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Necessity and characteristics of Engeström’s expansive learning theory

The object of activity theory is the generation of new forms and patterns of social and collaborative practical activities and human development through the creation of new collective practical activities. At the heart of activity theory, Engestrom (1987/2015, 2016b) places a theory of collaborative learning for the collective creation of new practical activities: “expansive learning theory.”1

At the beginning of “Chapter 1 Introduction” in his book Learning by Expanding, Engestrom (1987/2015) explains the reasons why expansive learning theory is necessary and inevitable by clarifying two issues: “futility of learning” and “elusiveness of expansion.” In other words, the problems motivating the inquiry for this book were “( 1 ) the increasingly recognizable futility of learning in its standard reactive forms” and “(2) the elusive and

Collaborative intervention in expansive learning 59 uncontrollable nature of expansive processes where human beings transcend the contexts given to them” (p. 23). Presupposing “a given context that presents the individual with a learning task” (p. 2), the theory of expansive learning is directed to the question, “Is the futility of essentially reactive forms of learning the historical fate of learning?” The question here is how we can overcome the elusiveness of expansion transcending the context given to integrate the expansive process into the learning process to form an “alternative to reactive forms of learning” (p. 4). The purpose of Learning by Expanding is to use these two questions as a starting point to develop the expansive learning theory to make the “possibility of finding or creating new contexts” (p. 2) from learning a “historically new type of activity” (p. 23) that integrates learning and expansion.

Learning by Expanding, therefore, reports the results of “theoretical research aimed at the construction of categories” (Engestrom, 1987/2015, p. 8) for expansive learning that can “’mediate between learning and expansion" (p. 18), which were always separate and never combined in conventional research. Engestrom considers “categories” here as “basic concepts with which the scientific paradigm or school defines its objects, its inner structure and boundaries” (p. 8). In other words, this book develops the basic concepts of expansive learning using a specific kind of empirical data to create a new paradigm of educational theory and developmental theory, namely activity theory. Moreover, such categories always include “methodologies” for how the research itself should proceed. Engestrom reflects in the introductory chapter, “Learning by Expanding: Origins, Applications, and Challenges,” of the second edition of the book, that there were three backgrounds and reasons for creating a new paradigm when writing the first edition. The first is “to formulate a strong alternative to the dominant Cartesian views of cognition and learning” (p. xiii). The second is to reexamine the methodologies in studies of cognition and learning, urging a shift from research that mainly involved observation and analysis, which perpetuate the status quo, to interventionist research, which is based on the idea that “research needs to be actively involved in making the world better” (p. xiii). The third is the discovery of activity theory, an underlying expansive learning theory, as “a potent framework for understanding and changing the world” (p. xiv).

Here, I would like to characterize the concept of expansive learning proposed by Engestrom under six points.

(1) Expansive learning is a historically new type of learning.

Expansive learning is a historically new type of learning that seeks to overcome “the presently dominant forms of societally organized human learning today” (Engestrom, 1987/2015, p. 74). It is a type of learning that mediates and closes the gap between learning and expansion, which arc separated and isolated from each other in traditional and dominant learning, and integrates the two. Historically, the “emergence ofexpansive learning is connected to the increasingly rapid change of overall concepts of production, business, and organization in all spheres of economy and society,” with expansive learning being “a type of learning needed and generated in radical transformations of entire activity systems and fields of activity” (p. xix). In this sense, expansive learning theory is not a “single biologically determined universal, appropriate, or good way to learn” (p. xviii), that is, “a universal solution suitable for all learning needs” (p. xix). In other words, expansive learning is in direct opposition to the non-historical universalism of learning theory. Therefore, expansive learning seeks to reject the “assumption of complete instructional control of learning” (p. xix), which is prominent in the universalistic theory of learning.

(2) Expansive learning is generated as a system of object-oriented and instrument-mediated collective learning activity.

Expansive learning is fundamentally different from the dominant form of “learning within school,” which is “a series of more or less disconnected though systematically repeated learning actions,” (Engestrom, 1987/2015, p. 83) and emerges when aiming to expand such learning actions and transit to a collective activity system. According to the collective activity system model (Figure 2.2 in Chapter 2, Section 3), this means moving from the small triangle of “subjcct-instrumcnts-object” shown in the upper part of the model to the expanded triangle of “rules-community-division of labor” at the bottom of the model, which rests upon an invisible and unconscious social foundation of activity. Therefore, expansive learning expands each of the seven components of the activity system. This expansion—when focusing on the object—results “not just in acquiring and solving the given, but in creating tasks and problems out of the larger activity context” (p. 107). Further, in terms of the subject, expansive learning requires the expansion from subjects of “separate learning actions” to subjects of “a whole system of learning activity” (p. 82).

(3) Expansive learning is an activity-producing activity.

If expansive learning is a collective learning activity as characterized in (2), then there must be an object that is specific to this activity. What is that object? The object of expansive learning is “the societal productive practice, or the social life-world, in its full diversity and complexity” (Engestrom, 1987/2015, p. 99). Expansive learning is located and mediates between the objects (productive practices) and instruments (science and art). “While traditional school going is essentially a subject-producing activity and traditional science is essentially an instrument-producing activity,” expansive learning is “an activity-producing activity'" (p. 99). In other words, while utilizing the products of science and art as instruments, expansive learning becomes an instrument itself to expand and transform the presently dominant form of societal productive practice to create a historically more advanced form of societal productive practice.

(4) Expansive learning is learning that follows the process of understanding the logic of dialectical change and development of human activities that are driven by their inner contradictions.

Expansive learning develops as a process of articulating and resolving inner contradictions that are the driving forces of change and development in activity systems as objects of learning. Contradiction is the dialectical principle of an object’s self-movement. This means “new qualitative stages and forms of activity emerge as solutions to the contradictions of the preceding stage or form” (Engcstrom, 1987/2015, p. 73). As considered in Chapter 2, Section 5, the contradiction in capitalism is that all things, activities, and relations become commodified and saturated by “the dual nature of commodity” (p. 68)—their use value and exchange value, which are mutually exclusive but, at the same time, mutually dependent. For example, a student’s activity of school going has an aspect of exchange value in that it allows the student to gain “grades or other ‘success markers’ that cumulatively determine the future value of the pupil him- or herself in the labor market,” and use value in that the object of school activity tcndcntially “appears as a living instrument of mastering one’s own relation to society outside of the school” (p. 81). Therefore, cognitive skills such as “metacognition” also “do not exist and function in a vacuum” (p. 102) in schools. In other words, both “the dominant exchange-value logic of schooling” (“metacognition for successful adaptation to the exchange-value aspect of studying” ) and the metacognition embodying the logic of use value (“knowledge should be acquired and used to master reality, to master societal productive practice”) saturate learning at school as two competing contexts and contents. Expansive learning is the process of finding and resolving such contradictions with the aim of transforming activities as characterized in (3) and, through this very process, rediscovering and expanding “emancipatory use value in objects of human activity” (p. xvii).

(5) Expansive learning is learning that causes a transition from the individual to the social and from everyday individual actions to new collective activities.

Initially, expansive learning begins with individuals confronting an object’s inner contradiction as described in (4) and questioning the existing order and logic of their activity. Subsequently, as more actors join in, a collaborative analysis and modeling of the zone of proximal development are initiated and executed, and such learning efforts to implement a new model of activity eventually grow to encompass all members and elements of a collective activity system. In other words, it can be said that expansive learning, which leads to an expansive transition of this kind, follows the dialectical process of one or several people’s deviations and exceptions from the current norm at first, after which this new form and norm—over time—transforms into and manifests itself as something universal (see Chapter 2, Section 6). At the same time, this transition is a subject-developing process characterized as “beginning in individual and developing into collective subjectivity” (Engestrom, 1987/2015, p. 103). Expansive learning, as mentioned in (2), goes beyond the level of learning to solve a presented problem, and instead achieves a level of creating the problem or task itself, equivalent to what Gregory Bateson calls “Learning III” (p. 119). Learning with the object of solving a problem outside the subject in a given context turns into learning in which the object of learning is expanded to creating new activities within a larger context that contains both the subject and the given context. In expansive learning, “the quality of the subject itself changes radically” (p. 120) with the expansion of the object. In other words, in expansive learning that takes on the viewpoint of “the contexts of contexts,” the subject of the self as an individual becomes irrelevant. Thus, in expansive learning, the subject of learning transforms from the individual subject of self to the collective subject. This expansive transformation of the subject into a collective subject is what creates a social and public subject that has lost the private (the self), as reflected in Vladimir Zinchenko’s “liberated action” (p. 51), Marx Wartofsky’s “‘disinterested’ perception, or aesthetic perception, or sheer contemplation” (p. 96), and Bateson’s “loss of the ‘self’ in Learning III” (p. 145).

(6) Expansive learning is learning that creates instruments for the expansive development and mastery of new activities.

Expansive learning, as characterized thus far, is the transition from learning to expansion, that is, “expansion from the level of prevalent actions to the level of novel collective activity” (Engestrom, 1987/2015, p. 169), or learning that creates the central instruments for the mastery of expansive transitions such as “the qualitative transition from scries of individual, mental actions to a new collective, material activity system” (p. 203). Expansive learning may be a “thoughtfully mastered learning activity” that is a new type of “learning by expanding,” which is “emerging in the current phase of human history” (p. 169). It implies “the extension of thinking into an activity, and the merger of learning and thinking into one unified process at this level” (p. 169). Previous studies of thinking cannot explain any specific instruments of expansion. Conducting historical case analyses to transcend these limitations and grasp the function of transitioning to new collective, material activity systems reveals three types of instruments that can be “means for the practical accomplishment of collectively mastered transitions” (p. 225). These are “springboards,” “models,” and “microcosms.” Thus, the logic for mastering expansive transitions, such as “the creation of new contexts” rather than “synchronization within the given contexts” (p. 236), is indispensable while mediating thirdness between learning and expansion that extends thinking to activity and unifies them. This logic itself is dialectic, and the dialectic here seeks to critically overcome Hegel’s dialectic in the following sense. In contrast to Hegel’s dialectic, the dialectic in “the logic of expansion” becomes an instrument for expansion that is essentially “a social and practical process, having to do with collectives of people reconstructing their material practice” (p. 242).

Engestrom’s book Learning by Expanding proposes that the theory of expansive learning serves as “a theoretical framework and an agenda for interventionist research in concrete human activities undergoing historical transformations” (Engestrom, 1987/2015, p. xxxv). Expansive learning becomes an instrument for expansive transition on such a collective “journey” because it conceptualizes a new collective, material activity system. Expansive learning theory seeks to dialectically grasp and follow the logic of the development and formation of “what is not yet there,” focusing on contradictions as the principle of self-movement.

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