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).


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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.

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