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Reading :: The Transformation of Learning

Posted by: on Apr 18, 2012 | 4 Comments

The Transformation of Learning: Advances in Cultural-Historical Activity Theory
Edited by Bert van Oers, Wim Wardekker, Ed Elbers, and René van der Veer

Our library got this book a while back, but unfortunately it’s in that awful electronic format that you can only read in a full-fledged desktop browser. So I went ahead and bought the Kindle version. It was a good purchase – even though it’s a collection (and I usually don’t like collections that much), even though it’s focused on education (not a research subject that typically appeals to me).

So what’s good about it?

For me, the standout essay was Rene van der Veer’s “Multiple Readings of Vygotsky.” Here, van der Veer cautions us to see the limitations of Vygotsky’s work as well as ways to contextualize it with later work. In particular, van der Veer recreates Leont’ev’s famous experiment known as the Forbidden Colors Task (performed as part of Leont’ev’s dissertation work under Vygotsky’s supervision). In this experiment, people of various ages were asked to play a game in which they answered several questions with names of colors. They could use each color name only once, and two colors were forbidden outright. In one round, Leont’ev had them play the game without help; in another, he gave them a set of colored cards. Famously, Leont’ev noted that older children and adults used the cards as mediational means: they tended to flip the cards over to remind them which colors were no longer permitted. Individuals who used cards as mediational means tended to do better at the game.

Although this study has often been cited, van der Veer points out, it apparently has never been replicated. So van der Veer replicated it – and got some surprising findings: “more card use does not correlate with higher performance.” Van der Veer draws on much more recent developmental research to demonstrate that, contra Leont’ev’s assumptions, children learn to use cultural instruments quite early. The double stimulation method is still valuable, van der Veer tells us, but we must be cautious in interpreting its results.

Harmut Geist’s chapter “The Formation Experiment in the Age of Hypermedia and Distance Learning” was similarly valuable. Geist distinguishes between the empiric-analytical paradigm common in the sciences and the causal-genetic method used in activity theory, cautioning us that without an understanding of their differences, we might switch between the two, making a hash of theory and analysis. Why? Geist explains:

Looking at the history of science, we find two different roots and basic ideas in scientific thinking: the idea and concept of evolution sensu Darwin, and the idea and concept of activity sensu Marx. The basic difference between the two ideas concerns the relation between human being and environment: Darwin pointed to “adaptation to the environment” as a basic idea, whereas Marx referred to “the adaptation of the environment.” Basic to and pioneering for modern thinking was Darwin’s idea that the existing living world was not created according to some plan or organized by an idea existing beforehand but evolved as an effect of the interdependence between environment and living beings. The feature that can explain it all is the ability of living beings to bring themselves more or less actively in line with the environment. The fitting into the environment explains the developmental potential of a living being – the survival of the fittest. This idea was fascinating and explained the evolution from the variety of life up to the development of the human being by self-organization. No ideas or principles or order-organizing rules were needed that come from outside. … it was now possible to investigate humans using the methods of science.

In contrast,

The dialectical analysis of human history, as it was done, for example, by Hegel and particularly by Marx, showed not only that humans adapt to the environment but also that they change it in accordance with their demands (from agriculture, the use of fire, the construction of houses, to the manipulation of genes). Activity is not an active adaptation ot the environment but the transformation of the environment and – in interrelation with it – of humans themselves. 

Geist locates the difference between constructivism and activity theory here:

Activity in the view of constructivism means the humans’ active adaptation to the environment. Simply put:  things are such that we cannot change them; therefore we must come to terms with them and adapt to the conditions of nature and society. Activity in the context of activity theory means active adaptation (change due to activity) of the environment to the humans’ needs. Or, in simple terms: the environmental conditions are not suitable, so let us change them in order to be able to lead a better life and to cope better with the demands of life.

Geist concludes that researchers working in each tradition will necessarily adapt different research programs and methods, then illustrates by comparing a classical experiment with an investigation based on the causal-genetic method.

Other chapters are similarly solid, but these two stood out to me, and I believe they’re worth the price of admission. If you’re interested in activity theory, and if you have a fairly solid grounding in how it’s been deployed developmentally, take a look.


  1. Charles Nelson
    April 19, 2012

    Geist's understanding of constructivism is a false characterization. In constructivism, both humans and (agents in the) environment co-adapt.

  2. Clay Spinuzzi
    April 20, 2012

    Geist does cite very thinly when characterizing constructivism, and I'm not familiar enough with the literature to critique Geist's statement. (The pieces I've read have tended to use the term very loosely.) So I'd love to get your take on the chapter.

  3. Charles Nelson
    April 20, 2012

    Geist's article is interesting, and his mention of “ascending from the abstract to the concrete” (p. 114) should be considered in designing instruction.

    His representation of Piaget's concept of equilibrating is correct, but the problem is how he sets constructivism into opposition with activity theory. In general activity theorists black box the internal constructing of the social plane into the psychological plane. Piagetian constructism opens up the black box. Just as contradictions, or “oppositions,” within activity systems and across activity systems “are the driving force of development” (fn 1, p. 101), so, too, the contradictions between the results of assimilation and accommodation are the driving force of learning. Activity theorists simply ignore this level of contradictions.

    Constructivists do not ignore the environment (although their emphasis is on the individual learner) and do not state, as Geist asserts, “things are such that we cannot change them” (p. 105). That would be like saying that because activity theory posits that all learning begins on the social plane and is internalized on the psychological plane, “things are such that we cannot change them,” which is nonsense. And as I noted in my previous post, in constructivism, agents co-adapt and co-evolve with other agents and the environment.

    For me, the main difference between the two is that activity theorists foreground activity while constructivists foreground the individual learner. However, both activity and individual learners are complex systems with the individual learner embedded in various activities and activities embedded within and overlapping with other activities and the environment.

    Let me end with Bauersfeld's comparison of radical constructivism (RC) and activity theory. He says RC doubts that objective tools can carry meaning about other objects “because there are no principal differences in the processes of subjective construction of meaning either with ‘tools’ or with other objects, as RC theory would claim” (p. 17).

    “Lektorsky has recently generalized the concept of “mediator objects” from the early Marxist understanding as physical tools for human labor, through including not only language (which Vygotsky already did) but also through incorporating symbols, graphics, schemes, theories, models etc.; or, as I would say: through including every object that can carry meaning. This may become too general and thus an empty concept, because for human beings indeed everything in social interaction can be loaded with meaning and thus develop into a socially taken-as-shared “mediator”. Nevertheless this generalization brings [Radical Constructivism] and [Activity Theory] nearer to each other in the explanation of languaging and communication” (pp. 17-18).

    Bauersfeld, Heinrich (1992). Activity theory and radical constructivism: What do they have in common, and how do they differ? Cybernetics & Human Knowing, 1(2-3), 15-25.

  4. Clay Spinuzzi
    April 20, 2012

    Thanks, Charles. I appreciate your expertise here as well as the cite you provide.

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