Teacher Learning Through The Lens Of Activity Theory Education Essay

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During recent years, teacher learning has gained much attention of principals and school leaders. In many cases schools leaders' attempt has been to provide an environment in which the teachers feel supported and consequently teach effectively in their classes. Fuller and Unwin (2006) have categorized schools' learning environments, as either restrictive or expansive in regard to their nature of social interactions. Focusing on the notions introduced by Fuller and Unwin (2006), in this paper I analyze these two learning environments in an Iranian bilingual school, in which Persian and English are the media of instruction, through the lens of activity theory. Kutti (1996) defines activity theory as " a philosophical and cross-disciplinary framework for studying different forms of human practices as development processes, both individual and social levels interlinked at the same time" (p. 23). Considering this definition, using activity theory in analyzing the Iranian school environment, I show how this framework and its principle of contradictions can be relied on to guide research in learning environment and educational technology. Moreover, this study provides an insight into changes in the teachers' learning at workplace when a new technological tool becomes part of schools' activities and communication.

Keywords: expansive learning environment, restrictive learning environment, formal learning, informal learning, activity theory, teacher learning, e-learning

1. Introduction

1.1 Introduce the Problem

Schools are not only places where students learn but also are they places for teachers' learning. Nowadays, school leaders around the world are trying to shape a culture in which learning for both students and teachers happens in the most effective way. Since school principals have realized that teachers' knowledge and emotional states may affect students learning, which is the ultimate goal of schools, they try to provide an environment in which teachers upgrade their skills and resolve their emotional struggles related to their workplace. However, it is important to notice what "counts" as workplace learning for teachers. Marsick and Watkins (1990) defined this as opportunities for learning, both those that are more formalized and intentional and those characterized as incidental. The focus of this study is on teachers' learning and learning environment characterized as restrictive or expansive. Furthermore, analyzing a case through the lens of activity theory by focusing on contradictions inside the activity systems provides an authentic example of both restrictive and expansive learning environments. The main purpose of this study, however, is to show how the activity theory can be useful in analyzing teachers' learning in different learning environments. This study is organized in four sections. The next section provides an overview on the concepts related to teachers' workplace learning and the activity theory framework, by reviewing some key literatures. The method section describes the types and design of this study. The result section looks at two different learning environments in an Iranian school and an e-learning program through the lens of the activity theory and the last section, which is discussion and conclusion part, wraps up the discussion with implications and suggestions.

1.2 Describe Relevant Scholarship

In this section some studies are reviewed in order to elaborate some of the key concepts in the study such as, "restrictive" and "expansive" learning environment, "formal" and "informal" learning, and the activity theory.

1.2.1 Restrictive and Expansive Learning Environments

While this study is grounded in the context of an Iranian school in which two different learning environments were experienced, I believe there is a need to recognize the characteristics of each environment. The idea of restrictive and expansive learning environment comes from the studies of Fuller and Unwin (2006) on apprentice learning in four different companies. During their studies Fuller and Unwin developed a conceptual framework within which to make sense of opportunities and barriers in apprentice learning. Drawing on the ideas of Lave and Wanger's community of practice model and Engestrom they classified learning environments as either expansive or restrictive. The following table shows an adapted framework for teacher learning environment.

Table 1. Expansive and restrictive learning environments for teachers. Source: Evans, Hodkinson, Rainbird, & Unwin, (2006, p. 53, Figure 3.1)

Expansive learning environment

Restrivtive learning environment

Close collaborative working with colleagues

Out-of-school educational opportunities, including opportunities to reflect and think differently

Explicit focus on teacher learning as a dimension of normal working practice

Supported opportunities for personal development going beyond school or government priorities

Colleagues are mutually supportive in enhancing teacher learning

Opprtunities to engage with working groups inside and outside of school

Opportunities to extend professional identity through boundry-crossing into other departments, school activities, and schools

Support for variations in ways of working and learning, for different teachers and departments

Teachers use a wide range of learning approaches

Isolated, individual working

No out-of-school time to stand back. Only narrow, short training programmes

No explicit focus on teacher learning except to meet crises or imposed initiatives

Teacher learning dominated by government and school agendas

Colleagues obstruct or do not support each others's learning

Work restricted to home departmental teams within school

The only opportunity to boundry cross associated with major change of job

Standarised approaches to teaching and teacher learning are prescribed and imposed

Teachers use a narrow range of learning approaches

1.2.2 Formal and Informal Learning

Since one of the distinction points between two different learning environments, namely, expansive and restrictive, is on providing support for variations on learning, it is important to get to know different types of learning. Marsick and Watkins (2001) characterize formal learning in contrast with informal learning as "institutionally sponsored, classroom-based, and highly structured" (p. 25). For them informal learning is "incidental" and not classroom-based and highly structured, and the control of learning is "primarily in the hands of the learner" (p. 25). To clarify the notion they defined incidental as "a byproduct of some other activity, such as task accomplishment, interpersonal interaction, sensing the organizational culture, trial-and-error experimentation, or even formal learning" (p. 25). As said by Eraut (2004) informal learning suggests more flexibility or freedom for learners. He believed that informal learning takes place in a broader range of settings than formal education. This informal learning can take the forms of "conversations in the corridors or when sharing lifts with colleagues to the workplace; observing teachers enacting their roles around a school; and co-participating in normative practices" (Fox, Deaney, and Wilson, 2009, p. 219). Eraut (2004) believed that however in informal learning, learning from other people is recognized as socially important, but individual agency is more considerable than socialization. He declared that informal learning plays a significant role in professional development. Eraut declared that that in many settings learners experience both formal and non-formal learning. Although some scholars acknowledge the significance of informal learning in professional development (e.g. Eraut, 2004; Marsick, 2009), Fuller and Unwin (2006) pointed to Solomon's concern about the recent emphasis on informal learning to say that this emphasis has "a negative side in that it may be undermining the need to provide employees with opportunities to engage in off-the-job provision as well" (p. 29). Fuller and Unwin added that according to Solomon's view "providing fewer off-the-job opportunities gives employees less chance to stand back and reflect critically on their practice" (p. 29).

1.2.3 Activity Theory as a Theorietical Framework

As I mentioned before the case of the Iranian school under the focus of this study will be analyzed through the lens of activity theory. Indeed both learning environments, experienced at the school, will be scrutinized using activity theory, in order to show how each environment works for teachers in terms of learning and effectiveness.

Activity theory has had an evolving modification from its development by Lev Vygotsky in 1920s. The first generation of this theory, centered on Vygotsky's suggestion, introduced the idea of mediation (Engestrom, 2001). Vygotsky's idea of cultural mediation of actions is expressed "as the triad of subject, object, and mediating artefact" (Engestrom, 2001. P. 134). This generation of Activity Theory, however, is located on the level of the individual's actions and does not illustrate "how cognitive change happens within a collective context" (Hardman, 2005, p. 2).

Vygotsky's colleague Alexei Leont'ev in 1981 clarified the distinction between individual action and collective activity (Engestrom, 2001). The second generation of activity theory arose then out of Leont'ev's three-level model of activity with its basis in the distinction between action, operation and activity (Engestrom, 1987). However, "this model failed to develop Vygotsky's model into one of collective activity" (Hardman, 2005. p. 3). Engestrom in 1987 developed Vygtsky's ideas and introduced the third generation of activity theory (Figure 1):

Figure 1. Components of the activity system (Engestrom, 1987)

Engestrom (2001) asserted "the third generation of activity theory needs to develop conceptual tools to understand dialogue, multiple perspectives, and networks of interacting activity systems" (p. 135).

Kutti (1996) defines activity theory as " a philosophical and cross-disciplinary framework for studying different forms of human practices as development processes, both individual and social levels interlinked at the same time"( p. 23). As you see in the figure 2, activity theory is consisted of seven elements:

Subject: the actors engaged in the activity

Object: raw material or problem space at which the activity is focused (Engestrom, 1993).

Tools: instruments facilitate the object of activity

Community: the subjects of an activity system with a common object

Division of labour : horizontal and vertical division of tasks and roles, power and status among members of the community

Rules: explicit and implicit norms that control actions and interactions within the system (Engestrom, 1993)

Outcome: transformation of the objects; the overall target of the activity system (Jonassen, 2002)

Engestrom (2001) uttered five principles that summarise his approach to the contemporary activity theory. In the first principle, he identified the activity system as the main unit of analysis. In the second principle he emphasized multi-voicedness of activity systems; he argued that activity systems are communities of multiple points of view, traditions and interests. In the third principle Engestrom (2001) pointed to historicity of systems by saying that "activity systems take shape and get transformed over lengthy periods of time" (p. 136). In the fourth principle he tried to show the significance of contradictions by introducing them as sources of changes and development. For him contradictions can result in tensions but also transformation in activity systems. In defining contradiction Kuutti (1996) stated "contradiction is a misfit within elements, between them, between different activities, or between different developmental phases of a single activity" (p. 34). In the last principle he talked about expansive cycle by mentioning that "activity systems move through relatively long cycles of qualitative transformations" (p. 137).

2. Method

Because this study seeks to understand how activity theory can be a useful framework for analyzing learning environments, it adopts an explanatory case study design. This is a study on an Iranian bilingual school in which both restrictive and expansive learning environments were experienced. In order to provide a better understanding of the context, the researcher uses her observations and perceptions as one of the teachers in the school upon which the study is built. In each learning environment, either restrictive or expansive, by focusing on contradictions as dynamic forces of change, we can demonstrate how we can track transformation and better understand these transformations within an activity system. In fact, contradictions can either empower learning to progress, or they can restrict it, depending on whether or not they are acknowledged and fixed (Nelson, 2002).

3. Results

3.1 Restrictive Learning Environment

From its establishment in 2002 up to its work on 2006, the school had a restrictive learning environment in which teachers did not support each others' learning. There were some Teacher Training Courses (TTC) for the teachers, every once in a while, to dictate and prescribe some teaching strategies and standards; subsequently the teachers had to teach exactly according to what they had been told. Teachers had to work individually and there was no culture of collaborative learning. However some informal learning happened inside the classroom for the teachers, they did not have the chance of talking to the other teachers in order to have more informal learning. Despite some attempts of the supervisors on the way of providing opportunities for teacher learning such as class observation and providing feedback to the teachers, teacher training courses, and providing some text books for the teachers, teacher learning was not admitted explicitly as a critical issue of the school. In such an environment emerging contradictions seemed inevitable. Figure 2 shows the activity system representation of such a restrictive learning environment by introducing elements of the system.

Figure 2. An activity system representation of restrictive school environment

3.1.1 Contradictions in Restrictive School Environment

School leaders' belief was grounded on the idea that individualist learning is more effective for teachers, so the teachers were encouraged to study individually. This idea however, was not in line with the human nature which has inclination toward communication with others. The teachers were restricted to communicate with each other and this was in contradiction with their established practices in the society. In the communities out of this school all of the teachers had opportunities to talk with other people and to learn from them; so emergence of a contradiction between the subjects especially the teachers with the object was obvious (subject/object contradiction). On the other hand the rules of the school were in a way that made the teachers stay away from each other. According to the rules, the teachers had to spend their coffee break time in their classes and there was no opportunity provided for them to communicate with each other (subject/rule contradiction). The school supervisors were supposed to provide such a learning environment in which the teachers' learning happened in the most effective way; in this way, however, they were not supportive enough. For example, one of the tasks of the supervisors in each school is observing the teachers' classes and providing feedbacks to them. In this school however, the supervisors observed each class just once in a year, and this did not have any added value for the teachers' learning. In this way the teachers had to supervise their own actions and to become supervisors of themselves (division of labour contradiction).

According to the fifth principle of the activity theory "as the contradictions of an activity system are aggravated, some individual participants begin to question and deviate from its established norms. In some cases, this escalates into collaborative envisioning and a deliberate collective change effort" (Engestrom, 2001, p.137). The contradictions inside this activity system were assumed as barriers in reaching the school effectiveness so as a result of confronting these contradictions, the school initiated changes in the system in order to resolve the contradictions for the sake of better outcomes. In this regard, a kind of expansive transformation happened in the system. As Engestrom (2001) said "an expansive transformation is accomplished when the object and motive of the activity are reconceptualized to embrace a radically wider horizon of possibilities than in the previous mode of the activity" (p. 137). In this sense, the object of the system changed to expansive learning tasks and accordingly the tools changed in order to promote the object to meet the outcome of the system.

3.2 Expansive Learning Environment

According to Engestrom (2001) activity systems take form and get changed over long periods of time. He adds that problems and potentials of an activity system can only be understood against it own history. In this case, the school environment as an activity system changed from being restrictive to being expansive in order to be more effective in reaching the goal of the system. This means that the teachers were encouraged to have a close collaborative working relationship with the other teachers. Grounding on this idea a new e-learning program was introduced to the teachers as a way of communication with the other teachers of their own school and the teachers of another school in Malaysia. The main goal of this program was helping teachers to communicate their problems with each other and with their supervisors and to upgrade their knowledge. In contrast with the previous mode of the system, teachers' learning was accepted explicitly as a key concept in the school and it was considered as a main factor in the school effectiveness.

The e-learning program was an online program in which the teachers could access online courses held by instructors from Malaysia. In addition to this formal learning some informal learning opportunities were also provided: the teachers could be involved in voice and video chat online with each other and with the other teachers from the Malaysian school. They could also ask questions and discuss around a topic in a discussion forum. Figure 3 shows the activity system representation of such an expansive learning environment.

Barb, Evans, and Baek (2004) believe that as one moves toward trying to design community, especially one in which the members are expected to engage in new practices that challenge their current culture, many contradictions emerge. In this activity system introducing a new technology and new practices caused some contradictions in the activity system.

Figure 3. An activity system representation of expansive school environment

3.2.1 Contradictions in Expansive School Environment

According to Engestrom (2001) one of the principles of activity theory is the "multi-voicedness of activity systems" (p. 136). This means that an activity system is a community of different points of view, histories, and interests. This multi-voicedness as said by Engestrom may cause some troubles and contradictions. In our case, after introducing e-program as a way of communication and collaboration some of the teachers resisted involvement in the program and some other were actively involved in the program. This was mostly because of their interests and backgrounds. Some of the teachers were old teachers who had got used to individualist learning and treated such programs as a way of "wasting time". Some others however, had found it a good way of collaborating with the others and solving their own problems and the problems of the other teachers. While in an expansive environment teachers are supposed to be mutually supportive in enhancing their learning (Evans et al, 2006), in this case the older teachers were not supportive enough because of their background and interests and this caused a contradiction between the divisions of labour of the system. On the other hand, as all of the teachers were not active learners and some of them were passive learners a contradiction emerged between the subjects (subjects contradiction). Moreover, as mentioned before, in the case that some of the older teachers preferred individualist learning and resisted involving in expansive practices we see a contradiction between subjects and object which was "expansive learning tasks and practices" (subject/object contradiction).

One of the reasons for the teachers who resist involvement in the new tasks was their lack of knowledge in using technological device such as computers or internet (subject/tool contradiction). In such a system a contradiction also emerged between tool and division of labour. The introduction of the e-learning program and computer/internet as a tool required a new division of labour due in part to the novelty of the tool but also due to the fact that the supervisors were not able to assist all teachers with the computer/internet tasks. Consequently some teachers who had a better technological knowledge became supervisors of the other teachers with the lack of knowledge in using new devices.

One of the practices in which the teachers were involved was attending online courses held by Malaysian instructors. Since the Iranian school was a bilingual school, the instructors had some suggestions for students' language learning improvement. For example, they suggested that making learning groups from the students and asking them to be involved in some authentic role-playing could improve their language proficiency. But they emphasized the idea that in each group both genders should be involved. This suggestion however seemed to be effective, but was not applicable for an Iranian school, because Iranian schools are not co-education systems and male and female students, because of the Islamic rules, cannot be in a same system. There were also some other suggestions which were incompatible with the school rules (tool/rule contradiction). This incompatibility of the instructions with school rules made the teachers uninterested in the instructions because they thought that those instructions were not useful in their teaching systems (subject/tool contradiction). There were some also some other issues in the system which caused emerging some contradictions between the elements. One of these issues was low internet speed in Iran which de-motivated the teachers from using e-program as a way of communication (subject/tool contradiction).

According to Nelson (2002) contradictions can either facilitate learning to progress, or they can hinder it, depending on whether or not they are acknowledged and resolved. Introducing a new program to the teachers, as we saw, caused some contradictions. When the school system had a restrictive environment, the school leaders tried to resolve the emergent contradictions due to the lack of communication. When they decided to introduce the e-learning program they believed that this program could have been a good way for the teachers to communicate with the other teachers inside the school and outside of it. By introducing a new technology, however, some other contradictions emerged that the school leaders had not anticipated. So instead of resolving the new contradictions they decided to eradicate the source of them which was the e-learning program. Despite the vast amount of budget and time devoted to introducing the new program, the school leaders stopped the program because they believed that the program did not have much added value to the teachers' learning.

4. Conclusion

This article began with the intention of investigating contradictions in different learning environments through the lens of activity theory. In order to demonstrate contradictions occurring in different learning environments the article introduced a case study in an Iranian school. However, as said by Hardman (2005) although "a case study does not permit one to make general statements about how something might be used in different situations", it does provide a deep description of the processes underlying the object of the study.

Analyzing restrictive learning environment at the school under investigation showed that most of the teachers were inclined to communicate with the other teachers for the sake of more learning. As one of the elements of expansive learning environment as said by Evans et al (2006, is "opportunities to engage with working groups inside or outside of school" (p. 53), the e-learning program could have provided such an opportunity for the teachers. When the object and accordingly the tools of the system changed and a new technology was introduced to the teachers, some contradictions emerged.

The lens of activity theory, as we saw, could provide insight into changes in the teachers' learning at workplace when a new technological tool became part of their activities and communication. In this case some of the older teachers had some problems with the new technology or even with the new object (expansive learning practices such as communication with the other teachers). If the school leaders and teachers tried to find the contradictions and to resolve them, the activity system could have gone one step ahead to its goal. For example, if just a few sessions were devoted to teach computer and internet skills to the teachers, some of the contradictions could have been resolved; but when facing with problems caused by contradictions the school leaders eliminated the source of contradictions (e-learning program) instead of investigating the source of the problems (contradictions) and resolving them. As a matter of fact, introducing a new program or technology to any setting shifts participants' established practices to the new practices, which causes some contradictions. It is important that school leaders can identify contradictions in their settings and consider how these influence school culture and how to balance them.


I would like to thank Dr. Alison Taylor, the instructor of my "Workplace and Learning" course at University of Alberta, who guided me through this study.