Re: [xmca] Re: LCA: Activity Theory

From: Ana Marjanovic-Shane (
Date: Thu Jun 30 2005 - 12:50:52 PDT

Eric, Gordon,
I would like to ad to Gordon's remarks the following:
It is really unfortunate that the whole educational system is heavily based on tests and scores, and not only based on test and scores but for a wrong reason: they are used for purposes of evaluation and tracking - and not for diagnostic purpose - to discover the nature of a probable learning/teaching barriers and to decide how to overcome the problem.
Activity theory, I think, and the educational principles that emerge from the activity theory should not strive toward that kind of "achievement" -- but on the contrary, education based on the CHAT insights should strive to create environments and activities which would facilitate academic AND social - personal development. Therefore - if and when particular tests may be developed, they should be used to determine the actual constellation of each individual's socio-cultural moment -- and to create a way to enhance and enrich this situation. Vygotsky made a very useful metaphoric comparison between an educator and a gardener in his Educational Psychology: In order to make a plant grow, a gardener does not pull on its branches, leaves and roots. That can only kill the plant. On the contrary, the gardener creates an environment in which that plant can grow by giving it nutritious soil, water and appropriate light and temperature. Only then the plant can grow. In the similar vein, an educator should determine what kind of an environment should be arranged for learning and strive to place the students in that situation. (I paraphrased here -- without the access to the original text).
Some of the attempts to create enriched learning environments are certainly the example of the "5th Dimension" centers for after school programs. In addition, there are some examples if changing the learning environment based on an institutional change in schools - mostly when a smaller school or even one grade in a school would be reorganized to learn within a guiding project which serves as a overall motivational organization. -- I will post my references from home later today. Changing the learning environment does not mean just getting computers. books, maps, lab materials etc -- it means first and foremost, changing the social relationships between the participants in the educational process -- teachers, students, families, administration etc...
Therefore, the whole picture has to change in order to use the "triangle" model of activity -- one just cannot use it to "apply" it to an "individual". The cultural historical activity theory (CHAT) in effect redefines the concept of an individual, too. An individual in CHAT must be understood as a social-cultural-historical-biological entity - and not a biological organism who "learned" to use social-cultural-historical facts, symbols and tools. And testing as it is practiced now, can only be viewed as a social control device to open or close certain opportunities for whole groups of people. What an irony, when one thinks that the original motivation to develop a "test" was to find out which children had more difficulties in learning to read, so that they could be given extra help. (At least according to the history of psychological testing).
Cultural Historical Activity Theory is just at its beginnings despite almost a whole century of work and study. It has a lot of unanswered questions -- we all are experiencing and discussing right now. But it is the beginning of a serious work in understanding complexities of manifolds interactions on different planes. Human use of language, and the technological intelligence are far more complex than they can be measured by grades children receive in schools for solving an X amount of items on a test.

-----Original Message-----
From: Gordon Wells []
Sent: Thursday, June 30, 2005 06:22 PM
Subject: [xmca] Re: LCA: Activity Theory

>Eric wrote:
>I do know most of the problem lies in my behavioristic training but
>nebulous ideas and lengthly descriptions that sound nice are a hard thing
>to support when so many educators are hell bent on test scores. I don't
>think test scores are the answer but then what? How could the triangle be
>applied for an individual? Should it be? Once again Phil I like your
>summary of Activity Theory, it points to the usefulness of how Activity
>Theory is a useful tool for social theorists when discussing how it is
>people interact and accomplish activities.

Engestrom gives a couple of examples of how an individual (himself)
and then a group (participants at a conference) might engage in
actions within a joint activity: that of developing activity theory.
You can find this in the first chapter of Engestrom et al (Eds)
Perspectives on Activity Theory (Cambridge University Press, 1999).

But very little work in activity theory addresses the interaction
over time of participants in an action, in which goals are negotiated
as the action proceeds through talk and other media, including
gesture, body posture as well as artifacts such as texts, computers,
etc. I tried to develop a way of describing an example of this kind
in my paper in MCA, The role of dialogue in activity. In it, I
include the attached diagram to show two (or more) subjects bring
their individual mediating resources to bear on the same object to
produce a joint outcome and, in the second diagram, how this can
represent working in the zpd when one of the participants who has
greater relevant assists the other and provides an occasion for
appropriation. While the diagram is static, the analysis of the
interaction attempts to capture the emergen nature of the
participants joint action. Perhaps this would be relevant for yhour
work, Phil.


Gordon Wells 
Dept of Education, 
UC Santa Cruz.

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