In this post, I will try to outline some of the key concepts behind Activity Theory and then compare it to the Learning as a Network (LaaN) perspective/theory.
The cultural-historical theory of activity (Activity Theory) has grown out of the work of Vygotsky, Leont’ev and other Soviet socio-cultural oriented psychologists. Activity Theory approaches human cognition and behavior as embedded in collectively organized, artifact-mediated and object-oriented activity systems (Vygotsky, 1978; Leont'ev, 1978, Engestörm, 1987). According to Engeström (1999b), an activity system "constantly generates actions through which the object of the activity is enacted and reconstructed in specific forms and contents - but being a horizon, the object is never fully reached or conquered" (p. 381).
Activity Theory develops from the work of Vygotsky, particularly his arguments that human development and learning is mediated by artifacts, such as language, signs, and symbol systems. The classical representation of an activity system is a mediating triangle comprising three central components, namely subject, object, and mediating artifacts (Vygotsky, 1978). Activities are social practices oriented at objects. An entity becomes an object of activity when it meets a human need. The subject constructs the object using mediating artifacts (Engeström, 1999b). Leont'ev, (1978), drawing on Vygotsky's foundational work, points out that there is a crucial difference between an individual action and a collective activity and extends Vygotsky's original model into a model of a collective activity system. Leont’ev’s conceptualization includes division of labour, which helps to differentiate between what is accomplished collectively or individually. Leont'ev further adds a distinction between activity, action and operation, as three different levels of human practice in order to delineate an individual's action from the collective activity (Leont'ev, 1978, Section 3.5).
Figure 1: Activity System (Engeström, 1999a, p. 31)
Inspired by Leont'ev's work, Engeström (1987, 1999a) also notes that the problem with Vygotsky's classical representation of an activity system is that it does not fully explicate the societal and collaborative nature of the human actions. He then graphically expands Vygotsky’s original mediating triangle with a social component by including three contextual factors, namely community, rules, and division of labor. Engeström uses this expanded activity system model as the basis for his theory of expansive learning, which focuses on the expansive transformation of the object of activity in a collective activity system (Engeström, 1987, 1999b).
Engeström (1987) conceives the notion of the ‘zone of proximal development’, initially discussed by Vygotsky, as the cornerstone of expansive learning. Within an expansive learning framework, Engeström (1999b,2001) presents the notion of 'expansive cycle' as the equivalent of Vygotsky's zone of proximal development. As Engeström (2001) puts it: “a full cycle of expansive transformation may be understood as a collaborative journey through the zone of proximal development of the activity” (p. 137). Engeström traces seven expansive learning actions to be taken in travelling through the zone of proximal development of an activity. Together these actions form an expansive cycle or spiral. According to Engeström (1999b), an ideal-typical sequence of actions in an expansive cycle includes (p. 383):
1. questioning, criticizing, and rejecting some aspects of the accepted practices,
2. analyzing the situation,
3. modelling of a new solution to the problematic situation,
4. examining the model,
5. implementing the model,
6. reflecting on and evaluating the process,
7. consolidating its outcomes into a new, stable from of practice.
Figure 2: Expansive Learning Cycle (Engeström, 1999b, p. 384)
However, in the new knowledge intensive era, it is increasingly evident that knowledge is highly complex and that dealing with knowledge is definitely not reducible to any sequence of actions. The actions which form Engeström's expansive learning cycle are not the only kinds of actions that must be mastered and performed in highly complex knowledge ecologies. LaaN does not postulate a predetermined sequence of actions; it rather enables a wide range of learner-driven actions that are neither predetermined nor predictable.
In general, using Activity Theory as a framework for the analysis of activity in complex learning environments has a major limitation. Learning as a complex activity cannot be captured by an overarching activity system (or even a network of activity systems) purposefully oriented toward the achievement of an object of activity. Learning is multifaceted and dynamic, and activities in a learning environment are fuzzy, varied, and often fragmented, which makes it very hard to elicit a complete picture of the activity system(s) under observation, encompassing, in activity theory terms, an evolving set of subjects, objects, mediating artifacts, actions, rules, norms, and division of labour. The solution to this problem is to understand the learning activity from the learner's point of view. Whereas in Activity Theory the prime unit of analysis is an artifact-mediated and object-oriented activity, LaaN rather focuses on the individual learner and her PKN. In activity theory, you are what you do. In LaaN, you are what your PKN is.
- Engeström, Y. (1987). Learning by Expanding: An Activity - Theoretical Approach to Developmental Research. Helsinki: Orienta-Konsultit. Retrieved from http://lchc.ucsd.edu/MCA/Paper/Engestrom/expanding/toc.htm
- Engeström, Y. (1999a). Activity theory and individual and social transformation. In Y. Engeström, R. Miettinen, & R. L. Punamäki (Eds.) Perspectives on activity theory, (pp. 19–38). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Engeström, Y. (1999b). Innovative learning in work teams: Analyzing cycles of knowledge creation in practice. In Y. Engeström, R. Miettinen, & R. L. Punamäki (Eds.) Perspectives on activity theory, (pp. 377–404). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Engeström, Y. (2001). Expansive learning at work: toward an activity theoretical reconceptualization. Journal of Education and Work, 14(1), 133 – 156.
- Leont’ev, A. N. (1978). Activity, Consciousness, Personality. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall. Retrieved from http://marxists.org/archive/leontev/works/1978/index.htm
- Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.