Desktop version

Home arrow Education

  • Increase font
  • Decrease font

<<   CONTENTS   >>

Expansive learning as the focal point of formative intervention

Engestrom (2016b, p. 36) proposes expansive learning theory, shedding light on the “expansivity” of learning, which can be resolved by neither of the two basic metaphors of learning competing for dominance today— the acquisition metaphor and participation metaphor (Sfard, 1998). Traditional learning theory has typically regarded learning as the acquisition of an established culture and adaptation to institutional constraints. Unlike the expansion metaphor, the acquisition metaphor and participation metaphor “have little to say about transformation and creation of culture” (Engestrom, 2016b, p. 36) within learning.

To break through this narrow conceptualization in traditional learning theory, Engestrom (2016b) theorizes a kind oflearning (the expansive learning theory) based on the expansion metaphor, where “the learners construct a new object and concept for their collective activity, and implement this new object and concept in practice” (p. 37). In other words, in expansive learning, learners are “involved in constructing and implementing a radically new, wider and more complex object and concept for their activity” (p. 36). In this way, expansive learning theory illuminates a type oflearning in which people have more expansive control of their own activities and practices, and transform and create them, that is, “learning what is not yet there” (p. 9).

In expansive learning, learners learn something that is not yet there through a sequence oflearning actions: (1) questioning the existing practice -> (2) modeling the new form and development of activity -* (3) implementing the new model in practice (Engestrom, 2016b, pp. 47-49). At the start of this expansive learning cycle, there are difficulties and conflicts people confront directly in their workplaces and organizations, and inner contradictions that lie deep within an activity system. Expansive learning looks at such contradictions and creates a new, sustainable form of practice with a new object and concept. Thus, formative interventions that try to overcome contradictions in a workplace or organization encourage practitioners and professionals to bring about breakthroughs by transforming the system as a whole, rather than through fragmented, isolated attempts at technical solutions.

Therefore, expansive learning fundamentally differs from learning about means, techniques, and stages that serve to achieve short-term goals in a linear manner such as “how to get from A to B” or “how to do a given task.” Instead, expansive learning is generated from questioning a higher-level purpose in which short-term goals are interwoven. What bring forth expansive learning are the questions of “what,” “why,” and “where to” in workplaces and organizations, such as “Why does this way of doing things persist?,” “Why are we doing it in this way?,” and “What are we trying to change?” In other words, based on questions such as “Why are we at A instead of B?,” or “Why are we aiming for B instead of A?,” expansive learning encompasses a level of learning in which activity systems can be changed as a whole, redesigned anew, or created. Above all, it is a learning that is evoked “when the learner questions the origins of the problem that has given rise to the need for learning in the first place” (Young, 1998, p. 154). This way, expansive learning goes beyond the given problem and is a process of discovery and creation of the problem itself on one’s own.

Thus, at the heart of expansive learning is the collective creation of new objects and concepts, and of new artifacts and patterns of practice for one’s own activities. Expansive learning is an instrument or “second auxiliary means” (see Section 2 of this chapter) for creating one’s own life-world and future by oneself. In intervention research, methodologies based on activity theory treat such practitioners’ collaborative expansive learning as an instrument for change of actions and practices.

Expansive learning theory essentially differs from the varied repertoire of standard learning theory. It was originally conceptualized by Engcstrom as learning that is inseparably linked to the creation of new realities, activities, and forms of human life by people. The following characterization of expansive learning compels a radical reconsideration of learning that cannot be found at all in the other learning theories in general circulation.

If the inherent expansivity of learning is taken seriously, the very idea of learning as a controlled process is shaken. The acknowledgment of expansivity means that we accept the possibility that learning gets out of the hands of the instructors and takes a direction of its own.

(Engcstrom, 2016b, p. 9)

Expansive learning theory seeks to overturn the false assumption of “complete instructional control over learning” (Engcstrom, 2016b, p. 14). This is the most primary characteristic of expansive learning theory, making it one of the most “ambitious process theories” (p. 34) of learning. A process theory of learning, based on the false assumption of complete instructional control over learning, tends toward orthodoxy if the sequence of learning it promotes is taken “as the universal and thus the only possible or desirable one” (p. 13). As a result, in research and interventions, “the assumption of complete instructional control takes the insidious form of self-fulfilling prophecy” (p. 14).

But the very assumption of complete instructional control over learning is a fallacy. In practice, such control is not possible to reach. Learners will always proceed differently from what the instructor, researcher or interventionist had planned and tried to implement or impose. You get what you want only if you ignore this resistance to and deviation from the theory.

(p. 14)

This idea of a “self-fulfilling prophecy” was proposed by American sociologist Robert K. Merton, who identified that certain assumptions might bring about their expected outcomes, whether directly or indirectly. Engcstrom (2016b) criticizes process theories of learning thus far as having fallen into the trap of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

If you have a strong universalistic theory of the process of learning, you will tend to impose it upon your data and examples so that you will indeed find evidence confirming that your theory works in practice. Correspondingly, if you have a strong universalistic theory of the optimal process of learning guiding your intervention, you will tend to try to impose it upon the learners. In both cases, you tend to get what you want.

(p. 14)

Expansive learning theory breaks through the paradox of the self-fulfilling prophecy by using the concept of “expansivity” as a new hypothesis, radically reimagining the false hypothesis of complete instructional control over learning.

Learning is usually thought of as learning what is already well known from “teachers” who can skillfully manipulate and teach. However, in proposing the expansive learning theory, Engcstrom (2001, p. 139) suggests that “[t]hcre was no readily available model for solving the problems; no wise teacher had the correct answer” in the context of expansive learning. What this symbolic expression means is that expansive learning is “learning what is not yet there” (Engcstrom, 2016b, p. 9).

Furthermore, the expansivity of such learning does not concern itself with only that which is viewed primarily in terms of a cognitive quality, such as “the potential of learners to go beyond the information given” (Engcstrom, 2016b, p. 9). Rather, to understand expansivity in a “more radical way,” Engcstrom regards it mainly in “material and cultural terms”:

The other, more radical way to understand expansivity is to see it primarily in material and cultural terms, as the inherent potential of learning to produce new material objects, practices and patterns of activity. It is this second perspective that I promote in this book [Studies in Expansive Learning: Learning What Is Not Yet There], The title “learning what is not yet there” implies the generation of novel material forms of collective life, not merely construction of novel ideas in the minds of the learners.


In this way, expansive learning theory is centered on the tenet that “human beings and their collectives, regardless of age, are creators of new culture” (Engestrom, 2016b, p. 25). Stated differently, expansive learning looks toward bringing about new potential to human activities by qualitatively transforming the activity systems people arc involved with in those sites where they live every day.

However, in his proposal of expansive learning, Engestrom is not merely “[proposing and promoting theories” (Engestrom, 2016b, p. 138). Engestrom states that the construction of a theory is no longer sufficient, and he is well aware of the fact that “[i]t is increasingly important to examine and test the empirical usability and methodological rigor afforded by the theory” (p. 138). This may be because he relies on a self-imposed historicity as an essential requirement of learning theory, such that expansive learning is “a historical reality rather than an outcome of a designed policy” (p. 70). He emphasizes the historical ground of learning theory as follows:

Such a theory must denounce universalism and specify just what kind of learning it actually aims at describing, explaining and promoting—and on what historical and cultural grounds. To avoid becoming a universal-ist orthodoxy, such a theory should make clear its own limits and engage in comparison and contrast with other theories of the learning process.

(p. 14)

From the viewpoint of historicity, Engestrom, as part of his discoveries surrounding “ historical activity types'' asserts that expansive learning activity is an emerging new historical activity type, that is, “collectively and expansively mastered activity type," added to the three established types: “ craft type,” "rationalized type,” and "humanized type" (Engestrom, 1987/2015, p. 222). In other words, expansive learning plays a critical role in this new historical activity type. It generally arises “when individuals form collectives to deal with problematic situations in order to capitalize on the greater control they have as a collective” (Roth, Hwang, Goulart, & Lee, 2005, p. 19). Whereas Vygotsky and Aleksei Leont’ev stress on “transforming individuals (via self-mastery or state mastery),” the expansive learning approach emphasizes “transforming mediators through dialogic negotiation by collective subjects to produce new collective designs and interventions, consequently reforming adjacent activities” (Spinuzzi, 2018, p. 149).

Thus, while Engcstrom’s theory of expansive learning acts as a theoretical framework for research into collectively and expansively mastered activity type, it is also an intervention methodology that supports practitioners in creating their own collaborative efforts. When he references collectively and expansively mastered activity, which is based on a transition from the level of

Collaborative intervention in expansive learning 67 an individual subject to the level of a collective subject, the following musings are of fundamental importance when considering the methodological principles of intervention:

I feel tempted to use the term “consciously mastered” or even “theoretically mastered.” On the other hand, those labels sound foolhardy. It is safer to acknowledge the potential importance of intuitive forms of collective and expansive mastery, especially since the concept of consciousness is usually restricted to individual awareness alone. The “loss of the I” or the “liberated action” is indeed difficult to include in our common conceptions of consciousness.

(Engestrom, 1987/2015, p. 222)

Engestrom paid particular attention to “collective and expansive mastery,” that is, the fact that expansive learning does not simply manifest itself solely within the “consciousness” of an individual subject that is restricted to “individual awareness.” Rather, expansive learning, as discussed in detail in the preceding section, is a form of learning in which there is an expansive transition among practitioners from isolated individual mental action to a new material collective activity system. Moreover, there is a qualitative transformation among the agents of expansive learning from individual subjects to a collective subject. At the level of this collective subject essentially characterized by “loss of the I” (Bateson) and “liberated action” (Zinchenko), practitioners go beyond the confined context of the awareness and self of individuals and give rise to “intuitive forms of collective and expansive mastery.”

In such expansive learning, rather than individuals’ self-acquisition of abilities and self-development or the acquisition and development of abilities by individuals in line with institutional instructional guidance, individuals who are agents of activities work together through dialogue and negotiation, focusing on learning to create new collective designs and interventions for one’s own activities, thereby transforming the activities anew (i.e., creating new material and symbolic tools, rules, and patterns for division of labor). The expansive learning theory locates the abilities not in the individual but in “the activity in which the individual is situated” (Spinuzzi, 2018, p. 132). Moreover, whether self-made or built by institutions, rather than development within the individual, the expansive learning theory discovers the creative potential of human learning in the process by which individuals develop activities in a collaborative manner as a collective subject.

As mentioned in the first section of this chapter, the methodology of expansive research that is centered on the work of Engestrom has been developing internationally to a remarkable extent as an activity-theoretical formative intervention. At its core, intervention is seen as a “joint venture” (Engestrom, 1987/2015, p. 22) between the researcher and practitioner, with the practitioners becoming a collective subject of a new and evolving activity system. Because of this, a novel principle has been created in whichthe practitioners are supported and encouraged to collaborate in the analysis of their own activity systems and concurrently become an intervening collective subject. It is here that the idea of “intuitive forms of collective and expansive mastery” holds potential importance. The reason for this is that, through their own collaborative analysis and intervention, they do not follow a predefined course, but instead attempt to accomplish an expansive transition into something that is not yet there.

As referred to earlier, Engcstrom’s (2001, p. 139) figurative statement that there is no “wise teacher” has the correct answer in the context of expansive learning. This can be said to be the fundamental difference between the expansive learning theory and the traditional, standard theories of learning. The latter operate with the tacit presumption of the presence of a “wise teacher” who already knows the facts and the necessary course of development to follow. This is a fixed and paternalistic view of learning. It excludes the inner contradictions, self-movement, and agency in learning and development from below. The role of the teacher becomes directed toward an anonymous society and history. The subjectivity of the concrete people is lost. If an educator truly believes that there is real meaning in the work of education, they would not continue to profess the existence of a correct answer from above-, instead, they see that it is necessary to meticulously research the potential changes and constructions toward the emergence of a learning process and a situation where inner contradictions appear from below.

In this way, facilitating the practitioner’s expansive learning cycle, there is no “wise teacher” offering instructional guidance in mediated formative intervention. Therefore, down to its methodological principles, formative intervention is fundamentally different from the traditional top-down linear intervention that is monopolized by policymakers and researchers. From the viewpoint of formative intervention that facilitates participants’ expansive learning, new forms of education should be reconceptualized as dialogi-cally negotiated activities in which various agents produce new collaborative interventions while transforming their activity' systems.

<<   CONTENTS   >>

Related topics