthy periods of time. Their problems and potentials can only be understood against  their own history” (p. 136).

4. Contradictions: Contradictions play a central role as “sources of change and development…[They] are historically accumulating structural tensions within and between activity systems” (p. 137).

5. Possibility of expansive transformations: “An expansive transformation is accomplished when the object and motive of the activity are reconceptualized to embrace a radically wider horizon of possibilities than in the previous mode of activity” (p. 137).

 

Expansive learning theory is different from all other theories previously reviewed in three significant ways. First, it is concerned with the learning of new forms of activity as they are created, rather than the mastery of putative stable, well-defined, existing knowledge and skill:

Standard theories of learning are focused on processes where a subject (traditionally an individual, more recently possibly an organization) acquires some identifiable knowledge or skills in such a way that a corresponding, relatively lasting change in the behavior of the subject may be observed. It is a self-evident presupposition that the knowledge or skill to be acquired is itself stable and reasonably well defined. There is a competent ‘teacher’ who knows what is to be learned.

The problem is that much of the most intriguing kinds of learning in work organizations violates this presupposition. People and organizations are all the time learning something that is not stable, not even defined or understood ahead of time. In important transformations of our personal lives and organizational practices, we must learn new forms of activity which are not yet there. They are literally learned as they are being created. There is no competent teacher. Standard learning theories have little to offer if one wants to understand these processes. (Engestrom, 2001, pp. 137-138)

Engestrom voiced a rather strong view against a notion of learning “limited to processes of acquisition of skills, knowledge and behaviors, already mastered and codified by educational institutions” (Engestrom, 2000b, p. 526), arguing that such a perspective makes learning irrelevant to the discovery and implementation of novel solutions:

If our notion of learning is limited to processes of acquisition of skills, knowledge, and behaviors already mastered and codified by educational institutions and other accepted representatives of cultural heritage, then finding and implementing future-oriented novel solutions to pressing societal problems has little to do with learning.

I have proposed that a historically new form of learning, namely expansive learning of cultural patterns of activity that are not yet there, is emerging and needs to be understood (Engestrom, 1987). (p. 526)

He further argued that the traditional view of learning is a perpetuated relic of the enlightenment era, and called for a shift of focus toward emergent learning processes from below as a necessary alternative in order for education to maintain relevance:

Give people facts, open their minds, and eventually they will realize what the world should become….I would call this an enlightenment view of learning. Learning is a fairly simple matter of acquiring, accepting, and putting together deeper, more valid facts about the world. Of course, this tacitly presupposes that there are teachers around who already know the facts and the needed course of development. Inner contradictions, self-movement, and agency from below are all but excluded. It is a paternalistic conception of learning that assumes a fixed, Olympian point of view high above, where the truth is plain to see. (Engestrom, 2000b, p. 530)

 

If education is to remain relevant, educators need to study carefully these changes and build on their internal contradictions and emergent learning processes from below, rather than continue preaching the right answers from above. (Engestrom, 2000b, pp. 533-534)

Second, expansive learning theory is concerned with collective transformation, rather than individual learning. Although changes in the collective are initiated by individuals within the community, the transformation itself is a change in the collective system:

The object of expansive learning activity is the entire activity system in which the learners are engaged. Expansive learning activity produces culturally new patterns of activity. Expansive learning at work produces new forms of work activity. (Engestrom, 2001, p. 139)

Although change originates with individual participants in the collective, the effective change takes place in collective activity system as a whole:

Human collective activity systems move through relatively long cycles of qualitative transformations. As the inner contradictions of an activity system are aggravated, some individual participants begin to question and deviate from its established norms. In some cases, this escalates into collaborative envisioning and a deliberate collective change effort from below. (Engestrom, 2000b, p. 526)

In fact, in his original presentation of expansion learning theory, Engestrom actually reformulated Vygotsky’s conception of zone of proximal development (Engestrom, 1987, ch. 3, p. 27) in terms of collective activities. Although he indicated it to be provisional at the time, he is still using the same reformulated definition:

Vygotsky’s concept of zone of proximal development is another important root of the theory of expansive learning. Vygotsky (1978, p. 86) defined the zone as “the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers.” In Learning by Expanding, Vygotsky’s individually oriented concept was redefined to deal with learning and development at the level of collective activities:

 

“It is the distance between the present everyday actions of the individuals and the historically new form of the societal activity that can be collectively generated as a solution to the double bind potentially embedded in the everyday actions.” (Engestrom, 1987, p. 174)

 

In effect, the zone of proximal development was redefined as the space for expansive transition from actions to activity (Engestrom, 2000). (Engestrom, 2010, p. 4)

Third, expansive learning theory focuses on horizontal development rather than vertical. Although it acknowledges a vertical dimension, it emphasizes a focus on the horizontal dimension:

We habitually tend to depict learning and development as vertical processes, aimed at elevating humans upward, to higher levels of competence. Rather than merely denounce this view as an outdated relic of enlightenment, I suggest that we focus on constructing a complementary perspective, namely that of horizontal or sideways learning and development. Both dimensions are involved in expansion. (Engestrom, 2000b, p. 533)

The impetus for change in expansive learning theory is attributed to inner contradictions from within an activity or between two activities:

Contradictions are not just inevitable features of activity. They are “the principle of its self-movement and (…) the form in which the development is cast” (Ilyenkov 1977, 330). This means that new qualitative stages and forms of activity emerge as solutions to the contradictions of the preceding stage of form. This in turn takes place in the form of ‘invisible breakthroughs’. (Engestrom, 1987, ch. 2, p. 45)

Engestrom developed the concept of the contradiction leveraging Bateson’s description of inner contradictions, which were referred to as the double bind (Engestrom, 1987, ch. 3, p. 4). He, of course, reformulated Bateson’s individual dilemma in terms of a social one:

The type of development we are concerned with here—expansive generation of new activity structures—requires above all an instinctive or conscious mastery of double binds. Double bind may now be reformulated as a social, societally essential dilemma which cannot be resolved through separate individual actions alone—but in which joint co-operative actions can push a historically new form of activity into emergence. (Engestrom, 1987, ch. 3, p. 20).

Engestrom described four levels of contradictions which may appear in the human activity system (Engestrom, 1987, ch. 2, pp. 43-45):

Level 1: Primary inner contradiction (double nature) within each constituent component of the central activity.

Level 2: Secondary contradictions between the constituents of the central activity.

Level 3: Tertiary contradiction between the objective/motive of the dominant form of the central activity and the object/motive of a culturally more advanced form of the central activity.

Level 4: Quaternary contradictions between the central activity and its neighbor activities. (ch. 2, p. 44)

In concert with his redefined zone of proximal development, Engestrom identified the collective generation of solutions to the double bind potentiality (i.e., learning) as occurring in long cycles of qualitative transformations, driving by inner contradictions of the activity system, which causes individual participants to question established norms:

Human collective activity systems move through relatively long cycles of qualitative transformations. As the inner contradictions of an activity system are aggravated, some individual participants begin to question and deviate from its established norms. In some cases, this escalates into collaborative envisioning and a deliberate collective change effort from below. (Engestrom, 2000b, p. 526)

 

As described in Engestrom (2001, p. 152), the seven steps in the cycle are (a) primary contradiction, (b) secondary contradiction, (c) modeling the new situation, (d) new model, (e) implementing the new model, (f) quaternary contradictions and realignment with neighbors, and (g) consolidating the new practice. Later, Engstrom (2010, p. 8) presented the same seven steps with simpler names that highlighted the major activities at each step. They revised labels are (a) questioning, (b) analysis, (c) modeling the new solution, (d) examining and testing the new model, (e) implementing the new model, (f) reflecting on the process, and (g) consolidating and generalizing the new practice. Repeated iterations of these seven steps form an “expansive cycle or spiral” (p. 7), and facilitate the ascension of the activity patterns from the abstract to the concrete. This ascension is characterized by the following description:

This is a method of grasping the essence of an object by tracing and reproducing theoretically the logic of its development, of its historical formation through the emergence and resolution of its inner contradictions. A new theoretical idea or concept is initially produced in the form of an abstract, simple explanatory relationship, a ‘germ cell’. This initial abstraction is step-by-step enriched and transformed into a concrete system of multiple, constantly developing manifestations. In learning activity, the initial simple idea is transformed into a complex object, into a new form of practice. (Engestrom, 2010, p. 5)

Through process of the cycle, the object and motive of the activity are reconceptualized to allow for greater possibility and flexibility than the previous pattern of activity:

An expansive transformation is accomplished when the object and motive of the activity are reconceptualized to embrace a radically wider horizon of possibilities than in the previous mode of the activity. A full cycle of expansive transformation may be understood as a collective journey through the zone of proximal development of the activity. (Engestrom, 2000b, p. 526; Engestrom, 2001, p. 137)

The steps of the cyclical model, of course, are a heuristic device comprised of an ideal sequence that Engestrom explains is likely never followed exactly:

The process of expansive learning should be understood as construction and resolution of successively evolving contradictions….The cycle of expansive learning is not a universal formula of phases or stages. In fact, one probably never finds a concrete collective learning process which would cleanly follow the ideal-typical model. The model is a heuristic conceptual device derived from the logic of ascending from the abstract to the concrete. (Engestrom, 2010, p. 7)


[1] Engestrom (1987) described anthropoid apes as “the prime example of the rupture by tools” and dolphins with their extraordinary capacity to organize individuals to function as a collective whole as a possible prime example of ruptures in “‘doing together’ and ‘being together'” (ch. 2, p. 34).

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