Activity theory and a paradigm shift in the study of educational change

The core issue that fundamentally defines the theory of human beings and society itself, including educational theory, is how the relation of theory to practice is to be radically changed. Moreover, based on such a radical change, there is the question of how the new theory and the new methodology (i.e., the new principle for designing the development of the whole research itself) should be created. Engestrom (1987/2015) explores “more radical and direct ways of building the practice relation into the theory” (p. 21) in Learning by Expanding, which is aimed at the creation of a new educational and developmental theory that provokes a paradigm shift in the study of interrelated life practices and learning. In traditional theories, as Engestrom puts it, the societal practice remains a distant “testing ground,” used mainly as a “source of ex post facto data or of data abstracted via experimental designs,” and as an “object of benevolent recommendations based on the findings gained in research” (p. 21). Researchers there speak to the same “academic empirical researchers" (p. 21) as themselves. However, a theory is “a potential instrument for dealing with practice” (p. 21). Hence, Engestrom in Learning by Expanding incorporates into his theory “different intended practice relations” (p. 21), which are as follows:

There arc at least two more radical and direct ways of building the practice relation into the theory. One alternative is to speak directly to professional practitioners in the field the theory is concerned with, that is, to prompt them to act as experimenters in their practical contexts. Another alternative is to speak to social movements concerned with the problems the theory is trying to illuminate. The classical example is of course the theoretical work of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.


Thus, Engestrom (1987/2015) goes beyond traditional and dominant theories that only speak to “academic empirical researchers” within the same community, taking “more radical and direct ways of building the practice relation into the theory,” as mentioned earlier. The first of these two ways is to directly address the “professional practitioners” in the field to which the

Introduction 5 theory relates. It becomes a call to empower “professional practitioners” to act as “experimenters” in their practical contexts as follows:

In the present book [Learning by Expanding}, I am speaking to both researchers and practitioners, whether the latter be professional or blue-collar, or engaged in activities entirely other than wage labor. The methodology of expansive research ... is necessarily a joint venture. The researcher (or rather, the team of researchers) has the task of pushing the cycle of expansive transition forward and introducing instruments or components for new instruments into it. The practitioners have the task of facing and solving the contradictions of their activity system as they are identified and intensified along the voyage through the zone of proximal development. In this process, the practitioners tendentially become subjects—or rather a collective subject—of their evolving new activity system, thus also subjects of analysis and intervention.

(pp. 22-23)

Similarly, educational theory can be redefined from the foundation by radically changing the relation of theory to practice. Such a fundamentally new relation is built with a “joint venture” in which the team of researchers and practitioners collaborate to transform the practitioners’ activity system. To create their new activity system, practitioners develop from individual subjects to a “collective subject.” In other words, educational theory as an emancipatory social science changes the way it is by being connected to the practice of human learning and formation that emancipates the human potential. The theory there is created with a methodological principle that links and associates the joint venture of researchers and practitioners. The collective subject of the joint venture as the subject of “analysis and intervention” grasps the contradictions of its activities on its own. Furthermore, while analyzing the activities critically, it carries out its own interventions that create new alternatives to activities and thus solutions to the contradictions.

Engestrom’s (1987/2015) other radical and direct call (or link) of theory to practice is toward “social movements” in connection with the problem on which the theory seeks to shed light. Examples like the “joint venture” and “collective subject” mentioned in the research methodology above immediately constitute a “methodology of practical societal transformation” (p. 23). Therefore, as educational theory directly addresses and links to a “social movement,” a new paradigm of educational change could emerge, going beyond such traditional paradigms as “scientific management (standards, testing, and accountability)” (Rincón-Gallardo, 2019, p. 41).

In this case, the social movement is not “something given,” but “something potentially emerging, something in the process of becoming” (Engestrom, 1987/2015, p. 23). In that sense, the essence of the social movement at present is to overcome the existing premises of the past and create something new moving toward the future. Engestrom indicates that this social movement is just “practical societal transformation.” It emerges from the realinner contradictions that the practitioners face within the “system of production and administration”:

I disagree with Habermas, who seems to see hope only outside the system of production and administration. I contend that such a stance indicates a lack of intimate knowledge of the inner contradictions and emancipatory dynamics within the world of wage labor, be it in production or administration. In the heart of modern production and administration, the hidden powers of qualitative change are also greatest. Retreat into the safe world of academic discourse is today almost a guarantee of distorted observation. The naive optimism of Bateson et al., prophesying “innovations” in professional therapeutic work, has a deeper historical truth in it than the wordy roundabouts of Habermas.

(p. 23)

As seen above, engaged educational research should be intervention research in the socio-historical formation of human beings in the age of humanitarian and ecological crises. The new form of educational research is focused on interventions in people’s practices of human learning and formation that emancipate their potential as they transform the socio-historical world. This pedagogy and educational research are integrated into efforts to create alternatives to capitalistic logic, that is, privatization and commoditization, proactively and collectively engaged in new constructions for the common good of democratic egalitarian values. It helps to create and maintain equitable and sustainable forms of our livelihood and joint lives.

To produce this form of pedagogy and educational research, this book attempts to introduce and integrate cultural-historical activity theory (activity theory) into pedagogy and educational research. As examined in detail in Chapter 2, activity theory is a theoretical and methodological framework to study the generation of new, emancipatory forms of activities that go beyond the given. The main theme of this book is applications of the conceptual framework and methodology of activity theory to conduct collaborative interventions in creating new forms of educational activities by human agents in schools and communities in Japan. This book aims to derive theoretical and methodological findings related to new forms of education, as a collaborative intervention in human learning, formation, and development, through the analysis of the data from empirical studies of concrete educational practices.

Activity theory studies how people collectively design and transform their own activities that have been culturally and historically constructed in educational settings, workplaces, and communities (Engcstrom, 1987/2015, 2008, 2016b, 2018; Leont’ev, 1978, 1981; Sannino, Daniels, & Gutierrez, 2009; Sannino & Ellis, 2013). It offers a conceptual framework for analyzing and designing an object-oriented collective activity system as the basic unit of analysis for human practices and development. Activity theory also highlights ideas and tools to transform the activity and expand the agency of the participants (Yamazumi, 2009a, 2013). In activity theory, a new learning theory has been proposed—namely, expansive learning theory, formulated by Engcstrom (1987/2015, 2016b)—which regards active participation in the collective design and transformation of activities as a learning process for participants themselves.

Due to its nature, Engcstrom (1987/2015, 2016b) referred to intervention research, which is at the center of activity theory, as “formative intervention.” It has been taken up as a way for the agents of the activity to expand collaborative and transformative agency through expansive learning and evoke one’s own intervention to take the initiative in the intervention process. Actively participating in the creation and maintenance of equitable and sustainable forms of people’s livelihood and democratic civil life that transcend individual self-interest through such formative intervention studies can be thought of as an urgent challenge in the transformation of educational research based on activity theory.

In the next section, I would like to apply the concept of activity, a basic category of activity theory, to characterize new forms of pedagogy and educational research based on the conceptual and methodological framework of activity theory.

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