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Two principles of collaborative intervention: agency and hybridity

As I have discussed, from the framework of activity' theory and expansive learning theory, education in schools and communities is seen as a collaborative intervention in which participants’ expansive learning is facilitated. The activity-theoretical methodology of formative interventions needs to be examined to grasp a new form of educational research, which is an alternative to the traditional, standard interventions such as those monopolized by policymakers and researchers that are thereby reduced to a linear causality. The core mechanism of formative interventions lies in enabling the participants to become agents to produce collaborative interventions so as to collectively create their new activity system and new agency at the same time.

Here, the principles of collaborative and participatory interventions in the expansivity of learning can be seen in a two-dimensional fashion: through the principles of agency and hybridity. The direction of expansion of the former points downward and inward, while that of the latter points upward and outward. These two principles operate by closely interacting with each other.

Principle of agency

Vygotsky’s cultural-historical approach to human development is a classic, radical source in the construction of activity theory (sec Lektorsky, 2009, pp. 76-77). A central theme of Vygotsky’s approach is that there is “a new problem associated with volition or freedom in human activity and consciousness” (Vygotsky, 1932a/1987, p. 349). This is the problem of agency as the genesis of voluntary actions, that is, the potential of free will in agentive human activity and consciousness.

Vygotsky-inspired activity theory is a developmental theory distinguished by its concern with qualitative transformations in human practice over time. Its central concern is that human beings can become agents who can change themselves by changing their own institutions and practices in a way that mobilizes their collaborative agency. Making changes in one’s own real lifeworlds is an endeavor at the heart of activity theory. From this perspective, agency is seen as the expression of the subject-potentialities and positions connected to the externalized creation of new instruments and forms of activity with which humans transform both their outer and inner worlds and, thus, master their own lives and futures (see Engestrom, 1991a, 2006).

For example, to transform traditional pedagogical practices in schools into something new, both culturally and historically, teachers and students must gradually transform the given activity structures for pedagogical practices from below. The energizing force that enables these teachers and students to transform their own life activities is derived from intentionality and free will, that is, agentive potential in the action and practice of human beings.

Agency is closely associated with Engcstrom’s (1996a) reconceptualization of human development as a breaking away, which introduces an expanded look at development to avoid reducing an individual’s benign achievement of vertical mastery upward level by level. When resolving the contradictions of preceding stages and forms of activity, however, one must break away from something old—“a constraining rule, a limiting boundary or constraining relationship” (Engestrom, 2006, p. 29)—and move into something else. Such breaking away refers to development concerned with the partially destructive rejection of old and horizontal movements across boundaries. It is also important that such breaking away can emerge from agentive actions as “resolving or escaping a contradictory situation” by constructing mediating instruments (tools and signs, ideas and concepts, models and visions, technologies, and so on) that enable individuals and collectives to “master their own actions in a qualitatively new way” (p. 29).

Thus, in the principle of agency, the agent of an intervention process, placement of the locus that controls the intervention process, and the identification of the individual who exercises the initiative arc determined by a methodology that considers the participants of collaborative interventions as individuals who have the responsibility and authority to transform and collaborate with each other to implement interventions for creating change.

Principle of hybridity

The world of educational and professional work activity is nowadays increasingly organized in ways that require horizontal movement and boundary crossing between educational and societal activities, from work to family, leisure, play, and everyday well-being. While these activities hybridize and form symbiotic relationships among themselves, human beings and their organizations are challenged by hybridity, diversity, and dialogue between different traditions or perspectives.

Moreover, with inter-professional collaboration now a concept, collaborative interventions based on activity theory present a new challenge. As discussed in detail in Chapter 2, Section 4, within the renewed framework of contemporary activity theory and its focus on networks, dialogues, and collaboration of various interconnected and heterogeneous activity systems, a new generation of empirical intervention research based on it has taken on the challenge of defining the shape of new forms of hybrids as multi-activity coalition, and developing collaborative and transformative expertise of practitioners and professionals in transition (Engestrom, 2018).

Thus, the principle of hybridity is based on a methodology that states that networks, interactions, boundary crossings, and other mechanisms of collaboration among different activity systems create new activity transformations. This principle of hybridity focuses on the methodology of collaborative interventions in creating advanced networks of expansive learning among a variety of participants both inside and outside a school and community, gradually transcending its institutional boundaries. Collaborative and participatory interventions predicated on the principle of hybridity have the potential to promote participating organizations and actors to share a new, expanded sense of the sites, objects, and scope of educational work.

Based on these two principles, the theoretical concepts of transfer of agency and collaborative change agent, which can be derived from the former, arc formed and serve as intermediate analytical instruments, and hybrid educational innovation and knotworking agency are formed from the latter. Both arc intermediate theoretical concepts for analyzing and grasping new historical and systemic patterns of educational practice from the standpoint of activity theory. By interacting with data obtained from case studies, Chapter 4 uses the concept of transfer of agency, Chapter 5 uses the concept of collaborative change agent, Chapter 6 uses the concept of hybrid educational innovation, and Chapter 7 uses the concept of knotworking agency.

By applying the general framework of activity theory and the methodology of formative interventions to case studies in Japan, the following four chapters in Parts II (Chapters 4 and 5) and III (Chapters 6 and 7) analyze and illuminate concrete educational practices and expansive learning activities as collaborative interventions in Japanese schools and communities, which have been formulated historically and culturally.


1 For example, Knud Illeris’s (2009) Contemporary Theories of Learning contains articles from sixteen of the world’s most influential learning theorists, of which Engestrom’s expansive learning is a part.

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