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Posted by: on Feb 1, 2017 | No Comments
Studies in Expansive Learning: Learning What Is Not Yet There
By Yrjo Engestrom


This 2016 book is based on Engestrom's work since 2007—as he says in the preface, all chapters except Chapter 1 are based on articles that he authored or coauthored 2007-2013. (Chapter 1 was written specifically for this book.) Collectively, these treat the theory of expansive learning first proposed in his 1987 Learning by Expanding (recently republished by Cambridge).

In Chapter 1, "Introduction: Learning Sciences at the Threshold of Expansion," Engestrom sets the stage for the rest of the book. Specifically, he situates the book in relationship to the learning sciences, a notion that he dates to the 1991 founding of the Journal of Learning Sciences by US cognitive scientists (p.3). Although the learning sciences should address learning in all contexts, Engestrom notes, in actuality they largely ignored learning outside of school (p.4). Applying an activity analysis to the learning sciences themselves, Engestrom argues that the field encountered "recurring dilemmas"—and "When an activity system is primarily riddled by persistent dilemmas rather than critical conflicts and double binds, it implies that the developmental cycle of the activity system is at the stage of a primary contradiction. A primary contradiction appears as something problematic and uncomfortable but not yet as a crisis that unavoidably demands transformative action and radical redesign" (p.5). And "the primary contradiction of any modern activity system is seen as a specific variation of the general primary contradiction of the socioeconomic formation of capitalism, namely the contradiction between the use value and the exchange value of commodities" (p.6). In this case, the primary contradiction manifests in the Rules component: academic researchers must fulfill exchange value (external success markers such as publications, grants, tenure), but the rules of the zone of proximal development point to use value ("Take risks to change the world—in other words, keep your eyes on the needs of people when you conduct research") (p.6).

Engestrom moves on to secondary contradictions in the learning sciences, noting their inability to address the ongoing commercialization of education (p.6); the relative absence of runaway objects, which can be "powerfully emancipatory" (p.7); and "the weak recognition in the learning sciences of social movements as sites and subjects of learning" (p.7). (Note: Engestrom sees objects as phenomena, not as analytical anchors for an analysis.)

"If communities of learning sciences are to cope with these types of mismatches and forces," Engestrom continues, "they need to step out of their comfort zone" (p.7). He recommends expansive learning, which is indicated by "the expansion of the object of the activity system involved in the learning effort" (p.8). This expansion involves three dimensions: the socio-spatial, the temporal, and the political-ethical (p.8).

Engestrom proffers his theory of expansive learning, then forecasts the rest of the book.

In Chapter 2, "Whatever Happened to Process Theories of Learning?", Engestrom notes that in the social sciences, processes are often reified and attributed with causal powers (p.12). Recently, "process theories have been replaced by approaches and theories that try to capture the essence of learning through the lenses of the learning situation (e.g., Lave & Wenger, 1991), the learning environment (e.g., Jonassen & Land, 2000), and the learning dialogue (e.g., Mercer & Littleton, 2007)" (p.13). Engestrom identifies the requirements for a process theory of learning:
First of all, it describes a sequence of actions or events that is assumed to have some generality. Second, it presents a general rationale or principle that explains why the actions or events follow one another in a certain order. Third, it presents a causative mechanism that generates the transitions from one action or event to the next one. (p.13)
Fourth, although they "are always to some extent prescriptive" (p.13), a process theory "must denounce universalism and specify just what type of learning it aims at describing, explaining and promoting—and on what historical and cultural grounds" (p.14). Fifth, instruction and learning must be understood as "dialectically intertwined," and thus the intended and actual processes must be contrasted (p.15).

CHAT uses process theories of learning (p.23), including Davydov's theory of learning activity and Engestrom's theory of expansive learning. Engestrom compares these in a table (p.33).

In Chapter 3, "Studies of Expansive Learning: Foundations, Findings, and Future Challenges," Engestrom considers how expansive learning has been applied. In contrast to learning theories based on metaphors of acquisition and participation, his is based on the metaphor (obviously) of expansion (p.37). Expansive learning also has two factors that make it current: "the emergence and escalation of social production or peer production" and "the emergence and increasing presence of global threats and risks, or 'runaway objects' such as global warming and pandemics (p.40). Expansive learning is founded on the "theoretically consequential distinction between action and activity. Expansive learning is movement from action to activity" (p.40).

As an aside, Engestrom nicely sums up a distinction with which I have been recently working: in an activity system,
the object is both resistant raw material and the future-oriented purpose of an activity. The object is the true carrier of the motive of the activity. Thus, in expansive learning activity, motives and motivation are not sought primarily inside individual subjects—they are the object to be transformed and expanded. (p.41)
A little later in the chapter, Engestrom connects expansive learning with several intellectual currents, three of which I'll highlight: (1) Il'enkov's "dialectical method of ascending from the abstract to the concrete" (p.42), Bateson's Learning III (pp.43-44), and Bakhtin's multi-voicedness/heteroglossia (p.44). He concludes that "expansive learning is an inherently multi-voiced process of debate, negotiation and orchestration" (p.44).

In an activity system, he adds, "contradictions are the necessary but not sufficient engine of expansive learning in an activity system" (p.46).

Skipping forward in this long chapter, let's just mine a few quotes. In his discussion of the researcher's role in an expansive learning study, Engestrom says that "In linear interventions the researcher aims at control of all the variables. In formative interventions, the researcher aims at provoking and sustaining an expansive transformation process led and owned by the practitioners" (p.64). This description of the researcher's role closely matches that of participatory design; recall that at the same time Engestrom was formulating his theory of expansive learning in the mid-1980s, Bodker was separately applying Leontiev's activity theory to participatory design projects. Both Bodker and Engestrom departed from Leontiev's investigatory methods, but in the same direction—toward what is here called "formative intervention."

Engestrom also catalogues critiques of expansive learning from three directions: within CHAT; near CHAT; and the Marxist dialectical tradition (p.66). Within CHAT, Engestrom notes Lompscher's and Ruckreim's criticism that activity theory is "captive to the historically passing medium of print and writing" (p.66); he argues, however, that their argument "ignores the internal contradictions of objects in capitalism" (p.67). Within the broader Marxist tradition, he acknowledges Avis' point that expansive learning studies tend to marginalize political agendas (p.71); yes, he agrees, transformations often do not require large-scale confrontation, but they are not necessarily "conservative practice" either. He points to his ongoing discussion of the essential contradiction between use-value and exchange-value in capitalism (p.72). Contra Avis, he adds, those who study expansive learning have allied with radical social movements; his examples include organic farmers; open source software; and local food production in Japan (p.74). (None of these seems particularly radical to me.)

Under the heading of "future challenges," Engestrom notes that "expansive learning is a process of concept formation" and "complex, consequential concepts are inherently polyvalent, debated, incomplete and often 'loose'," with partial versions being produced by different stakeholders (p.74; Leontiev would likely disagree, a fact that implies how far CHAT has moved from second-generation activity theory). "Concepts evolve through cycles of stabilization and destabilization," meaning that "complex, consequential concepts have expansive potential" (p.75).

Finally, echoing a word of caution that Engestrom has given elsewhere, he adds that the theory of expansive learning analyzes both "outward" (in "fields or networks of interconnected activity systems") and "inward" (with "issues of subjectivity, experiencing, personal sense, embodiment, identity and moral commitment") (p.77). "Indeed, there is a risk that the theory is split into the study of collective activity systems, organizations and history on the one hand and subjects, actions and situations on the other hand" (p.77).

In Part II of the book, Engestrom presents several studies. Chapter 4, "Enriching the theory of expansive learning: Lessons from journeys toward co-configuration" explores the notion of co-configuration:
an emerging historically new type of work that relies on (1) adaptive "customer-intelligent" product-service combinations, (2) continuous relationships of mutual exchange between customers, producers and the product-service combinations, (3) ongoing configuration and customization of the product-service combination over lengthy periods of time, (4) active customer involvement and input into the configuration, (5) multiple collaborating producers that need to operate in networks within or between organizations and (6) mutual learning from interactions between the parties involved in the configuration actions. (p.81)
Co-configuration is characterized as transformative learning; horizontal and dialogical learning; and subterranean learning (the latter connected to mycorrhizae) (p.82). Engestrom proffers cases: a bank, a health center, and a high-tech company. In his discussion, he mentions Bodker and Andersen's 2005 paper on multi-mediation, which he considers important but "somewhat opaque" (p.94). In response, he proffers a set of epistemic levels of mediational artifacts, answering these questions:

  • Where to?
  • Why?
  • How, in which order?
  • In which location?
  • Who, what, when?
  • What? (p.95)
In the cases, Engestrom notes that the expansive learning processes "took the shape of constructing and using new mediational concepts and tools in multi-layered constellations or instrumentalities" (p.96). 

In Chapter 5, "From learning environments and implementation to activity systems and expansive learning," Engestrom proffers the activity system as an alternate way to understand learning environments. He draws from Cole to discuss context as threads of interaction, intertwined—the view of CHAT (p.107). CHAT's crucial insight inherited from Vygotsky, he says, is the dialectic between object and mediating artifact (p.107). After discussing a case study of a middle school, he concludes, "an activity system is an open system and its lateral interplay with other activity systems ... makes possible surprising empowerments and surges of agency" (p.116).

In Chapter 6, "Process enhancement versus community building: Transcending the dichotomy through expansive learning," Engestrom notes that "there is a deep gap and mutual hostility between two important rhetorics of transformation in organizations and activity systems": between "process efficiency rhetoric" and "community building rhetoric" (p.117). He cites Adler and Heckscher's analysis as a "rare attempt to overcome the opposition" between the two, but thinks they underestimate the epistemological divide between them (p.121). Activity theory is offered as a resource for overcoming the divide: "In today's world, communities are increasingly beginning to take the shape of weakly bounded and mycorrhizae-like formations which rely on stigmergy, negotiation and peer review as coordinating mechanisms" (p.123), while "the object holds the community together and gives it long-term purpose" (p.123). He illustrates with the case of a medical team.

Let's skip to Chapter 9, "Wildfire activities: New patterns of mobility and learning." Here, Engestrom "argues for a historical perspective on mobility and learning," specifically in "social production or peer production," in which "mobility takes the shape of expansive swarming and multidirectional pulsation, with emphasis on sideways transitions and boundary-crossing" (p.193). Examples include birding, skateboarding, and disaster relief. Such "wildfire activities" offer few awards; take excessive time and energy; and involve high risk. Yet they "renew themselves without much deliberate and centrally organized effort" (p.197). They are discontinuous, dispersed, distributed-yet-coordinated, quickly adopted, open, and use-oriented (p.197). Engestrom characterizes them as "virtuous swarming" (p.197).  

Engestrom connects these wildfire activities with mycorrhizae. (Yes, this suggests a wildly mixed metaphor, but he is keeping consistent with the terms he established previously in separate articles.) And he links both wildfire activities and mycorrhizae with Adler and Heckscher's discussion of Gemeinschaft (see also Tonnies) (p.198). Learning in wildfire activities, he concludes, involves:
  1. Learning by swarming—a concept that involves rethinking the ZPD.
  2. Learning by building mycorrhizae communities.
  3. Constructing concepts that stabilize cognitive trails.
  4. Experiencing high-stakes involvement.
  5. Learning by combining improvisational adaptation and long-term design
  6. Learning by holiptic monitoring. (pp.206-207)
I've covered a lot of ideas here, and haven't even touched some of them (such as the notion of an argumentative grammar in Ch.10). Suffice it to say that Engestrom covers a lot of concepts, drawing from many different literatures, but connecting these back to the fundamental precepts laid out in his 1987 theorization of expansive learning. If you're interested in activity theory, expansive learning, or just the question of how we can understand learning in 21st-century workplaces, certainly pick this book up.