Introduction: Activity theory and educational change in the age of world crisis

Critical problems of contemporary educational research and practice

Educational research and practice currently face critical problems that are threatening the foundations of their very existence. The first problem is the rapidly advancing marketization and privatization of education. As is evident from the harmful effects of high-stakes testing, education is commodified when knowledge is treated as a possession that leads to personal gain; it is reduced to the mere acquisition of skills, which preys insidiously on the public foundations of education. The second critical problem is the intense extension of virtual worlds (e.g., the Web and digital social media), where the possibilities for anyone to access, create, and spread knowledge for free are continually increasing, while the walls that have historically confined the privilege of education to schools and educational institutions are slowly but certainly crumbling. In other words, these critical issues present an antinomy: The styles of learning dominant in the industrial era, when knowledge could only be gained at schools and other educational institutions, no longer reigns supreme, while the value of learning at schools and educational institutions and how to retain that value going forward remain unclear.

Yrjô Engestrom (2017) argues that these struggles arc the manifestations of two inner contradictions of the educational system: “(1) the contradiction between knowledge as common good and knowledge as commodity, and (2) the contradiction between student engagement as seeking personal gain and student engagement as involvement in collective initiatives for equity and sustainability” (p. 32). The notion of contradiction here is used in the dialectical and Marxian sense. Although I discuss the notion in more detail in Chapter 2, in brief it represents a driving force for the development experienced by human beings in their activities. These contradictions can be identified between the “multiple motives embedded in and engendered by their historically evolving communities and objects” (Engestrom, 2006, p. 3). They obstruct but also energize efforts for collaborative change.

This contradiction in the educational system continues to intensify. Dialectically speaking, on the one hand, the reduction of education to the commoditization of knowledge and the personal gain of skills is intensifying.

However, the stronger the negation of that which is negated, the more it ultimately comes to the fore. To put it another way, that which is negated becomes that which negates. A mutually mediating relationship of self-negation thus forms between these two contradictory poles, and this mutual mediation—that is, the shift of that which is negated to that which negates— is the driving force of self-movement and development, as well as the basic logic of the formation of something new.

In the case of the educational system, then, what is represented on the other side of the contradiction? What is being represented in the shift from that which is negated to that which negates? It is the increasing accessibility of free, open, and omnipresent knowledge via digital networks, and the increasing necessity to collectively inquire into the issues important for the survival of our planet (i.e., equity, sustainability, and inclusion) beyond the confines of individuals and classrooms. This implies rejecting the competitiveness that is the basis of individual self-interest and strengthening the possibilities of creating knowledge, as well as education, that collectively and collaboratively work to build a new common good.

We are now living in the world facing both humanitarian and environmental crises. These existential crises include the global climate emergency, unpredictable and unknown infectious pandemic diseases, severely strained social relations in terms of inclusion and exclusion, endless wars and conflicts, ever-widening economic disparity, increasing numbers of migrants and refugees, rising nostalgic nationalism, and the emergence of split identities. However, as something that mutually contradicts these crises, that is, an alternative that stands in opposition to the capitalist logic of profit and social exclusion, a new common good is also emerging based on social production and peer production, diversity and tolerance, grassroots democracy, and multicultural coexistence.

The study of education is the study of interventions in human learning and development, and in that sense it is the study of interventions in the formation of human beings. This formation is happening now, as our activities break through the historically evolving contradictions we face between the premises of the past and the creation of the future. In other words, the formation of human beings means the historical formation of concrete, actual human beings who live their lives under specific historical and cultural circumstances.

In the contemporary study of education, we must go beyond the individual self-interest that reduces education to a one-sided personal gain of knowledge and skills as commodities; we must historically inquire into possible knowledge, so to speak, to ask how it will be possible to form human beings who arc collectively engaged in building the new common good that is already emerging based on notions such as equity and sustainability, as well as an attempt to make the formation of such human beings a reality.

In this way, pedagogy and educational research could belong to the “emancipatory social science” that Erik Olin Wright (2010) calls for. It seeks to “generate scientific knowledge relevant to the collective project of challenging various forms of human oppression” (p. 10). Regarding “emancipatory social science,” Wright notes the implication of the two adjectives emancipatory and social as follows:

The word emancipatory identifies a central moral purpose in the production of knowledge—the elimination of oppression and the creation of the conditions for human flourishing. And the word social implies the belief that human emancipation depends upon the transformation of the social world, not just the inner life of persons.

(p. 10)

The idea of “human flourishing” here is in the center of the conception of social justice, which animates the transformation of the social world. The term itself refers to “objective properties, not just subjective states” (Wright, 2010, p. 13). Therefore, there are conditions necessary for human beings to flourish: the material and social means necessary to live a flourishing life. The importance of material conditions for human flourishing leaves no room for doubt. However, in addition to material resources, appropriate social conditions arc also essential to living a flourishing life as Wright mentions:

[T]hc development of intellectual, physical, and social capacities requires much more than simple material necessities. It requires access to educational settings within which learning takes place and talents arc cultivated, not just in childhood, but throughout life. It requires access to work settings where skills can be developed and exercised and activity is to a substantial extent self-directed. It requires communities, which provide opportunities for active participation in civic affairs and cultural activities.

(pp. 14-15)

Education is a crucial means to which “human flourishing” requires access. In a just society, everyone would have a broadly equal access to educational settings, as well as other social conditions. Conversely, education for social justice requires actively valuing equal access to social means, including education itself, to live a flourishing life. Thus, educational theory as an emancipatory social science may be involved in expanding democratic egalitarian values. Such a theory can generate scientific knowledge relevant to emancipating human potential. This theory, therefore, needs to be directly connected with collective efforts in educational settings to grapple with the creation of the conditions for human flourishing. In contrast, through the extension of democratic egalitarian values, innovative alternatives to privatization and commoditization emerge as alternatives to capitalism within established institutions such as the educational.

These collective efforts involve two actions in opposing directions: ( 1 ) breaking away from dominant forms of educational activity as they exist, and (2) moving into new forms of educational activity that are not yet there. In the words of Shinran (1224/2012, p. 45), one of the most influential Japanese Buddhist monks, the former movement is “outgoing” and the latter “returning.” From the viewpoint of educational theory as an emancipatory social science, it has become essential to ensure that educational research and practice are actively engaged in collective initiatives to reconstruct the common good in an equitable and sustainable way, going beyond privatization and commoditization of schools and other educational institutions.

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