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Anna Greathead

Activity theory.... and was it developed as a Marxist critique of education?

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The paper I needed to read for Activity 4 of week 4 was by far the most challenging I'd had to read so far. 

I was unable to glean from the paper an explicit definition of 'Activity Theory'. I understand entirely that defining complex concepts often takes more than a sentence, or even a paragraph but I was struggling to get even the loosest grasp which was problematic given that we were supposed to read and comment on the paper in student forums. 

Engestrom tried to take us through the three generations of Activity System theory (variously known as expansive learning) and the 5 principles it espouses plus the four questions about learning which it contains. There were also three levels of learning. Confused yet? I was.

So far in H800 I have felt at a disadvantage due to my studies to date having not been in either education or psychology as it seemed that these were the two disciplines most of our vocabulary and concepts were coming from. However this time my sociology degree came into the fore and was very useful! As a sociology student the one thing I can sniff out a mile off is a Marxist analysis! And once I had identified that in the 5th principle "the possibility of expansive transformation, a collective change effort" and in the 3rd learning level "radical questioning of the context" there was a Marxist revolution I worked backwards with that in mind and it all came into focus! 

In our current society we tend to look at the individual and how individuals shape their societies, their cultures, their history and their values. In a Marxist analysis the process is often reversed and the individual is seen as much a product of their society as society is seen as a product of the individuals. Once I had comprehended that an 'Activity System' was a culture which informed the actions of individuals whilst also being informed by those same individuals the argument being made became clearer. 

This epiphany also made the case study make a lot more sense!

The case study was of health professionals in Finland who were finding that the care offered to sick children was patchy due to inadequate communication between the carers. This was not only inefficient and frustrating but was also potentially dangerous. The problem was solved through meetings, negotiation, input from all parties involved and a few failed attempts. The learning message here is that organisations learn as well as individuals but that there is not always an expert in a learning situation. In fact - in this case there were many experts but each of them was only expert at a small part of the process. In order for the big picture situation to improve it was vital that the teams and experts collaborate and make compromises in their practice and expectations. The health care system, as a whole (activity system) had to learn by listening to the experts within it. 

Once again I have been challenged to remember that learning is not something which only happens formally and within educational institutions. I think this is going to be the most fundamental life lesson I will get from these studies. 

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