practical A.T.

From: Dot Robbins (
Date: Mon Nov 06 2000 - 06:18:25 PST

(Good heavens, another long one, sorry!....just delete if these comments
are too much. Written after a wonderful
weekend of canoing and camp fires, etc., and a big thanks to Phillip for
the scene of the changing of seasons, at least for many of us. This is a
wonderful time of change)

Good point, Diane. How do we take all of the seemingly "disembodied"
theories and apply them directly to everyday life, practice, teaching,
hospitals, prisons, with our children, etc.? All I can say personally is
that Vygotskian cultural-historical theory for me is not disembodied
(and it know it is for many), and if it were disembodied for me I would
not have much to do with it. It would be totally meaningless, as are
many theories that seem to use words and jargon. So, I think many of us
agree with your thoughts (if I understood them). I can only speak for
me, that the theoretical aspects guide the concrete experiences, and I
will try to show how, using A.N. Leontiev's Activity Theory as one
model of theory in practice (although I normally use a Vygotskian
approach), and will try to demonstrate some contradictions (bear with me
until the end, please):

My position is one of being a simple teacher of foreign languages (and a
few other things). The languages are German and Spanish. In being at a
totally unknown state university with typically low expectations of
student performance (by many faculty who did not go to the best
universities), I have discovered something. It is very easy for me to
teach graduate students in Education, Honors Colloquia, small courses in
semiotics and European Cinema, post-communism, etc...... and also for
me, it has also been easy to obtain many sabbaticals in order to teach
abroad at higher levels, etc. However, as I get older I have made a
conscious decision: since I might be at this university for a long time
(not my wish, but a reality), I have started taking on more and more
total beginner courses, especially in Spanish, in order to do what you
were asking....teacher research in the classroom, here using the
principles of A.T. In other words, I have dived into the mediocrity here
that truly represents the lowest level of university expectations and
have found incredible joy in that, as odd as it sounds. Now, to Activity
Theory in practice: For a few semesters I used the idea of a dominant
activity (based on El'konin, but I don't like his stages at all). The
hypothesis was that most students I know across the U.S. are being
"trained" not "educated," and most teaching is not viewed as a modus
operandi to literally transforming the lives of the students. So, with
that premise in mind, the idea was simple: I did not focus on testing,
and showed students the tests before taking them, and let the tests be
relatively simple. The dominant activity was to have students become
proficient enough in spoken Spanish to conduct an interview with a
native speaker of Spanish (in Spanish only) at the end of the semester,
and have it video taped. The steps for the entire semester were: learn
vocabulary, lots of listening, the students would present their families
in Spanish, then an oral mid-term. Students would bring in their own
questions (80) in Spanish, and I would ask them their own questions.
After the mid-term two native speakers would come in and the students
would interview them in Spanish only, etc. After the mid-term I only
spoke in Spanish in the classroom (with some exceptions). By the end of
the semester the students had asked their interview questions until
bored beyond description. They were confident, and they also had
confidence in listening (knowing they would not understand much of what
was said, i.e. they had ,for the most part, established a low "affective
filter."). The interviews, for the most part, were spectacular. We did
things right, especially by spending so much time on pronunciation and
how to read at the very beginning, etc. About 50% more students went on
to Spanish 2 than ever before. I presented these findings in various
places, and was so proud of these students at this small university, one
that is certainly not recognized as being highly academic.

However, I am always skeptical when I feel so good about the results of
such a project. So, after one semester was over I went to some of the
students in Level 2 Spanish to ask them what they really felt about that
type of course in the previous semester. Within A.T. understanding, I
had implemented "activity-act-operation" just fine, but I had also
placed the functional aspects of "need-motive-goal" within my
understanding, not the understanding of the students. And they really
let me know this in the interviews. I realized that even though I had
spoken the entire time about "prolepsis," "personal empowerment," etc.,
I was imposing only one side of A.T. on them, mine. This year I have
started something very different, and it is in the beginning stages: I
want to deconstruct the classroom walls as much as possible and allow
the students the ability to establish their own version of A.T., without
discussing it that way. In other words, I want them to figure out their
own "needs-motives-goals." To do this I am setting up a more general
framework of "activity-acts-operations," without imposing my own
"needs-motives-goals." I have linked into the idea of Service Learning
together with instruction in Spanish as a foreign language. We have a
fast growing Hispanic/ Latino workforce (in mid-Missouri), and in some
of the small neighboring towns the number of Hispanics is almost
unbelievable for mid-Westerners. Resistance and fear are growing
quickly among neighborhoods. I have been spending hours each day
connecting with so many workers in three different cities close by,
involved with Latino issues (health, crime, education, daily living),
and I only know of two people among about 40 now who speak Spanish
fluently. So, I am working on many projects to link up Nursing majors
with health care facilities where there are Latinos, and how they can
learn appropriate Spanish; Criminal Justice majors with police (learning
appropriate Spanish); Education majors with schools where there are
Latino children. We are working on programs such as Spanish for Specific
Purposes for these needs,and it is a tremendous challenge. The project
is just beginning, but the few students who are now involved are already
different people than there were three months ago. I can safely say that
these few students have been "transformed" and "connected," in their own
words. At the moment I am now enmeshed in the problems of a
"mesogenetic" nature of figuring it all out on both the macro level of
organization, later recombining it with the micro aspect. I put together
a committee of 20 people, and we are slowly bonding into a group of real
friends, all working so hard together to solve the incredible problems
across campus, and across the communities. Our representatives are now
involved, and are starting to help us from the state level of
government. I have no models to follow here, so I am just developing it
all as it happens. However, it is totally, 100% guided by the principles
of Activity Theory, Vygotsky (and Freire).
In closing, the example given is how I am using A.T. in practical
teaching and the contradictions involved. I sincerely hope that it is
one example you were looking for, Diane. I am very interested to see
what others are doing, as putting theory into practice is vital.
Warm regards to all of you,
(*caveat: When I speak of A.T., it is different than combining A. N.
Leontiev directly with Vygotsky (for me). An aside: a big thanks to Anna
and Mike for recollections of personal experiences and background info.
on the connection with A.T. and Vygotsky. Hopefully there will be more
to come. The thoughfulness and linking to personal memories and
historical information with the great people/theories we are studying
truly creates a richer background from which to better position our
understanding (and it brings many levels together). Please, please
continue with these types of thoughts, as they are so important in
linking theory with real experience. Now from my understanding, and I
realize that I am perhaps completely alone (as with other thoughts): I
have understood the basic connection that students of Russian A.T.
have made to Vygotsky on a general level (at mentioning Vygotsky in
various contexts, and claiming him and his theories, etc.); however, I
am still interested in the connections at a much deeper level. My focus
is a little different: it is not in pursuing the A.T. claim to
Vygotsky (a la A.N. Leontiev at this particular point), but the actual
connections and disconnections between V. and A. N. Leontiev, and the
relationship of Vygotskians who are not within A.T. My cues are taken
from talks with Gita L'vovna and Tamara Lifanova, and other people not
anchored within A.T. (and other close relations to Vygotsky). And please
understand, I am way out of my league here, and make no pretense in
defending my naive, totally beginner stance....but, I am vitally
interested in how Vygotskians (such as Gita and Tamara, and others)
relate their interpretations of Vygotsky to the A.N. Leontiev (hence,
Russian A.T.) connection until the 1980s (more than the reverse), and I
think it is a very different picture than what has been described so
far. I venture to say that this problem/dynamic is a core problem for me
personally with some of my dealings with Vygotskians in Moscow
(especially once my affinity to Russian A.T., albeit critical, was
realized). It has been a total revelation for me. I can only express my
deep-felt gratitude to Boris Bratus and Vladimir Umrikhin who are now
bridging very deep problems and misunderstandings between A.T. and the
Vygotsky within the Russian State University for the Humanities (and
many of these misgivings are totally founded). These two men, and
others, are building bridges of real understanding, and they keep the
link between Vygotsky and A.T. alive in Moscow, with much work and much
sacrifice.However, this is a very personal understanding. I will just
venture to say (and please forgive me if wrong) that A. T.'s general
acceptance of Vygotsky's writings is very different from the
intrepretations of A.N. Leontiev's A.T. by those very close to Vygotsky.
(By the way, wasn't Jim Wertsch going to lead a discussion on Chapter 5,
on personality?) Another general point is the following: within Russian
A.T., it is also divided for me: A.N. Leontiev is radically different
(for me only, perhaps) than the theories of A.A. Leontiev and Dmitry
Leontiev, both of whom I can readily connect with Vygotsky in very
direct ways in their theories. At the same time, within Russia, I
think, A.T. is contained in many practical aspects as well (not just
theory), especially in the field of education (e.g., Zuckerman and
B.El'konin in Davydov's School #91, A.A. Leontiev and his Schools 2100,
Asmolov's work in schools, Akhutina's work with aphasics and others in
"School of Attention," and Shchedrovitskii, and many more ...I would
love to know more about Teplov, if possible. And A.T. is also very
different for other Russian theorists. Regarding A.T. within Engestrom's
group, I do feel that some very practical things are happening,
especially in Japan, and in other places. My point? I am linked to
Vygotsky and A.T., of course, and if asked by anyone outside of CHAT
where I stand, the answer would be that I am firmly within CHAT.
However, I am also interested in deeper connections that are truly
difficult to make. And here is the number #1 concern for me: Vygotsky
truly understood the roots of German (and Spinozian) philosophy... there
is no doubt about this. And German philosophy is extremely difficult to
truly assimilate and understand, no question there. German philosophy,
for me, is the basis of Vygotskian psychology-philosophy, and I don't
mean Marxism alone; in fact, that is only one part of the German
philosophy I am referring to. This type of very deep philosophy was
banned in Russia, apart from short chapters and talks of a synopsis was labeled "bourgeouis" (and I am sure it is rarely
understood in a North American context, although I think it is
understood in places like Cuba, Brazil, Argentina, France, Germany,
Scandanvian countries, etc.) This is the basic problem from my
perspective. As Abul'khanova and Slavskaia stated (On the History of the
Alliance between psychology and philosophy, in Russian Socieal Science
Review, vo. 36, Nr. 6, 1997, p. 40) "...not many are familiar with the
period [in the former Soviet Union] . . . when psychology and
philosophy were united , a period that to a large extent defined the
philosophical-methodological distinctiveness of our psychological
science in comparison with world psychology. Today this uniquesness is
ascribed exclusively to the influence of Marxism and, because of the
current revisions of Marxism, a number of psychologists are proposing
that the philosophical-methodological foundations of our psychology be
discarded and that the disciplline be returned to the stream of pure
scientism. However, it is worth noting that Russian culture has always
had a distinctive orientation in its philosophy and worldview." These
problems have been apparent for many years, as Anna pointed out in her
note. For these reasons, and many others, it is why I truly feel that
the deeper (philosophical) connections and disconnections between
Vygotsky and A.T., Rubenshtein and A.T., and others, are very
interesting (and are deeper than political, I think, since Rubenshtein
was privileged to have studied philosophy in Germany, but in Marburg
(the M.I.T. of Germany), not in more traditionally philosophical
universities), and that these deeper areas of understanding do not need
to be avoided in discussions. The bridge between Vygotsky and A.N.
Leontiev and others in A.T. is there (I am simply trying to objectivize
it more than has been done), and I think we all acknowledge the bridge.
Thanks for your help, which I sincerely need and value. The comments of
late have helped me very much, especially the comments of a personal
nature, related to the context of A.T.
With warm regards to all,

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