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: Collaborative intervention in expansive learning: Agency and hybridity as basic principles

Activity theory and methodology of intervention research

In this chapter, I wish to consider the question of how to involve educational research in the transformation of practical activities through the practitioner’s own collaboration and mutual learning from within, using the concepts and framework of activity theory. While standard science is limited to observation and analysis, activity theory distinguishes itself by bringing researchers and practitioners together to create change. In so doing, as explained in detail below, activity theory has as its central theme the idea of practitioners themselves creating collective change through collaboration and mutual learning, rather than top-down control. It is suggested that this newly created methodology of intervention supports this process.

Education, as well as teaching and learning, may be said to comprise inherently complex, diverse, constantly changing, dynamic, and open activities. Moreover, as researchers, we ourselves are part of the educational activity that we study and change in correlation with the current actuality. However, through the past twenty years of educational research, for example, as has been remarked upon in the field of schooling, a narrow-minded viewpoint persists whereby scores on academic achievement tests are considered the outcomes of successfill learning on the part of children. This is based on a research methodology in which the complex and diverse processes involved in education arc reduced to simple and linear causality in which conclusions are hastily deduced. Intervention based on this methodology consists of assumed linear stages, from which policymakers and researchers create a grand design that is then applied or modified by teachers, thus resulting in a more positive change for students. In this methodology, aspects like the resistance, identities, and agency of practitioners such as the child and teacher are ignored.

How, therefore, can we overcome such simple and linear reductionism in causality and create a new methodology in educational research that takes the form of intervention research? Yrjo Engestrom (2005a) and his research group have developed a new methodology of intervention research called Developmental Work Research (DWR) that applies the conceptual framework and principles of activity theory to analyze work, technology, and

Collaborative intervention in expansive learning 51 organization while attempting to practically transform these domains. They have conducted a great number of concrete intervention research studies at various work and organization sites. This approach emerged at the beginning of the 1980s, and today, with the Center for Research on Activity, Development and Learning (CRADLE) at the University of Helsinki in Finland acting as an international hub, developmental intervention research into education and work organizations under transformation has been conducted and continuously developed through partnerships with a wide range of organizations from post offices and manufacturing factories to schools, libraries, hospitals, home care, newspaper companies, broadcasters, and biotechnology R & D networks.

Engestrom (1996b) describes DWR as a new paradigm in educational research in the following three senses: “(1) it studies learning and development, (2) its methodology relics on educational interventions, and (3) it studies educating as work and educational institutions as workplaces” (p. 131).

In this broad sense, this type of education is not the top-down paternalistic type of education isolated in classrooms where there is only one correct answer. As Engestrom (2000) crucially points out, lessons from intervention research suggest that change and development imported from outside and implemented from above fail. Instead, while it may appear contradictory, as intervention researchers, we must pay careful attention to strong resistance by practitioners who face disturbances in their work activity against interventionist conceptualization that shifts to new practices. Resistance from such practitioners simply indicates that their own will, engagements, and thus agency arc functioning. In other words, this resistance is not a signal from an external source or from above, but a sign from within that may become a spur for practitioners to leverage their own spontaneity or agency. Intervention can only succeed when the practitioners themselves have understood present practices as reflective, questioning, and critical.

For example, in the field of agricultural development, Jules Pretty (2002) contends that outside professionals (planners, developers, or scientists), who ask about problems and identify standardized, technology-reduced solutions, too often overlook the fine-grained details about people’s connectedness to a place. Such oversight explains why a standardized approach in industrial development is not well suited to the differing conditions, values, and constraints experienced by people in the cultural-historical contexts of their own real life-worlds. However, if people concretely reject a prescribed, defined set of technologies and practices—because it does not fit their needs or is too risky—it is assumed that it reflects their own fault. In contrast, Pretty' proposed the involvement of farmers in the social learning process as a key to agricultural development:

Agricultural sustainability should not imply simple modes or packages that arc imposed upon individuals. Rather, sustainability should be seen as a process of social learning. This centers upon building the capacity of farmers and their communities to learn about the complex ecological and biophysical complexity in their fields and farms, and then to act on this information. The process of learning, if it is socially embedded and jointly engaged upon, provokes changes in behavior and can bring forth a new world.

(p. 156)

In the framework of activity theory, intervention in practice must facilitate and support the process of “social learning” in which practitioners involved in and affected by it take initiative to reforge the objects of their current work practices (or activity systems)—that is, reforging their practices, goals, and understandings of what they are doing and why they do things the way they do. Unlike observation or analysis, intervention should not miss the “human potential for agency, for intentional collective and individual actions aimed at transforming the activity” (Engcstrom, 2006, p. 4). This agentive layer in human contexts focuses on the human potential of agents to take initiative to create intellectual, emotional, and moral judgments in their own names as intentional transformative actions.

DWR does not involve a linear intervention into people’s actions and practices with the imposition of theory in a top-down manner, but instead seeks to depart from the actual conflicts and difficulties that people confront in their workplaces and the inner contradictions in the activity system. In this sense, DWR methodologically criticizes and sets out a strategy to overcome the top-down paternalism that comes from above, which states that it is outside professionals who bear the responsibility for designing society and know the correct course of action to develop it. Above all, the type of intervention research to which DWR aspires is one that supports a state in which practitioners themselves analyze and design their systems of life activities. In other words, DWR is founded on the personal motivation and agency of people collaborating to learn together and create their own lives and futures by leveraging their own power.

In addition, DWR proposes a new methodology for intervention research in which researchers attempting an intervention build long-term partnerships and engage in critical dialogue with the organizations that they are researching. Engcstrom (2005b) stresses that this dialogue and partnership is not the same as the type of consultation undertaken to generate recommendations and solutions:

The longitudinal and interventionist methodology of developmental work research requires relatively durable partnerships between the researchers and the organizations they study. Such partnerships are based on mutual benefit: researchers get data and findings, the organization gets new tools and critical impulses to examine and change its practices. Such a partnership is not a consulting agreement. The researchers are not hired by the management to generate recommendations and solutions. The partnership is based on mutual autonomy. Researchers

Collaborative intervention in expansive learning 53 have the obligation and right to produee critical analyses for eventual publication, and their work is typically funded by third, public sources.

(p. 15)

Engcstrom calls the above form of educational intervention, such as that which is apparent in DWR, formative intervention. Through a reconsideration of Lev Vygotsky’s double stimulation—an experimental method in the domain of developmental research—Engcstrom clarifies the methodological core of intervention research. In the next section, I will consider a reconceptualization of double stimulation, which holds the key for intervention research based on activity theory.

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