Activity Theory

Mouza and Lavigne briefly discuss the application (by Vahey and colleagues) of Activity Theory to develop a curricular activity system framework. Vahey et al’s discussion is focused on student use of SimCalc and Geometer’s Sketchpad as dynamic representation tools to engage in meaningful mathematics which results in deeper learning and greater equity. In terms of the curricular activity system, SimCalc and Geometer’s Sketchpad are historically and culturally constituted tools used for cognitive development through a process of mediation. This mediation (as well as the curricular activity system and Activity Theory) has its roots in Vygotsky’s cultural-historical development theories.

In the mid-twentieth century, Aleksei Leontiev, built on (and reacted against) the work of Vygotsky and Pavlov to develop Activity Theory. In his research on mental processes in animals, he defined activity as an animal’s active relation to reality. He also theorized that human activities make sense in social context and these activities can be differentiated from actions which do not immediately satisfy a need but lead towards the eventual satisfaction of a need. Engeström further developed Leontiev’s work and proposed the concept of Learning by Expanding. Among Leontiev’s concepts discussed by Engeström (Engeström, 1987) is the example of the “primeval collective hunt” which shows how historically evolving division of labor demonstrates a distinction between an individual action and a collective activity. He developed the model of collective activity systems which have applications in education through the concept of Learning by Expanding.

Engeström (Engeström, 1987) defines learning by expanding as the extension of thinking into activity. He begins with Vygotsky’s concept of mediation – the triangular alignment of subject, object, and mediating artifact as the model of socially constructed knowledge. Engeström, expands on Vygotsky’s concept of mediation to propose the following arguments for development: (1) development is a partially destructive rejection of the old and not simply a mastery of the new; (2) development is a collective transformation and not simply an individual transformation; (3) development is not simply a vertical movement upwards to a higher cognitive level, but a horizontal movement across cognitive borders. He also considers development as the process of “concrete human activities undergoing historical transformations.” Engeström stays loyal to his sources in proposing that development is a “voyage across the zone of proximal development…. In the course of this voyage, elements of an objectively and societally new activity form are produced simultaneously with qualitative change in the subject of activity.” Vygotsky’s influence on Activity Theory is quite obvious in that passage. Use of historically and culturally constituted tools (i.e. mediating artifacts) to mediate (learning) activities and cognitive development is a critical component of Engeström’s Learning by Expanding framework. An understanding of Activity Theory and Learning by Expanding can lead to informed decisions in incorporating historically and culturally constituted tools in the design of learning experiencies.

It is beyond the scope of this activity (pun intended) to provide a comprehensive summary of Activity Theory and Learning by Expanding. However, I have included a link to Engeström’s work as a reference for those of you interested in pursuing this topic further.

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Tim Brown, From Design to Design Thinking (2009)

Engeström, Yrjö (1987). Learning by Expanding: An Activity-theoretical Approach to Developmental Research. Orienta-Konsultit Oy. Retrieved from:

Mouza, C. and Lavigne, N. (eds). 2013. Chapter 1: Emerging Technologies for the Classroom. Explorations in the Learning Sciences, Instructional Systems, and Performance Technologies. New York: Springer Science + Business Media.

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