Friday, July 13, 2012

Activity Theory, Expansive Learning Cycle

Activity theory addresses learning activities that take place in a complex environment (non-linear, dynamic, heterogeneous) as opposed to a linear learning environment (homogenous, static, instructional). In the following diagram the subject interacts with the object mediated by various influences from the environment; instruments, division of labor, community, and rules (Engerstom, 2001).


Retrieved from:

When viewing theories Engerstom (2001) poised that any theory must answer the following four questions:
  1. Who are the subjects of learning, how are they defined and located?;
  2. When do they learn, what makes them make the effort?;
  3. What do they learn, what are the contents and outcomes of learning?;
  4. How do they learn, what are the key actions or processes of learning? (P. 133).

It is from activity theory that Engersom (2001) derived the Cycle of Expansive Learning. This cycle could be viewed as an extension of 
Shewart's Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle (McLean 2006, p. 19) and Lewin's planned approach to change. Both of these change theories are identified under the action research literature. 

Engerstom's cycle of expansive learning is shown in the following figure:

Figure Retrieved from:

In this expansive learning cycle the following steps are followed:
  1. Charting the Situation
    • Something must be done.
    • Commitment to change.
  2. Analyzing the Situation
    • How did we work in the past (history)?
    • What are our present troubles and contradictions?
  3. Creating a new Model/Vision
    • How do we want to work in the future?
  4. Concretizing and Testing the new Model
    • What changes do we want to try next month?
  5. Implementing the new Model
    • Putting into practice the first steps.
    • Pushing for the next steps.
  6. Spreading and Consolidating
    • Teaching others what we learned (knowledge distribution)
    • Codifying the new rules, etc.
    • Permanent reflection (Weber, 2008, p. 53).

Activity theory focuses more on cultural theory while action research focus more on conducting research in natural settings. In either case, there are similarities in the various change models from both schools of theory. Diversifying one's knowledge base can only be productive in allowing one to view change models from different perspectives, resulting in more productive results.


Engestrom, Y. (2001). Expansive learning at work: toward an activity theoretical reconceptualization. Journal of Education and Work, 14, 133-156. doi: 10.1080/13639080020028747

McLean, G. N. (2006). Organization Development: Principles, Processes, Performance. San Francisco, CA: Berrtt-Koehler.

Weber, S. (2008). Intercultural learning in business and human resource education. In Nijhof, W. J., & Nieuwenhuis, L. F. M. (ads.), The Learning Potential of the Workplace, 47-69. Rotterdam, Netherlands: Senge.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Action Research, Action Learning: Research in Organizations

Action research is a research method that was designed to conduct research in the field as opposed to conducting research in the lab. Action research was coined and practiced successfully by Kurt Lewin and has been used extensively in various disciplines and differing field (live) situations since.  

Compared to traditional research, action research is considered more as a quasi-experimental design. Bryman (2008) identified quasi-experiments as: "studies that have certain characteristics of experimental designs but that do not fulfill all of the internal validity requirements" (pp. 40-41). In natural settings, such as those found in educational settings and in organizations, it is nearly impossible to conduct a pure 'traditional' experiment: resulting in action research being one of the primary experimental designs utilized in natural environments (in one form or another).

Bargal (2008) identified action research as being composed of both quantitative and qualitative research methods: "the scientific and systematic accumulation of data as well as the development of the interventions that represent practical solutions to problems experienced by people and their communities" (p. 18). Bargal (2006) highlighted Lewin's 'action research' systematic steps:
  1. Action research combines a systematic study, sometimes experimental, of a social problem as well as the endeavors to solve it.
  2. Action research includes a spiral process of data collection to determine goals, action to implement goals and assessment of the result of the intervention.
  3. Action research demands feedback of the results of intervention to all parties involved in the research.
  4. Action research implies continuous cooperation between researchers and practitioners.
  5. Action research relies on the principles of group dynamics and is anchored in tis change phases. The phases are: unfreezing, moving, and refreezing. Decision-making is mutual and is carried out in a public way.
  6. Action research takes into account issues of values, objectives and power needs of parties involved.
  7. Action research serves to create knowledge, to formulate principles of intervention and also to develop instruments for selection, intervention and training.
  8. Within the framework of action research there is much emphasis on recruitment, training and support of the change agents (p. 4, Figure 1).

A more condensed version of action research can be found in Gall, Gall, and Borgs' (2010) steps:
  1. Selection of a focus for the study.
  2. Data Collection.
  3. Analysis and interpretation of the data.
  4. Taking Action.
  5. Reflection (pp. 491-493).

As a version of action research, action learning has developed to become a unique problem solving activity used in the classrooms, training rooms, and within organizational teams. Action learning is similar to a training exercise; however, the main difference is that a real problem is being considered opposed to some hypothetical simulated scenario. This process is beneficial to the organization by resolving real issues as well as providing a means for training groups to learn together and to solve real-time problems. Gorrell (2012) identified the benefits of action learning as: "Action learning provides an opportunity to combine the real work objectives of an important offsite event with the beneficial outcomes of a reflective team-building experience" (p. 26). Recommended action learning steps provided by Gorrell (2012) were:
  1. Restate the problem statement.
  2. Determine assumptions behind the issue.
  3. Set goals that would solve the issue at hand.
  4. Set specific tasks to realize the goals.
  5. Create an accountability matrix.
  6. Offer post-action learning feedback (p. 29).

Various other versions of action research and action learning can be found. Regardless of the steps or design, it is recommended to take care to: a) identify the problem carefully, b) place the problem in the environment, c) carefully collect any appropriate data, d) properly analyze the data, e) make a decision, and f) reflect on the processes practiced to make the next problem solving exercise that much easier. And above all, and probably most important, g) assure you have management buy-in.


Bargal, D. (2008). Action research: A paradigm for achieving social change. Small Group Research, 39(17), 17-27. doi: 10.1177/1046496407313407

Bargal, D. (2006). Personal and intellectual influences leading to Lewin's paradigm of action research. Action Research, 4(4), 367-388. doi: 10.1177/1476750306070101

Bryman, A. (2008). Social Research Methods (3rd ed.). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Gall, M. D., Gall, J. P., & Borg, W. R. (2010). Applying Educational Research (6th ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson.
Gorrell, P (2012). Action learning for teams. Chief Learning Officer, July, 26-29.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Training & Learning Theories: Pedagogy, Angragogy, Heutagogy

Basic theories of learning include Pedagogy (child and adolescent learning theories), Andragogy (adult learning theories including self-directed learning), and now Heutagogy (self-determined learning theories).

Andragogy includes learners who are actively involved in identifying their needs and how to meet those needs in which the educator takes the role of a tutor or a mentor (Blaschke, 2012).  The goals for andragogy include: "helping learners develop the capacity for self-direction, supporting transformation learning" (Blaschke, 2012, Andragogy).

The Andragogical model is based on six general assumptions:
  1. The need to know.
  2. The learner's self-concept.
  3. The role of the learners' experiences.
  4. Rediness to learn.
  5. Orientation to learning.
  6. Motivation (Knowles, Holton III, & Swanson, 2005, pp. 64-68).

Heutagogy is the study of self-determined learning in which the focus is person-centered (Davis, 2001) as opposed to teacher-centered or teacher-student centered. Heutagogy was coined in 2000 by Hase and Kenyon, acknowledging that "learners do immensely valuable work for themselves by filling in the gaps of their formal education through discovery and reflection" (Parslow, 2010, p. 121).  A heutagogical environment would focus on both the development of the learner as well as the development of the learners capability to learn and capacity to learn (Blaschke, 2012).

The educator in a heutagogical environment facilitates the learning process through guidance and by providing appropriate resources, much in the same manner as with andragogy. However, in heutagogy the educator relinquishes control/ownership of the learning path and process (Blaschke, 2012).  Here the learner determines their path and sets their own learning goals.

Heutagogy is influenced by Argyris' theory of double-loop learning. Schein (2010) described it best in his discussion on implicit assumptions: "To learn something new… requires us to resurrect, reexamine, and possibly change some of the more stable portions of our cognitive structure" (p. 28).

Compared to andragogy, self-directed learning requires the acquisition of both competencies and capabilities. Blaschke (2012) identified competencies as one's ability to acquire knowledge and skills, compared to capabilities that are the learner's self-efficacy on their ability to recall and use their new knowledge or skills. 

Heutagogy was termed and utilized to describe today's online learning environment where learning activities have moved away from the traditional classroom setting to a more asynchronous environment for both the instructor and the students. An equal and similar environment, that of training and development in the workplace, heutagogy principles could be found to be beneficial.  For example, focusing attention on both competencies and capabilities for training and development efforts could prove to be most successful. Additionally, Blaschke (2012) provided course design elements to support a hetagogical approach to training:
  • Learner-defined learning contracts
  • Flexible curriculum
  • Learner-directed questions
  • Flexible and negotiated assessment

As part of the reflection process (the 'reexamine' portion identified by Schein) Blaschke (2012) identified the following design elements to support reflective practice:
  • Learning Journals
  • Action Research
  • Formative and Summative Assessment
  • Collaborative Learning Environments

As informal and non-formal learning initiatives increase in the workplace with the aid of mobile technologies, these training functions could benefit from utilizing the general principles provided by heutagogy learning theories. 


Blaschke, L. M. (2012). Heutagogy and lifelong learning: A review of hetagogical practice and self-determined learning. The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 13(1). Retrieved from

Davis, L., & Stewart, H. (2001). The river of learning in the workplace. In Research to Reality: Putting VET Research to Work. Retrieved from ERIC.

Knowles, M. S., Holton III, E. F., & Swanson, R. A. (2005). The Adult Learner: The Definitive Classic in Adult Education and Human Resource Development. New York, NY: Elsevier.

Parslow, G. R. (2010). Multimedia in biochemistry and molecular biology education. Commentary: Heutagogy, the practice of self-learning. Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education, 38(2), 121. doi: 10.1002/bmb.20394 

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