Expanding the child’s agency to shape the whole system of learning activity
Transformative agency at the activity-system level
Activity theory is an intervention methodology that facilitates and supports expansive learning of participants. Therefore, the subject’s agency becomes a central focus of activity-theoretical intervention in expansive learning. Agency is the most important outcome of expansive learning. From the perspective of activity theory, agency is seen as the “participants’ ability and will to shape their activity systems” (Engestrom, 2016b, p. 74).
Since agency means “the ability to construct and transform independently one’s own life activity” (Davydov, Slobodchikov, & Tsukerman, 2003, p. 63), it is transformative and future oriented. Jaakko Virkkunen (2006, p. 49) called this transformative agency and defined it as “breaking away from the given frame of action and taking the initiative to transform it.” Similarly, Mustafa Emirbayer and Ann Mische (1998, p. 962) conceptualized agency as “a temporally embedded process of social engagement, [not only] informed by the past ... but also oriented toward the future ... [and] the present.”
How, then, can the activity-theoretical view be applied to research on the emergence of children’s transformative agency in pedagogical practice? James G. Grecno and Engestrom (2014, p. 128) maintained that activity theory offers a framework for analyzing system-level activity and learning. This approach entails studying instances in which the learning unit exceeds a single person such as a dyad, group, classroom, community, or individual person working with objects and technological systems. These levels of analysis require the implementation of higher-level learning systems as activity systems. Therefore, someone utilizing the activity theory framework can focus on how people learn by engaging in activities with these systems, such as problem solving or item creation. Classroom activities in which students arc afforded different forms of agency, authority, and accountability can also be investigated, an impossible feat within the discourse limitations of Initiation-Response-Evaluation (IRE) interchanges (Mehan, 1979).
Engestrom’s (1987/2015, p. 63) activity system model (Figure 2.2 in Chapter 2, Section 3) reveals the multiple mediational structure of human activity, including “less visible social mediators of activity” (Engestrom, 2008, p. 27) such as rules, community, and the division of labor. These activity system components function as a hidden curriculum, a term coined by Philip Jackson in 1968. Jackson (1968) asserted that the hidden curriculum is a distinctive feature of classroom life that “each student (and teacher) must
Fostering children’s expansive learning 81 master if he is to make his way satisfactorily through the school” (pp. 33-34). This is in stark contrast to the academic demands and outcomes explicitly stated in the official curriculum and have traditionally attracted the most attention.
Among such social mediators of activity, the rules of practice constrain and facilitate participation, thus shaping ways in which system members interact with each other. Similarly, the division of labor delegates responsibility for different aspects of activities to participants in a community of practice (Greeno & Engestrom, 2014). Therefore, an analysis at the activity-system level can explain differences in classroom activities, specifically highlighting “which individuals and groups are entitled and expected to understand concepts and contribute to discourse involving conceptual explanations or justifications of actions or meanings of concepts and methods” (Greeno & van de Sande, 2007, p. 12).
According to Greeno and Carla van de Sande (2007), students engaged in the whole system of learning would ideally be endowed with greater agency, since conceptual agency and disciplinary agency can be discerned. In other words, disciplinary agency entails “following accepted procedures and terminology with authority vested in the discipline so that a positive contribution depends only on its correspondence with established procedures” (p. 12). Furthermore,
[a]cting with conceptual agency involves selection, adaptation, and critical judgment about the appropriateness, utility, relevance, and meaning of alternative understandings, strategies, concepts, and methods in a domain of activity so that a positive contribution can result in choosing or adapting a method for use in solving a problem or better understanding a problem or concept.
In this way, by fostering conceptual agency, the activity-theoretical approach can integrate explanations for exercising children’s agency in their learning at both the activity system and individual cognitive levels.