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Cultural historical activity theory; an approach to understand reforms in education

This paper contributes to current discussions on potential shortcoming of contemporary works within activity theory. Critiques strongly emphasize the necessity to overcome the lack of focus on subjectivity in the second and third generation of activity-theoretical studies. In these discussions, limitations of the triangular representation of activity are often highlighted as if they were evidence of omission of key issues originally central in the works of the founders of activity theory. The paper discusses the main arguments used in the critiques from the historical perspective, viewing activity theory as a theory grounded in interventions in social practices. On this basis, the paper argues for a reorientation of current discussions in activity theory toward interventions.

The paper is organized in three sections. The first section documents the history of activity theory as an activist and interventionist theory. Activity theory has the distinctive characteristic of developing as an integral part of the historical turmoil through which activity theorists have lived. Two main phases of turmoil in the development of activity theory are the Russian revolution, which triggered the engagement of the founders, and the radical student movement through which activity theory was rediscovered and further developed in Europe. Activity theory stands historically as an activist theory of development of practices, which may be traced back to Marx’s idea of revolutionary practice, emphasizing that theory is not only meant to analyze and explain the world but also to generate new practices and promote change. Since Vygotsky’s works with illiterates, practically all the founders of cultural-historical activity theory, for instance, Luria, Leont’ev, Galperin and Davydov, have engaged in various kinds of interventions in multiple settings..

The second section of the paper argues that advances in activity theory depend on the ability of those who work within this framework to establish fruitful connections between the classic heritage and challenging possibilities of societal change. The main arguments of critiques of studies in activity theory are examined in historical perspective. I will present epistemological implications which lead to a view that differs from the critiques on subjectivity and on the use of conceptual models such as the well-known triangles. Combined with design and implementation of material transformations, structural models of activity do not exclude subjectivity, sensuous experience, emotion and ethico-moral issues. Instead, these dimensions of activity are embedded in collective change efforts in which both the models and the voices of the subjects act as mediators.

The third section of the paper indicates a possible direction to reorient the current discussions. Three examples of interventionist methods developed within the framework of activity theory are discussed, namely the Change Laboratory, the Clinic of Activity, and the Fifth Dimension. A comparison between the three methods highlights complementarities. It also points toward ways of elevating the themes of subjectivity and conceptual models explicitly to the level of methodology.

Interview

- What do you consider the most interesting in your work on activity theory?

- I generally worked with the literature by the founders of activity theory, Russian colleagues of 1920s that was translated into English. I have read everything I managed to find. After my talk in Moscow I hope to establish connections with present-day Russian psychologists working on this topic. Feedback is very important for my research. I am eager to continue the collaboration that emerged at this symposium. Most probably, that will result into our collective works published in English.

- While working with the texts, did you come across some ideas you couldn’t accept?

- Numerous questions on Russian psychology classics arise at the West. For example, huge academic Internet-resources constantly give interpretations of classical works, discuss translation problems and refinements. And here in an important connection point with Moscow State University of Psychology and Education, for being Russian native speakers you understand the texts much better. It is objective reality, but I have to work with translations. Some of them are even double translations. For example, there are French translations made from English translations, so you can imagine the resulting quality. It causes many of the interpretation difficulties.  

- You are an editor in a journal on educational issues. What is an ideal educational system like, how do you imagine it?

- My dream is to see children studying at school according to their own interests without necessity to comply with any rigid standards. Don’t be surprised, there is nothing unusual in such system. For example, in Finland a number of pupils choose home-schooling, then pass exams and get diplomas. In other words, they avoid contacts with school. Often they are A-students, the most capable. They assess school as not meeting their requirements and needs. They study at libraries and on the Net. I do not consider it anti-social. But I would like modern school to be such a place where children can find answers to all their questions and gain understanding of their future careers to fully realize their potentials after graduation.    

References

Context materials:

Sannino, A. (2008c). From talk to action: Experiencing interlocution in developmental interventions. Mind, Culture, and Activity, 15(3),  234-257. [Free full-text]

Sannino, A. (2008b). Experiencing conversations: Bridging the gap between discourse and activity. Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, 38(3), 267-291. [PPT-presentation]

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