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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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Picture of Anna Greathead

The culture of learning

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Edited by Anna Greathead, Wednesday, 15 Jan 2020, 13:14

Very often my husband will ask me 'What does xxxxxx mean?' He's come across an unfamiliar word whilst reading and he wants me to define it for him. (He's an engineer, I am a vociferous reader). Every single time I ask 'can you read the sentence to me?' I think he has suspected that I have used this as a cheat but often I know what the word means but my explanation will only make sense to him if I explain what it means in that sentence.

I was therefore delighted to read this in the this week's discussion paper:

Experienced readers implicitly under stand that words are situated. They, therefore, ask for the rest of the sentence or the context before committing themselves to an interpretation of a word. 

The paper "Situated Cognition and the Culture of Learning" by Brown, Collins and Duguid explains this repeatedly using different examples. Their basic point is that learning anything isolated from the context in which it is used, or the culture of the practitioners who use it, will not lead to robust understanding.

Certain cited examples resonated with me more than others. The way that children and young people expand their vocabulary by simply living in the culture of their language makes so much sense to me. The idea of learning a language, or expanding your vocabulary, armed only with a dictionary is absurd. 

Later in the paper the authors refer to 'tools'. In this context these tools could be mathematical formulae, grammar rules or scientific facts, but it helped me to envision them as hammers, chisels and machinery. (The authors also use this equivalency). It is very possible to acquire a tool but be unable to use it. It is possible to learn how to properly use a tool but not understand why it is useful in any wider context. A useful member of any community will not only be able to use a tool but to understand its place as well. 

The argument being built is that formal education settings (principally schools) give their students a multitude of tools but never the experience of using those tools as part of a wider culture. They call the mind the way that apprentices learn their trades - first by being tasked with the simplest jobs but all the time seeing how the operation works, how the experts develop their craft, the vocabulary of the profession and the culture of the community. A school provides none of this context to the learner - they are handed tools in isolation from the culture in which they are supposed to be used.

The school has become a culture in itself. The tools acquired are those necessary to thrive within that culture of knowledge which can be distributed, assessed and then tested. Exams may be passed but the learner is no closer to being a practitioner, much less an expert in the subject matter they've learned. They are not enculturated.

The paper, then, however goes on to suggest how maths could be taught differently and I have to confess the 'different way' looks a lot like how I recall being taught maths in the 70s and 80s.

The principle takeaway message seems to be that education does not prepare people for life within the culture of the practitioners of their field of learning. The apprenticeship alternative is much better at creating practitioners rather than people who are educated in facts about the practice.

In real life I can absolutely observe this. My husband works for a motor manufacturer and recruits engineering graduates. Not one of them is 'ready to go' as they begin their career. They all need many months of acclimatization to both the realities of the workplace in general and to that employer specifically. The company also runs a successful and competitive apprenticeship scheme where young people can spend five years working within the company whilst also attending university to acquire the necessary knowledge for their discipline and a degree. Similarly my eldest child is training to be a primary school teacher - it is clear that he learns much more in his placements than he does in his lectures. 

However - I am reluctant to summarize the article the way I first reacted to is - "School is Stupid". School (or formal education in general) provides the general knowledge necessary to hang specific skills and cultures upon. No skilled engineer can get by without basic and advanced maths within their skillset and they cannot learn the advanced maths before they've mastered the basic maths. Every teacher must be able to read and write. Without those basic skills then all of the classroom time in the world will not make them competent teachers. 

Examinations and tests may not demonstrate robust and usable knowledge but maybe they do demonstrate something else of value - tenacity in study, a foundational level of knowledge and skill on which specific expertise can be built, tools which will be reviewed and revisited later in life when their use and purpose become clearer.

Additionally I am reluctant to throw 'school' under any bus as it also fulfills other purposes. School is one of the few things almost all people in developed nations (and increasingly across the globe) have in common. There is much to be learned in the interaction with peers, the response to structure and the linear (though poorly situated!) acquisition of knowledge. 

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Defining Learning

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Prepare your own definition of learning.... should take 3 to 3.5 hours. 

I suppose the length of time allocated to this activity should have alerted me to the fact I was on a rabbit warren journey - deeper and deeper, more and more forks in the burrow to note and come back to, no signposted final destination and all whilst in an extremely unfamiliar environment. 

I began at Wikipedia which is a strategy some may roll their eyes at but I defend it nonetheless. Wikipedia is written in language I understand and, in the event of a term or concept being unfamiliar to me, it's likely to be underlined in blue and will deftly take me to a place where I can learn that straight away. (And then, before I know it, I will have 42 Wikipedia tabs open on my desktop and will still be clicking!)

The Wikipedia article was a very good starting point. I was pleased to immediately be able to recognize some words which aligned to Sfard's Acquisition Metaphor and a few which also brought to mind her Participation Metaphor, as well as concepts such as Identity Change. 

I then went to my favourite online place - the OU Library! I literally searched 'What is Learning?'  and the first hopeful hit was a book called What is Learning? by Mark Haselgrove, dated July 2016. I was very hopeful about this book as it was written in a very readable style and there were concise chapters. Hazelgrove described very well how learning is not restricted to people (animals, plants and machines all 'learn') and he made practically no mention of education or schooling at all. He began at the start of the human journey with Habituation, moving on to Conditioned Responses and there is kind of stopped. Whilst I absolutely can see how vital these early learning experiences are (we learned not to touch a fire as it hurt, we learned that if we didn't wipe our feet we got told off) I think that this is only part of what I am being asked to define. 

I then found the book How We Learn by Henry Boyd Bode. My initial search made me think this was published in 2007 but the opening paragraph (where the word 'man' was used in a context where both men and women clearly should have been) made me double check and I saw it had actually been published in 1940. He made the distinction between learning a skill as an apprentice and learning 'the three Rs' as a pupil and how the method must necessarily be different. I was interested in the way he described the fact that 'learning theory' is (or was) little thought of by teachers and students who simply do what they have always done without question, and with the desired outcomes. His book went on to be far more psychological and even philosophical so I book marked it - trying to kid myself I'll come back later to learn more!

My third, and most successful hit was Education and Learning: An evidence based approach  by Mellanby and Theobald from 2014. There is a nice mixture between theory and examples to demonstrate it. They look at the purpose of education, which must (surely!) be connected in some way to the purpose and nature of learning. The most interesting idea in the first few chapters is the idea of education is for the reproduction of a culture. I initially recoiled at this idea - imagining history lessons reporting colonial triumph or literature only celebrating the works of homegrown authors - but I realized that the term was intended to convey the passing on of values and, as they quoted Thomas Arnold as saying, "The best that has been known and thought." 

I have also asked my considerable number of Facebook friends for ideas. Many are teachers, all have been students, but I don't know if any have studied H800! I'll report back!

My tentative first draft of the 'answer' to the posed question is: Learning is both spontaneous and deliberate and protects and maintains the learner, their community and their culture; it can be seen in the gain of knowledge and understanding; it can be for the improvement of the individual and others.

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