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Bridging the individual and the social
Personal experience of learning and reflection on a wide range of different examples of learning may well undermine categorical distinctions between individual and social, acquisition and participation.
Not only are the boundaries between these distinctions difficult to define, they may be fluid and problematic, particularly in technology-enhanced learning.
Sfard (1998) argues that the acquisition and participation metaphors should not be seen as competing or enforcing a choice.
Her argument is based on the huge diversity of learning (particularly when looked at across cultures) and the wisdom of keeping different perspectives in play. No perspective has all the answers and there are both pragmatic and theoretical dangers in using only one conception.
Underlying these debates is a philosophical issue about how to bridge between individual experience and social structures; how individuals with limited experience and mental resources are able to learn about the world outside themselves and beyond their direct experience.
Vygotsky’s (1978) cultural historical approach emphasises the way in which learning involves tools – symbolic as well as physical – that express the history and culture of a society. Individuals interact with the environment using such tools, so that their action and their thinking are both enlarged and also bounded by the qualities and potential of the tool.
Yrjö Engeström, a Finnish researcher at the University of Helsinki, has built on these foundations and has developed an approach to learning that focuses not on the individual doing the learning or on community practices, but on the activity system.
In cultural-historical activity theory … the unit of analysis is a historically evolving, collective artefact-mediated activity system … Most learning consists of learning actions embedded in activities whose object and motive is not learning as such.
The importance of Engeström’s activity theory is that he shifts the analysis of learning from the individual to the activity system.
An activity system involves all those elements, as shown in Figure 1 (below).
Engeström and others have used this framework (set out in Figure 1) for the analysis of learning, describing the elements and their relationships as follows:
We take Leont’ev’s (1978) idea of collective activity system as unit of analysis seriously.
This means that learning is distributed in an object-oriented activity system, mediated by instruments, rules and division of labour (Figure 1). The learning of the activity system and the learning of an individual are intertwined, and the individual’s learning is understandable only if we understand the learning of the activity system. This does not mean that the subject position and agency are handed over to a mysterious collective entity. Different individuals and groups involved in an activity system take and leave the subject position as they produce specific goal-oriented actions. Thus, the detailed configuration of the activity system changes in each action.
Figure 1 shows the activity theory triangle in which the subject uses tools (or instruments) in relation to achievement of an objective that has an outcome. Relationships between these three elements and the wider triangle of rules (i.e. governing frameworks for behaviour), community and the division of labour within the activity system influence the learning taking place. The triangle thus offers a descriptive framework within which to map out learning-related actions using tools, and their relationships within specific communities and social structures.
This activity theory could be applied to a student at The Open University for example – the student taking the subject position in Figure 1. The tools used by a student are all the module materials and resources available to them, plus their existing knowledge of the area they are studying. The object is the ideas, practices and competences that are the focus for the student’s learning, with the intended outcome of passing the module.
The rules of engagement require the student to submit work for assessment by stated deadlines, drawing on their study of the module and representing their own work fairly. The community consists of, among others, OU students, tutors, university staff and, perhaps, workplace mentors and assessors. The division of labour has a key and familiar distinction, in that tutors mark students’ work, whereas module teams create material and have authority in relation to assessment. This, in brief, is an outline of how the activity theory framework can be used to describe the activity of being an OU student.
Leontiev, A. N. (1978). Activity, consciousness, and personality. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Sfard, A. (1998) ‘On two metaphors for learning and the dangers of choosing just one’, Educational Researcher, vol.27, no.2, pp.4–13; also available online at http://libezproxy.open.ac.uk/login?url=http://www.jstor.org/stable/1176193 (last accessed 10 December 2010).
Tuomi-Gröhn, T. and Engeström, Y. (2003) ‘Conceptualizing transfer: from standard notions to developmental perspectives’ in Tuomi-Gröhn, T. and Engeström, Y. (eds) Between School and Work: New Perspectives on Transfer and Boundary-crossing, Oxford, Elsevier Science Ltd., pp.19–38
Vygotsky, L.S. (1978) Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press.