Re: [xmca] Re: Questions

From: Elaine Mateus (
Date: Mon Oct 17 2005 - 05:59:40 PDT

your message was so provocative that here comes another lurker trying to
voice a few thoughts!
It seems to me that your concerns regarding the way those two teachers
interact with their pupils are deeply related to the sense/meaning issue.
Although, as Yrjo says, the object of teachers' work is the relationship
between students and the knowledge they are supposed to (re)create, the
sense each teacher has of "students". "knowledge" and the ways it can be
"(re)created" are so diverse that there is no way teachers could interact
similarly with their pupils.
At the same time, my research with EFL teachers in a suburban school in
Brazil has shown that the use and exchange values of knowlegde (object of
learning activity, as I take it) has lost its way not only for children, but
most sadly for teachers as well. Some trends of the postmodern epistemology,
plus the search for cheap labor in a Neoliberalist world where the rhetoric
of better qualified workers means better payed ones make teachers and
students wonder why teach/learn not only English, but other subjects as
well. It seems to me that the most evident motive for most of them, that is,
what apparently engages them in the same network of activity systems is the
need to survive school: teachers need a job and will do anything to please
children and in some really violent schools not to be threatened by them;
children must be in schools and won't do much as they know that "no child
must be left behind" (which in Brazil means no school failure at all).
What helped me was to concentrate on the contradictions teachers faced while
trying to add more vivid colors to this sad picture (i.e., pleasing students
versus sharing responsibility for learning; following rules of bahavior and
patterns of (non)interaction versus discussing possible rules of
participation, agency and ownership). The focus on language as the most
relevant artifact was useful when looking at the way(s) the object of
learning activity was expanded.
Elaine Mateus
Universidade Estadual de Londrina
Letras Estrangeiras Modernas
(43) 3371-4468

----- Original Message -----
From: "Mike Cole" <>
To: "Mabel Encinas" <>
Cc: "eXtended Media, Culture, Activity" <>
Sent: Sunday, October 16, 2005 4:16 PM
Subject: [xmca] Re: Questions

Hi Mabel--

Your message is difficult to answer because it raises so many inter-twined
issues at one time. I am certain I can not
answer them all without printing the message and parsing each of the
questions and answering them systematically,
but I cannot do that at present. Perhaps others can help by noting what I
leave out as well as where I may be wrong
and commenting on parts that are near their fingertips.

Long ago, Leontiev wrote: With all its varied forms, the human individual's
activity is a system in the system of social relations. It does not exist
without these relations.

many people, myself included at an earlier time, believed that Leontiev did
not pay suffient attention to social relations and in terms of the way
activity theory was actually implemented in the USSR I think this is true.
The emphasis was on production, modes of production, rather than relations
of production. But "theoretically", I have come to believe, that he and his
colleagues understood perfectly well that mediated JOINT activity implies
always a double articulation of subject-non human world with subject-human
world. It is unfortunate that this gets reduced to subject-subject and
subject-object relationships. One affordance of Yrjo's expansion of the
mediational triangle is to represent this double articulation, and multiple
forms of mediation, in the basic

Your interactions with your sister were culturally mediated just as your
production of the food. That the term, tool, is used
by the soviets is, in my opinion, unfortunate; I prefer the term artifact
for many reasons, as discussed elsewhere.

I, too, worry about the question of multiple objects always being present in
activity. I wonder often, are children and adults
in the 5th Dimension engaged in the same activity? Do they have the same
objects? I have no fully articulated answer. I think
that just as no word has a single meaning, that polysemy is an essential
design feature of human language, so no two peoplecan have EXACTLY the same
object, not even, strictly speaking, the same goal. However, we can and must
engage in collusion to
behave as if there were a single goal, and often a single motive. It may be
something like the tension between sense and
meaning. We all have our own sense of what we mean but we strive to create
enough coordination so that we can say that we
share meanings. You and your sister might have said, "Its time to take the
cake out of the oven" and for purposes of joint
action, you mean't the same thing. But if we dug deeply enough, we would
find that each of you had a slightly different
sense of "cake" and "oven."

These same issues come in another way when you are uneasy about talking of
other people as tools. It seems inhumane. But
when a mother helps her newborn to reach a teddy bear, or a father helps his
daughter learn to ride a bike, they are mediators
of their children's experience and their children are active subjects,
seeking that mediation, seeking to use their parents as "tools."

So, yes, I think we are narrowing the meaning of other people when we speak
of them as tools in the everyday sense of tools, but I think we do ourselves
a big disservice by using the term tools in this way. Luria spoke of
"mediational means" as well as tools. Perhaps that would help us avoid
dehumanizing each other and forgetting the duality of human action and

On 10/10/05, Mabel Encinas <> wrote:
> Hi, Mike and all.
> You asked a long time ago (three months):
> What would the tool be for if not for implementation of object oriented
> action? How could the object be acted upon in the absence of a mediating
> tool?
> I dare to ask then:
> Has the activity system only one object? Can we humans have kind of
> communicative objects simultaneously or as a priority? I think for
> example:
> I have made cakes for the sake of baking with my sister (or with others:
> clean a storeroom, or draw, or do exercise, or write a paper, or organise
> a
> workshop or a reading seminar... maybe this is a personal deviation :) ).
> Yes, we do eat the cakes afterwards (my sister, and I, and others), but it
> is the relationship an important "object" for my sister and me when we
> bake
> cakes. At the same time, while in an argument or angry, I have folded
> sheets
> with my partner, and one of us sometimes pulls too much or we cannot agree
> what is the next step at folding at a certain stage. I wonder then if
> apart
> from the explicit "object", we do not have other "objects", not explicit.
> And I honestly do not want to be esoteric.
> In my PhD research (I am writing my thesis at the moment), a teacher,
> Sofia, who gets along very well with adolescents uses computers in a way
> in
> which her relationship with them is even better. Students then write and
> discuss about what they write, for example. When she gives notes in the
> Spanish classroom, they construct the texts together and even her
> "monologues" are feed by students interventions. A different situation
> happens with Ricardo. Sometimes he fights with the students a lot and
> other
> times he is very permissive. In the Spanish classroom, he dictates notes
> and
> students do not feel like collaborating. When he speaks, students
> interventions "disrupt" his fluency. In the computer classroom he asks the
> students to read long texts on the screen, to copy in their notebooks or
> to
> do grammar exercises with drill and practice software. When they write
> text,
> only in the Spanish classroom, his main worry is to register the work of
> each student (yes, the institution is there all the time and I do not take
> it for granted). I have inferred then that computers are tools not only
> for
> teaching, but for relating with the students. Apparently Sofia integrates
> computers for increasing her bonds with them; Ricardo integrates them in
> his
> attempts to control them. Though when they speak with me, Ricardo's
> conceptions
> of teaching Spanish are very well informed. He talks with clarity for
> example about the need of working communicatively in his classes. I could
> say than he speaks even with better clarity than Sophia. He is a very
> skilful computer user as well. Many have studied the relationships between
> believes and practices in teaching.
> I wonder if all these things I have been finding/wondering about could be
> labelled as "operations" (kind of "unconscious" or "implicit" actions) in
> the teachers' relationships with the students? Or...?
> Other point is that in the classroom, the students "object" is quite a
> different one. Is it then that classroom is not an activity system? Is the
> school the activity system? If so, what is the classroom? Can we study the
> classroom in AT?
> Yesterday, Mike, you said something that is very meaningful for me:
> I am uncertain whether or not human beings are capable of creating the
> conditions for a just society. But the commitment to believing it is
> possible, illusion or not, and acting on that commitment, appears to be a
> precondition for living humanely, and perhaps for achieving that
> illusional,
> delusional, state..
> I have been wondering if, when in the activity system we look at others as
> tools, could this view of others help us thinking/acting towards a more
> just
> society?? Or the relationship between the subjects involved in an activity
> system, would be better be considered in other status? I think that it is
> important not to consider people as tools, but as active others that
> negotiate with the subjects we study. Do I narrow too much the meaning of
> tools? But aren't we narrowing too much the meaning of other people when
> we
> think about them in an instrumental way?
> Does any of you have similar questions and possibly some answers, advices
> or readings to suggest? It sounds that some of the articles for which we
> are voting can give some light to the questions I have.
> Daring to ask so much questions in every direction, from thelurkers'space,
> Mabel
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