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I: Activity theory and a new form of educational research

: Activity theory as a new framework for educational research

Revolutionary roots of activity theory: interventionism as its historical legacy

Today, rapid globalization is bringing about drastic changes in every aspect of the environment, the economy, and society, and crisis is mounting on a global scale. As we face this state of affairs, the importance of learning is ever increasing as a means of overcoming such challenges, living collaboratively amid cultural diversity, and building a free, equitable sustainable society, as well as a means for the next generation of children and young people to blaze a trail to the future on their own. In the society of the future, learning will place in people’s hands the key that unlocks these doors. Therefore, at all educational institutions and places, including schooling, and all educational levels, it is imperative to fundamentally re-examine means of teaching and learning and to seek innovative approaches.

As is commonly known, the educational reforms carried out on a top-down basis over the past twenty years on the governmental and policy levels have emphasized and popularized the notion that scores on standardized academic achievement tests are the only gauge of the results of students’ learning and teachers’ educational practices. Such reforms are not derived from profound knowledge and understanding of the realities of education and learning in schools. On the contrary, they arc derived from bureaucratic administration and technical control. These reforms do not consider problems faced in actual educational sites or complex challenges that necessitate new approaches, only urging and compelling schools and teachers to follow top-down control and take accountability for the results of academic achievement tests. Thus, the complex factors affecting children’s academic performance arc ignored, and teachers are held solely responsible for performance-based accountability alone, which may even entail teacher bashing. However, with regard to the question of whether such school reforms focusing solely on academic achievement as measured by standardized tests have resulted in improvements in children’s lives, theoretical grounds and actual evidence for a critical view have been advanced (see Cuban, 2013; Elmore, 2011; Hargreaves & Shirley, 2008; Katz & Rose, 2013).

Amid this state of affairs, then, how can we go beyond a narrow view of education to expand the forms of learning activities in schools and communities? In an attempt to answer this question, I focus on cultural-historical activity theory (i.e., activity theory), a global trend that has had a huge impact in research on education, learning, and development over the past thirty years.

Activity theory offers a conceptual framework for analyzing and redesigning human collaborative activity from the perspective of a collective activity system as an entire unit of analysis of human practice and development. It also provides a rich source of ideas and tools for modeling and creating future innovative practices in diverse sites of social practices, such as everyday life, schooling, science and technology, culture and the arts, work and organizations, and communities.

Thus, activity theory is a new paradigm that analyzes and redesigns how human learning occurs in the interactions between individuals and collaborations within communities. In particular, activity theory focuses on the learning and development that emerge in the institutionalized contexts of practical activities as culturally and historically mediated within a society. This new paradigm in the fields of learning and development has become increasingly influential in educational studies in Japan over the past twenty years (Yamazumi, 2006a, 2009a).

The tradition of activity theory shows us that it is an endeavor to overcome the dichotomous theory-practice gap strongly premised in standard sciences. Activity theory seeks to construct and implement not only observational and analytical but also developmental and interventionist methodologies. Therefore, Yrjo Engestrom (1991a) characterizes activity theory from the viewpoint of interventionism: “Activity theory has the conceptual and methodological potential to be a path breaker in studies that help humans gain control over their own artifacts and thus over their future” (p. 12).

Regarding such interventionism as the historical legacy of activity theory, Harry Daniels (2001) states that activity theory, which seeks to apply Lev Vygotsky’s theory to the current study of human learning and development, raises the following fundamental questions:

[I]n the course of their own development human beings also actively shape the very forces that are active in shaping them. This media-tional model, which entails the mutual influence of individual and supra-individual factors lies at the heart of many attempts to develop our understanding of the possibilities for interventions in processes of human learning and development. For many educators, it provides important tools for the development of an understanding of pedagogy. Importantly, this body of theoretical work opens up, or rather insists upon, a pedagogic imagination that reflects on the processes of teaching and learning as much more than face-to-face interaction or the simple transmission of prescribed knowledge and skill.

(pp. 1-2)

The insights and groundbreaking research that inspired the intellectual tradition of activity theory came from the Soviet Union in the 1920s and 1930s, where it was initially shaped by the founders of the schools of cultural-historical psychology' such as Vygotsky, Aleksei Leont’ev, and Alexander Luria. Despite being mercilessly suppressed by the state, activity theory' subsequently became popular in the Soviet Union in the fields of philosophy and psychology' from the 1960s to the 1980s (see Lcktorsky, 2019). Since the 1990s, activity theory has made significant and widespread contributions across a wide range of disciplines globally, moving far beyond its original geographic and academic areas.

Daniels (2001) indicates that the theoretical ideas developed by' the pioneers of activity theory' during the turbulent period of the Russian Revolution, when society was experiencing rapid and intense change, were their own responses to the time and society in which they lived.

They were developed by someone who was charged with developing a state system for the education of “pedagogically' neglected” children.... This group included the homeless, of which there was a very large number, and those with special needs. In July' 1924 the 28-year-old Lev Vygotsky was appointed to work in the People’s Commissariat for Public Education. He argued that the culture of education as it had existed was itself in need of profound transformation and that this was possible in the new social circumstances that obtained in Russia. He embarked on the creation of psychological theories, which he and others used as tools for the development of new pedagogies for all learners.

(P- 2)

In this way, activity theory has been based on social practice since its inception and, through this, has been engaged in historical creation; put another way, a feature of this theory is of human intervention where participants become agents in making their own history. As Annalisa Sannino (2011) elaborates, activity theory can be thought of as an activist and interventionist theory in historical terms. From its very beginning, activity theory' has been rooted in interventional studies based on revolutionary practice, which go beyond what is given to generate new activities for emancipation. As Enge-strom (1987/2015) points out: “The historical legacy of cultural-historical activity theory is one of theoretically and methodologically argued interventionism” (p. xxx).

The following sections consider the concept of activity that is the essence of activity theory, as well as models of activity systems. They then examine fundamental problems of education with reference to the conceptual framework of activity theory, while tracing the theory’s contemporary development.

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