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Learning, Culture and Social Interaction 1 (2012) 45–56

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Learning, Culture and Social Interaction
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Whatever happened to process theories of learning?
Yrjö Engeström ⁎, Annalisa Sannino
University of Helsinki, Finland

a r t i c l e

i n f o

a b s t r a c t
The article examines strengths and limitations of three examples of well known post-behaviorist process theories of learning: Norman and Rumelhart, Kolb, and Nonaka and Takeuchi. Two central shortcomings are found in these theories, namely universalism and separation of learning from instruction. After that the article analyzes Davydov's theory of learning activity and Engeström's theory of expansive learning as process theories that may significantly enrich the current landscape of learning theory and research. The strength of the two cultural–historical theories is in their rejection of universalism. The theory of expansive learning also attempts to bring learning and instruction into a dialectical relationship. The conclusion is that in order to revitalize theorizing of learning processes, researchers need to give up explicit and implicit universalism and recognize the intimate relationship between learning and instruction and the gap between them as a source of creative deviation and agency. © 2012 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

Article history: Received 22 March 2012 Accepted 23 March 2012 Available online 24 April 2012 Keywords: Process theories of learning Activity theory Learning activity Expansive learning Universalism Agency

1. Introduction In studies and discussions on learning, the notions of “the process of learning” or “learning processes” are pervasive. However, the term “process” is mostly used without theoretical content of its own. The state of affairs corresponds to the observation made by Vayda, McCay, and Eghenter (1991, p. 319). “Many social scientists use the term ’process’ in a loose, unreflective fashion (…) designating processes in terms of some recognizable outcome of events even if the events themselves and the linkages among them are little known or understood.” Vayda et al. (1991, p. 320) point out that processes are commonly used in social sciences as if they “had lives of their own, as if they existed independent of human agency.” Such reification easily leads to analyses in which processes are attributed causal powers. Such analyses disregard the fact that it is “events and actions which, when linked in some intelligible fashion, constitute processes” (p. 318). It is surprisingly difficult to find substantive and reflective conceptualizations of the process of learning in authoritative texts on learning and education. The terms “process”, “learning process”, “learning action” and “learning event” are missing in the index of The Handbook of Education and Human Development (Olson and Torrance, 1998) as well as in the index of How People Learn (Bransford, Brown, and Cocking, 2003). In the index of the recent Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences (Sawyer, 2006b), we find the entry “processes involved in learning”. These are taken up in the introduction under the headings “transition from novice to expert performance”, “using prior knowledge”, “scaffolding”, “externalization and articulation”, “reflection”, and “building from concrete to abstract knowledge.” None of these is discussed in terms of specified sequences of events or actions linked in some intelligible fashion (Sawyer, 2006a, p. 10–13).

⁎ Corresponding author. E-mail address: [email protected]fi (Y. Engeström). 2210-6561/$ – see front matter © 2012 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved. doi:10.1016/j.lcsi.2012.03.002


Y. Engeström, A. Sannino / Learning, Culture and Social Interaction 1 (2012) 45–56

Ambitious process theories of learning and studies based on such theories have largely disappeared in the leading journals and publications of the field of learning sciences. The most recent comprehensive review article on process or phase theories of learning seems to be more than 20 years old (Shuell, 1990). Process theories have been replaced by approaches and theories that try to capture the essence of learning through the lenses of the learning situation (e.g., Lave and Wenger, 1991), the learning environment (e.g., Jonassen and Land, 2000), and the learning dialogue (e.g., Mercer and Littleton, 2007). None of the three volumes mentioned above has the term “learning process” in its index. 1 A well-developed process theory fulfills certain requirements (Vayda et al., 1991). First of all, it describes a sequence of actions or events that is assumed to have some generality. Secondly, it presents a general rationale or principle that explains why the actions or events follow one another in certain order. Thirdly, it presents a causative mechanism that generates the transitions from one action or event to the next one. Process theories of learning are always to some extent prescriptive: they propose a sequence of learning actions, events or phases that is assumed to be optimal in some sense. Even a purportedly strictly descriptive sequence is an assumption or a hypothesis that has some tendency of becoming reality due to the impact of the assumption. Perhaps for this reason authors such as Oser and Baeriswyl (2001, p. 1031) give a rather harsh assessment of classic process theories. “Johann Friedrich Herbart first postulated a cyclical sequence of learnings steps in 1833. (…) In the beginning, it was viewed by its followers as a fundamentalist formalism, which consisted of the correct step sequence that should be used by every teacher. John Dewey's famous problem-solving steps (which are based on his belief that all learning is problem solving) are a similar type of orthodoxy.” A process theory tends toward orthodoxy if the sequence it promotes is taken as the universal and thus the only possible or desirable one. Shuell's (1990) review article on phase theories of learning is a good example. After reviewing a set of cognitive phase theories of learning, the author tries to summarize the theories by proposing a sequence of three seemingly universal phases. The richness of multiple qualitatively different kinds of learning disappears. On the other hand, as Oser and Baeriswyl (2001) themselves demonstrate, behind instruction there is always unavoidably some sort of a process theory of learning—albeit often an implicit one. This applies the other way around as well. Kruger and Tomasello (1998) and Tomasello (1999) forcefully demonstrate that human learning is to a large extent dependent on intentional instruction. Kruger and Tomasello (1998, p. 377) identify three types of intentionally instructed learning along a continuum from informal to formal, namely “expected learning”, “guided learning” and “designed learning.” From our point of view, the importance of this argument is that human learning is pervasively shaped according to normative cultural expectations. Such expectations are extremely diverse and they change historically. Thus, human learning processes are also very diverse and continuously changing. There is no single biologically determined universal, appropriate or good way to learn among humans. From this follows the fourth requirement for a well-developed process theory of learning. Such a theory must denounce universalism and specify just what kind of learning it actually aims at describing, explaining and promoting—and on what historical and cultural grounds. To avoid becoming a universalist orthodoxy, such a theory should make clear its own limits and engage in comparison and contrast with other theories of the learning process. The realization that human learning is largely intertwined with intentional instruction has a further consequence: learning and instruction must be brought back together. As Sutter (2001, p. 13) suggests, “to grasp the idea of learning and development, we have to get a better conception of instruction.” Cognitivism did its best to separate learning from instruction, and the separation, if not opposition, has persisted in much of post-cognitivist theorizing. Thus, Lave and Wenger (1991, p. 40) emphasize that “this viewpoint [of situated learning] makes a fundamental distinction between learning and intentional instruction.” To take seriously the intentionally instructed nature of human learning does not mean that we should return to the Herbartian notion of complete instructional control over learning. In research and interventions, the assumption of complete instructional control takes the insidious form of self-fulfilling prophecy. If you have a strong universalistic theory of the process of learning, you will tend to impose it upon your data and examples so that you will indeed find evidence confirming that your theory works in practice. Correspondingly, if you have a strong universalistic theory of the optimal process of learning guiding your intervention, you will tend to try to impose it upon the learners. In both cases, you tend to get what you want. But the very assumption of complete instructional control over learning is a fallacy. In practice, such control is not possible to reach. Learners will always proceed differently from what the instructor, researcher or interventionist had planned and tried to implement or impose. You get what you want only if you ignore this resistance to and deviation from the theory. Therefore, we need to look at instruction and learning—the plans and actions of instructors as well as the actions of learners— as dialectically intertwined. This means that the prescribed and planned process the instructor is trying to implement must be compared and contrasted with the actual process performed by the learners. The two will never fully coincide. The gap, struggle, negotiation and occasional merger between the two need to be taken as key resources for understanding the processes of learning as processes of formation of agency. This is the fifth requirement for a well-developed process theory of learning.
1 There are some empirical initiatives that might be interpreted as cautious steps toward a rediscovery of process theories of learning. Salovaara and Järvelä (2003) and Martin, McCrone, Bower, and Dindyal (2005), for example, seek to identify and characterize “students’ strategic actions” and “teacher and student actions”, respectively. While descriptions of actions in specific learning contexts are still far from a general sequential theory of the process of learning, they do indicate an interest in capturing systematically what is actually done by students when they are supposed to learn.

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How do prominent process theories of learning fulfill the five requirements sketched above? What are the shortcomings of such theories and how might they explain the fading away of process theories of learning? What is lost when process theories are neglected and what might be gained by re-introducing them? We will first examine the strengths and limitations of three examples of well known post-behaviorist process theories of learning. After that, we will examine Davydov's theory of learning activity and Engeström's theory of expansive learning as process theories that may significantly enrich the current landscape of learning theory and research. 2. Three post-behaviorist process theories of learning There are several prominent examples of process theory among post-behaviorist theories of learning. In the cognitivist or information-processing literature of learning, Rumelhart and Norman's (1978; Norman, 1978, 1982) three-step model of accretion, structuring, and tuning is a good example. Kolb's (1984) cycle of experiential learning is another example, representing a more eclectic approach that takes inspiration from Dewey, Lewin and Piaget. Among the more recent knowedge-creation approaches, Nonaka and Takeuchi's (1995) model based on shifts between tacit and explicit knowledge is a third well known example of process theories of learning. 2 In their original paper, Rumelhart and Norman (1978) explicitly set out to identify three qualitatively different phases of the learning process. Norman (1982, p. 81) summarizes the three phases in a succinct way. 1. Accretion. Accretion is the addition of new knowledge to existing memory schemas. The framework exists, but new data are entered. Accretion is the most common mode of learning. 2. Structuring. Structuring is the formation of new conceptual structures, of new conceptualizations. The existing schemas will no longer suffice, new schemas must be formed. The structuring mode occurs infrequently and usually entails great effort and struggle. But structuring is probably the most important of the modes. 3. Tuning. Tuning is the fine adjustment of knowledge to a task. The proper schemas exist and appropriate knowledge is within them. But they are too inefficient for the purpose, either because they are too general or because they are mismatched to the particular use that is required of them, so the knowledge must be tuned, continually adjusted to the task. Practice is one way of accomplishing tuning. It may take thousands of hours of practice to reach the stage of tuning that characterizes an expert. Tuning is perhaps the slowest of the modes of learning, but it is what changes mere knowledge of a topic into expert performance. Norman (1978) discussed the sequential aspect of the theory and summed it up with the help of Fig. 1. Notice that Norman used the term “hypothetical” to characterize Fig. 1. He made it clear that the sequential order of the three modes of learning is only tentative. “The different modes of learning do not necessarily occur in sequence. Presumably they co-occur, with the student accreting knowledge about one aspect of a topic while simultaneously restructuring knowledge about other aspects, and conceivably tuning the use of the knowledge about still a third aspect. Still, one expects that over the course of learning about a particular topic, there will be phases in which the mode of learning is primarily of one form. (…) All three modes of learning are probably always present, however, because learning a complex topic has neither a definite starting point nor a definite ending point.” (Norman, 1978, p. 42) In other words, the theory seems to take the three modes of learning as universal, but the specific order in which they appear varies. Rumelhart and Norman's theory has been fairly widely cited. Google Scholar (January 13, 2012) listed 723 citations to the original paper. In his 1982 textbook, Norman summed up the prospects of the theory. “Accretion, structuring, and tuning seem to be three basic modes of progression from being a novice to being a skilled performer. What is it exactly that takes place during these stages of learning? Alas, the answers are not known, but the search has begun. Several promising lines of research are being followed by investigators around the world.” (Norman, 1982, p. 89) Norman did not spell out how the theory should be tested and enriched. In any case, it seems that Norman's prognosis was overly optimistic. Among the papers and books that cite the original theory, there is not a single one that would review actual research based on the theory and bring the theory up to date based on such research. Practically all the publications that cite the theory do so to back up some ideas of their own or to indicate that they have been inspired by the theory. Little cumulative research seems to have followed directly from the theory. Perhaps this is largely due to the fact that the authors or the theory moved to different frontiers in their work (Rumelhart to parallel distributed processing, Norman to cognition distributed among humans and material artefacts). If the theory of accretion, structuring and tuning has had a moderate following, Kolb's theory of experiential learning may be characterized as a success story. On January 13, 2012, Google Scholar listed no less than 16936 citations to Kolb's (1984) main text. The author of the theory has kept on propagating, applying and developing the theory since the 1970s. Recent variations of
2 Other significant post-behaviorist process theories of learning include Bruner's (1964, 1966) attempt to conceptualize learning as progression from enactive to iconic and symbolic forms of representation. In current literature, Ohlsson (2011, p. 377) makes an attempt to revitalize process-theorizing of learning. In studies of organizational learning, Dixon's (1994) ”organizational learning cycle” and, more recently, Crossan's ”4I framework” (Crossan and Berdrow, 2003; Crossan, Lane, and White, 1999) are notable examples of process theories.


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mostly accretion 100% accretion Time in Learning Mode mostly restructuring mostly accretion mostly tuning



Cumulative Time on Task
Fig. 1. Hypothetical time division of effort in the three learning modes during the study of a complex topic (Norman, 1978, p. 43).

the theory include an interpretation of experiential learning as conversational knowledge creation (Baker, Jensen, and Kolb, 2002) and the introduction of the concept of “learning spaces” into the theory (Kolb and Kolb, 2005). According to Kolb (1984, p. 40), “the process of experiential learning can be described as a four-stage cycle involving four adaptive learning modes—concrete experience, reflective observation, abstract conceptualization, and active experimentation.” The theory is condensed with the help of the diagram presented in Fig. 2. The dynamics of transition from one mode to another in the experiential learning cycle are based on choices the individual learner makes between the polar opposites of apprehension vs. comprehension and extension vs. intention. The highest level of learning is reached when an individual is able to combine and balance all the four modes of learning. Surprisingly enough, Kolb's main text about the theory says nothing more about the rationale behind the cyclical sequence and order of the four modes. Even though the list of the four modes is always given in the same order and the arrows in Fig. 2 indicate a unidirectional movement from one mode to the next one, Kolb's own text makes the sequential order rather arbitrary, if not irrelevant. “…the learning process at any given moment in time may be governed by one or all of these processes interacting simultaneously. Over time, control of the learning process may shift from one of these structural bases for learning to another. Thus, the structural model of learning [Fig. 2] can be likened to a musical instrument and the process of learning to

Fig. 2. Structural dimensions underlying the process of experiential learning (Kolb, 1984, p. 42).

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a musical score that depicts a succession and combination of notes played on the instrument over time. The melodies and themes of a single score form distinctive individual patterns that we will call learning styles.” (Kolb, 1984, p. 61–62) The main part of Kolb's, 1984 book is devoted to the uses of the model as a basis for measuring and classifying individual learning styles. In other words, what is initially presented as a process model becomes in practice primarily a classification model. Or more accurately, as Miettinen (2000, p. 55) points out, the theory was originally formulated to provide arguments for the utility of the Learning Style Inventory, an instrument Kolb developed in the 1960s. In the earliest published presentation of the theory (Kolb, Rubin, and McIntyre, 1971, p. 28), its function as substantiation for an already existing inventory is made explicit. This classificatory origin and utilization of the theory makes the sequence of the modes irrelevant. “The phases remain separate. They do not connect to each other in any organic or necessary way. Kolb does not present any concept that would connect the phases to each other.” (Miettinen, 2000, p. 61) Kolb's theory proposes a typology of four distinct modes of learning and knowledge, among which the individual chooses those that best suit him or her. Referring to a review study Kolb and Kolb (2005, p. 196) declare that a great majority of the studies reviewed “supported” experiential learning theory. It is indeed easier to revert to this kind of positivist verification language when the theory is understood as a classification device rather than a process theory. Some commentators (e.g., Galer and van der Heijden, 2001 p. 856 Vince, 1998 p. 305) have interpreted Kolb's theory mainly as a cyclic process model. These authors commonly depict their own, simplified version of Kolb's original diagram presented in Fig. 2. In their optimistically process-oriented versions the structural dimensions (the straight axes in Fig. 2) are typically deleted and only the outer cycle is represented. This curiously frequent simplification may testify to a widespread wish to find genuinely dynamic process models of learning. It certainly does not adequately represent Kolb's theory and its actual uses as primarily a classifying device. Whereas Kolb's theory lacks a theoretically coherent rationale for sequence of the modes of learning, our third example, Nonaka and Takeuchi's SECI theory of knowledge creation, is built on a very clear sequential rationale. This rationale is the alternating movement between tacit and explicit knowledge. This theory is also the most succesful of the three in terms of citations. On January 13, 2012, Google Scholar listed the rather striking number of 24,931 citations to Nonaka and Takeuchi's (1995) main book in which the theory is espoused. The core of Nonaka and Takeuchi's (1995, p. 57) theory is their model of four modes of knowledge conversion (Fig. 3). The authors call these modes—socialization, externalization, combination, and internalization—the “engine” of the knowledgecreation process. It is undoubtedly a dynamic process model in that the steps and their sequential order are clearly defined. What is less clear is why and by what causative mechanism just these transitions must happen in just this order. Gourlay (2006) argues that the starting point and sequential order of the transitions could conceivably be quite different from the model presented by Nonaka and Takeuchi. Other critics (Collins, 2010; Tsoukas, 2005) question the very idea and possibility of “conversion” from tacit to explicit. Nonaka and Takeuchi's theory is presented in universalistic terms. The authors do not discuss just what historically and culturally specific kind of learning, in contrast to other kinds of learning, the theory aims to explain. However, the authors do point out that the success of knowledge creation is dependent on “enabling conditions” created by the management. These conditions include “organizational intention”, “autonomy”, “fluctuation and creative chaos”, “redundancy”, and “requisite variety.” To these, Nonaka, Toyama, and Byosiére (2001) later added “Ba”, referring to platforms and spaces of knowledge creation. In a way, these enbaling conditions might be read as characterizations of the quality of intentional instruction, as broadly defined by Kruger and Tomasello (1998). We may now sum up key characteristics of the three influential process theories of learning (Table 1). As Table 1 shows, the theories examined fulfill quite well the first three requirements. Each one of the theories describes a sequence of actions or events that is assumed to have some generality. Each theory also presents a general rationale or principle

Fig. 3. Nonaka and Takeuchi's (1995, p. 62) model of four modes of knowledge conversion.


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Table 1 Characteristics of three post-behaviorist process theories of learning. Sequence of events or actions Rumelhart and Norman: accretion, structuring, and tuning Kolb: experiential learning cycle The three phases of accretion, structuring, and tuning The four stages of concrete experience, reflective observation, abstract conceptualization, and active experimentation The four steps of socialization, externalization, combination, and internalization Rationale of the sequence Progression from novice to expert performer Creation of knowledge through grasping and transforming experience Mechanism of transition Mismatch between existing schemas and demands of coping with the task Continual choice between polar opposites Universality vs. plurality of learning Universal modes of learning, plural sequences Universal modes of learning, plural or arbitrary sequences Relationship between learning and instruction Learning separate from instruction Learning separate from instruction

Nonaka and Takeuchi: SECI model of knowledge creation

Creation of knowledge Necessary transitions between tacit and explicit and innovations by knowledge moving between tacit and implicit knowledge and between individual and organizational knowledge

Universal spiral of knowledge creation, large differences in enabling conditions for it in organizations

Learning (knowledge creation) dependent on enabling conditions created by management

that purports to explain why the actions or events follow one another in certain order. And each theory presents some sort of a causative mechanism that is assumed to generate the transitions from one action or event to the next one. There are weaknesses, of course. For example, on the third requirement, Nonaka and Takeuchi's theory is somewhat tautological; the proposed transitions between tacit and explicit knowledge are presented as necessary without arguing why. When we come to the fourth and fifth requirements, the theories look much less convincing. On the fourth requirement, all the three theories share universalism. They present one model of the learning process which is taken to be ideal and universally desirable. They do not discuss the cultural and historical limitations of their models, or compare and contrast their models with other types of learning process. This may well be the most important source of trouble for these theories. Another weakness shared by the three theories is the separation of learning from intentional instruction. Only in the theory of Nonaka and Takeuchi there is an indirect provision for the role of instruction, in the form of general organizational enabling conditions. None of the three theories discusses the potential paradox of self-fulfilling prophecy as a dilemma they need to overcome by focusing on the dialectical relationship between instruction and learning. The three theories have also strengths that may be lost if process theories are given up. First of all, the very notion of process implies a sequence of events or actions that extends temporally beyond a singular situation. In other words, processes require time. Long ago Bruner (1974) pointed out that experimental studies of learning are typically limited to immediate outcomes; if we want to understand meaningful learning “we shall have to keep our organisms far longer” (p. 233). In a similar vein, Levinthal and March (1993, p. 110) argue that organizational learning is plagued with what they call “temporal myopia”: “Learning tends to sacrifice the long run to the short run.” The three process theories reviewed above are not myopic. They invite reasearchers and practitioners to look at learning in the long haul. This longitudinal potential is likely to be lost if ambitious process theories of learning are abandoned. In their search for an optimal sequence, process theories of learning are inherently utopian and interventionist. They aim to demonstrate that a comprehensive and productive learning process is possible. This bold future-making orientation is essential to good educational research. When descriptive and confirmatory approaches take over, this interventionist pontential is easily lost. 3. Activity-theoretical approaches to learning: Process theory revitalized In spite of its increasing influence (Roth and Lee, 2007, p. 188) cultural–historical activity theory is still a relatively poorly known framework in studies of learning. Within this tradition, process theories of learning play a prominent role. 3 Gal'perin (1967, 1969; Galperin, 1957) was the first one within the cultural–historical school to formulate a detailed process theory of learning. His theory of the stagewise formation of mental actions and a broad variety of empirical studies based on it have been reviewed in detail by Talyzina (1981), and later by Arievitch (2004), Arievitch and Haenen (2005) and Haenen (2001). Gal'perin proposed five steps in the formation of mental actions, namely: (1) familiarization with the task and its conditions (often also called formation of the action's orientation basis), (2) mastering the action with the help of material objects or their material representations or signs, (3) mastering the action with the help of audible speech without direct support from material
3 Vygotsky, the founder of the cultural-historical approach, did not propose an explicit process theory of learning. Harré (1984) has interpreted Vygotsky's work in terms of the “Vygotsky space” which represents learning and development as movement between the individual and the collective, and between the private and the public. It identifies four broad learning steps, namely appropriation, transformation, publication, and conventionalization. The model has been presented as a process theory of learning by McVee, Dunsmore, and Gavelek (2005), and by Peck, Gallucci, Sloan, and Lippincott (2009). These attempts are indirectly inspired by Vygotsky but not actually formulated by him.

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objects, (4) mastering the action with the help of unvoiced external speech to oneself, (5) mastering the action using internal speech. This is basically a theory of internalization of culturally given contents. Gal'perin (1967, p. 30) himself calls it “planned internalization.” There is no explicit provision for externalization understood as creation of culturally new contents. It is also a universalist theory aimed at disclosing and implementing the optimal sequence of learning without consideration of its cultural and historical limits. Haenen argues that “gradually Gal'perin abandoned the idea of a strict sequence of steps in the teaching– learning process” (Haenen, 2001, p. 161). Unfortunately Haenen doesn't provide reference to any published sources that would document such a move in Gal'perin's thinking. In fact, in a more recent paper Arievitch and Haenen (2005, p. 155) write that Gal'perin revealed “the necessary steps that mental actions undergo in their genesis.” The challenge of universalism was tackled by Davydov in his theory of learning activity (Davydov, 1990, 2008). In his theory of expansive learning, Engeström builds on Davydov's work and extends the treatment of the cultural and historical specificity of the type of learning identified by the theory (Engeström, 1987; Engeström and Sannino, 2010). In the following, we will examine these two theories as possible springboards for revitalizing process theories of learning. We will proceed by examining each one of the proposed five requirements in turn. 3.1. Sequence of events or actions Learning activity is achieved through specific epistemic or learning actions. According to Davydov (2008, p. 3125–126), an ideal-typical sequence of learning activity consists of the following six learning actions: (1) transforming the conditions of the task in order to reveal the universal relationship of the object under study, (2) modeling the identified relationship in material, graphic or literal form, (3) transforming the model of the relationship in order to study its properties in “pure form”, (4) constructing a system of particular tasks that are solvable by a general method, (5) monitoring and assessment of the performance of the preceding actions, (6) evaluating the assimilation of the general method that results from solving the given learning task. Davydov's theory was constructed to transform teaching and learning in schools. Thus, it is to a certain extent confined to the notion of learning as assimilation and appropriation of culturally given contents. “School children do not create the concepts, images, values and norms of social morality, but appropriate them in the process of learning activity. But, in performing that activity, school children realize thinking actions that are adequate to the actions by which these products of spiritual culture developed historically.” (Davydov, 2008, p. 121) The fact that Davydov's theory is oriented at learning activity within the confines of a classroom where the curricular contents are determined ahead of time by adults probably explains why it does not contain the actions of critical questioning of the given contents on the one hand, and implementing and consolidating new concepts in practice, on the other hand. These are actions that imply the construction of actual culturally novel ideas and practices. The theory of expansive learning argues that human beings and their collectives, regardless of age, are creators of new culture. Although children's potential to create is commonly disregarded as disobedience, or mere play and fantasy, it does occasionally break through and become visible. Learning by Expanding (Engeström, 1987, pp. 161–163) discusses the example of Children's Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, initiated by seven adolescents aged between 12 and 17 years. The book also points out that new forms of play may generate powerful new resources for expansive learning among children: “As play is commodified, it is, paradoxically, rearmed with instruments with which one may be able to penetrate the abstract societal practices and create imaginary ones” (Engeström, 1987, p. 136–137). Today we see this happening by means of the Internet, mobile communication devices and social media (see e.g., Prensky, 2008; Silva, 2007). The theory of expansive learning focuses on learning processes in which the very subject of learning is transformed from an individual to a collective activity system or a network of activity systems. Initially individuals begin to question the existing order and logic of their activity. As more actors join in, a collaborative analysis and modeling of the zone of proximal development are initiated and carried out. Expansive learning leads to the formation of a new, expanded object and pattern of activity oriented to the object. Expansive learning is achieved through specific epistemic or learning actions. Together these actions form an expansive cycle or spiral. An ideal–typical sequence of epistemic actions in an expansive cycle may be described as follows. – The first action is that of questioning, criticizing or rejecting some aspects of the accepted practice and existing wisdom. – The second action is that of analyzing the situation. Analysis involves mental, discursive or practical transformation of the situation in order to find out causes or explanatory mechanisms. One type of analysis is historical–genetic; it seeks to explain the situation by tracing its origins and evolution. Another type of analysis is actual–empirical; it seeks to explain the situation by constructing a picture of its inner systemic relations. – The third action is that of modeling the newly found explanatory relationship in some publicly observable and transmittable medium. – The fourth action is that of examining the model, running, operating and experimenting on it in order to fully grasp its dynamics, potentials and limitations. – The fifth action is that of implementing the model by means of practical applications, enrichments, and conceptual extensions. – The sixth action is that of reflecting on and evaluating the process. – The seventh action is that of consolidating the outcomes into a new stable form of practice.


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3.2. Rationale of the sequence In both Davydov's theory of learning activity and Engeström's theory of expansive learning, the rationale for the sequence of learning actions is ascending from the abstract to the concrete (see Il'enkov, 1982; Kosík, 1976). This is a method of grasping the essence of an object by tracing and reproducing theoretically the logic of its development, of its historical formation through the emergence and resolution of its inner contradictions. A new theoretical idea or concept is initially produced in the form of an abstract, simple explanatory relationship, a “germ cell.” This initial abstraction is step-by-step enriched and transformed into a concrete system of multiple, constantly developing manifestations. In learning activity, the initial simple idea is transformed into a complex object, into a new form of practice. Learning activity, or expansive learning, leads to the formation of theoretical concepts—theoretically grasped practice— concrete in systemic richness and multiplicity of manifestations (Engeström, Nummijoki, and Sannino, in press). In this framework, abstract refers to partial, separated from the concrete whole. In empirical thinking based on comparisons and classifications, abstractions capture arbitrary, only formally interconnected properties. In dialectical-theoretical thinking, based on ascending from the abstract to the concrete, a germ-cell abstraction captures the smallest and simplest, genetically primary unit of the whole functionally interconnected system under scrutiny.

3.3. Mechanism of transition In Davydov's theory, the mechanism of transition from one learning action to the next one is basically instructional guidance, which is gradually internalized by the learners. Thus, the transitional mechanism is depicted as rational and voluntaristic. “The school children are of course first unable independently to formulate learning tasks or to perform the actions to solve them. The teacher helps them to do this for now, but gradually the students themselves acquire the corresponding abilities.” (Davydov, 2008, p. 126) The theory of expansive learning sees the mechanism of transition in the stepwise evolution of contradictions inherent in the object of learning—that is, in the activity that is being transformed. In different phases of the expansive learning process, contradictions may appear (1) as emerging latent primary contradictions within each and any of the nodes of the activity system; these generate the first learning action of questioning, (2) as openly manifest secondary contradictions between two or more nodes (e.g., between a new object and an old tool); these generate the second, third and fourth learning actions of analysis, modeling and examining the model, (3) as tertiary contradictions between a newly formulated mode of activity and the existing mode of activity; these generate the fifth and sixth learning actions of implementation and reflection, (4) as external quaternary contradictions between the newly reorganized activity and its neighboring activity systems; these generate the seventh learning action of consolidation. Dilemmas, conflicts, and double binds may be analyzed as manifestations of the contradictions (Engeström and Sannino, 2011). Although contradictions are objective, historically accumulated forces, they are not an automatism. They become actual driving forces of expansive learning when subjects deal with them in such a way that the emerging new object is identified and turned into a motive: “the meeting of need with object is an extraordinary act” (Leont'ev, 1978, p. 54). The motive of collective activity becomes effective for an individual by means of personal sense: “sense expresses the relation of motive of activity to the immediate goal of action” (Leont'ev, 1978, p. 171).

3.4. Universality vs. plurality of learning Davydov pointed out repeatedly that “learning activity” and “learning” are not the same thing (e.g., Davydov, 2008, p. 115). Learning activity is a particular type of learning, aimed at the formation of theoretical generalizations. The historically dominant type of learning, especially in schools, is aimed at the formation of empirical generalizations based on comparison and classification of external features of objects. In fact the first 200 pages of Davydov's main book are devoted to a critical scrutiny of the characteristics and limitations of instruction and learning aimed at empirical generalizations (Davydov, 1990). “What is the correlation between the empirical and the theoretical levels of cognition? Historically, the former preceded the latter, and now it is still the prevailing form of everyday experience for human beings. Empirical thought is retained in certain branches of knowledge that have lingered at the stage of pure description of objects. In particular, educational psychology and didactics have been guided by a model of this sort of thought up to now, in directing the mass practice of school instruction.” (Davydov, 1990, p. 256) Theoretical thought has its roots in practical productive activity, specifically in its experimental aspect. “To be sure, considerable time was required for theoretical thought to acquire sovereignty and contemporary form in the process of the historical development of industry and science.” (Davydov, 1990, p. 257) For Davydov, learning activity is definitely not a universal form of learning. It is a historically new type of learning, still in the process of taking shape and only relatively rarely observable in practice.

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The contrast between learning aimed at empirical generalizations and learning activity aimed at theoretical generalizations is powerful. However, it can lead to an overly simplified dichotomous view of learning. Davydov was aware of this risk and called for historical studies to overcome it. “There are few works devoted to the origin and historical development of such forms of activity as artistic activity, learning activity, and so on. Moreover, there are no special studies on the interrelations of given forms of activity during different epochs of cultural development.” (Davydov, 2008, p. 207) The theory of expansive learning builds on the idea of multiple types of learning, especially on Bateson's (1972) analysis of levels of learning (see Engeström, 1987, pp. 140–144). Expansive learning is defined as similar to Bateson's “Learning III”. Such expansive learning is rare and risky: “Even the attempt at Level III can be dangerous, and some fall by the wayside.” (Bateson, 1972, p. 305) The historical emergence of expansive learning was discussed at length in Learning by Expanding (Engeström, 1987, pp. 92–137). Three historical lineages of inner contradictions and potentials for the emergence of expansive learning are traced, namely learning within school-going, learning within work activity, and learning within science and art. The conclusion of the historical analysis is that “the ontogenetic emergence of [expansive] learning activity, at least in present-day capitalist societies, may with the highest probability take place in adulthood or adolescence, when the subject faces historically and individually pressing inner contradictions within his or her leading activity—be it work, school-going, science or art” (Engeström, 1987, p. 137). The historical emergence of expansive learning is connected to the increasingly rapid change of overall concepts of production, business and organization in all spheres of society (Pihlaja, 2005). Expansive learning is a learning process appropriate in radical transformation of entire activity systems. In empirical research, one way to combat the tendency of universalization of a process theory of learning is to analyze one and the same set of data with the help of two or more different process theories, thus comparing and contrasting one's favorite theory with others. Such an analysis was conducted in a study that examined the innovative learning processes in two industrial team meetings, using the theory of expansive learning and Nonaka and Takeuchi's (1995) theory of knowledge creation side by side (Engeström, 1999, 2008, pp. 118–168; see also Virkkunen, 2009). “The two theories do not have to be seen as mutually exclusive or hostile. Nonaka and Takeuchi's emphasis on the alternative modes of representing knowledge and the transitions between them offers important insights that may be overlooked within the theory of expansive learning. On the other hand, the theory of expansive learning, based on the dialectics of ascending from the abstract to the concrete, offers a new framework for analyzing the interplay of the object under construction, the mediating artifacts, and the different perspectives of the participants in a progression of collectively achieved actions.” (Engeström, 2008, p. 167–168).

3.5. Relationship between learning and instruction Davydov's theory was built to guide the construction and implementation of a new type of school curricula and a new type of instructional practice, called developmental education. As we noted above, in Davydov's theory the transitions from one learning action to the next one are primarily accomplished by means of deliberate instructional guidance and subsequently by conscious planning and self-determination of the learner. Curriculum, instruction and learning are so closely tied together that deviations from the planned and guided process are not taken up. This reduces the learners’ agency to self-determination learned and internalized in accordance with the instructors’ intentions. The paradox of the self-fulfilling prophecy looms large. Within the framework of the theory of expansive learning, the typical form of instruction is an intervention called the Change Laboratory (Engeström, 2007, 2011). The Change Laboratory process consists of a series of sessions in which practitioners of an organization (or several collaborating organizations) analyze the history, contradictions and zone of proximal development of their activity system, design a new model for it, and take steps toward the implementation of the model. The Change Laboratory sessions are regularly videotaped to secure rich and comprehensive data for analysis. The Change Laboratory process is typically carefully planned in advance. Each session is aimed at fostering some specific expansive learning actions. There is a script which the interventionists strive to follow. Comparisons between the interventionists’ script and the actual unfolding of events and actions in the sessions regularly reveal a gap between the two. Here are two examples. 3.6. Example 1: Change Laboratory in a middle school (Engeström, Engeström, and Suntio, 2002) “In Jakomäki [Middle School], we researchers thought that our field data indicated three major problem areas, which we formulated as follows: 1. Teachers’ weak knowledge of the students’ homes and backgrounds hampers the utilization of resources for learning and succeeding. 2. Teachers’ weak knowledge of the students’ careers after graduation and students’ weak knowledge of the entrance requirements of further education hamper the utilization of resources.


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3. The poverty of the school as a physical working environment for the students hampers the utlization of resources. However, when we asked the teachers to formulate for themselves what they saw as the key problems, they came up with a very different set: 1. War against apathy—joy of work. 2. Peaceful time for planning and preparing together. 3. Change in students’ manners and use of language. “While we researchers tried to focus on sources of trouble, the teachers’ problems were already formulated as goals or calls for change. The notion of student apathy as a pervasive problem was central to the teachers’ discourse at this point. The two sets of problems remained as complementary sounding boards for the rest of the Change Laboratory process. The teachers didn't seem to worry about their divergence, so we decided that neither should we.” (Engeström et al., 2002, p. 212–213) This gap seems to have provided good space for the participants’ agentive actions, as shown in a subsequent analysis by Sannino (2008). 3.7. Example 2: Change Laboratory in a bank (Engeström, Pasanen, Toiviainen, and Haavisto, 2005; Toiviainen and Engeström, 2009) “The researchers’ vision of the future work of the investment managers was formulated as ‘negotiated total wealth management.’ We hoped that by analyzing the historical layers and current contradictions of their work, the practitioners would step-by-step open up and substantiate this vision, turning it into a germ-cell model…” (Engeström et al., 2005, p. 64) “A number of investment managers questioned the concept of negotiated total wealth management and—as they saw it—the introduction of novel services to the present concept of activity. […] The intensification of the present services gained support regardless of the fact that the fragility, even non-profitability, of the present earning logic had been demonstrated by the management at the beginning of the Change Laboratory. This episode was crystallized in this comment by a participant: Investment manager 1: ‘(…) sure I would be much more interested in this project if we concentrated on these issues and searched for a way to get the present elements to work in the best possible way. Whether portfolio management or extra services that we already have on offer, rather than thinking that we should invent new things out of the blue. (…) Rather make the present [activity] more effective than look for a new one. We already have the basic elements, [we are doing] right things that we could just do better and better.’ “Participants in the Change Laboratory started to develop an idea of support and collegial ‘sparring’ in order to intensify and improve their ways of working. This finally led to the development of ‘the sparring way of working’ as an intermediate step towards the negotiated total wealth management initially suggested by the interventionist-researchers.” (Toiviainen and Engeström, 2009, p. 103) The two examples demonstrate how the learners take actions that significantly deviate from the script planned and implemented by instructors or interventionists. In the first example, very early in the process, the learners defined their agenda differently from the agenda suggested by the interventionists. The two agendas co-existed and partly merged through the process. In the second example, the interventionists’ agenda was initially accepted but later contested and transformed into a quest for more pragmatic and short-term improvements. In a forthcoming paper (Engeström, Rantavuori & Kerosuo, submitted for publication), a systematic analysis of gaps between the interventionists’ script and the learners actions in the course of a recent Change Laboratory leads to the identification of two types of deviations, namely action-level deviations and object-level deviations. The former are bounded episodes in which the learners take one or more actions that deviate from the script—but the process then returns to follow the initial script. The latter are episodes in which the learners take actions that redefine and transform the initially planned object of the learning effort, thus changing the entire course of the process and forcing the interventionists to redefine their script. The two examples presented above were both object-level deviations. Importantly enough, these deviations did not block or nullify expansive learning as such. Systematic studies of the gap between instructional intentions and learners’ actual actions are still in their infancy. Analyses of different ways to articulate and bridge the gap—contestations, negotiations, formation of dual objects, and creation of “third spaces”—(Gutiérrez, Baguedano-López, and Tejeda, 1999) are a particularly promising direction of research. This line of research will put the formation of participants’ agency in the center of expansive learning. 4. Conclusion: Uses and limits of process theories of learning We set out to examine how three prominent post-behaviorist learning theories fulfill the five requirements of a welldeveloped process theory of learning. We found two central shortcomings in these theories, namely universalism and separation of learning from instruction. These shortcomings easily lead to the paradox of self-fulfilling prophecy. These shortcomings may go a long way toward explaining the disappearance of process theories of learning from the center stage of learning sciences. With this disappearance, the longitudinal and interventionist impetus inherent in ambitious process theories may also be lost.

Y. Engeström, A. Sannino / Learning, Culture and Social Interaction 1 (2012) 45–56 Table 2 Characteristics of two cultural–historical process theories of learning. Sequence of events or actions Davydov: theory of learning activity The six learning actions of Rationale of the sequence Ascending from the abstract to the concrete Mechanism of transition Instructional guidance and subsequently the learner's self-determination Universality vs. plurality of learning Two historically and logically different types of learning, one aimed at empirical, the other aimed at theoretical generalizations Multiple types of learning (Bateson's level); expansive learning as a historically new type of learning associated with transformation of activity systems Relationship between learning and instruction Learning and instruction tightly intertwined; their gap is not examined


Engeström: theory of expansive learning

The seven learning actions of

Ascending from the abstract to the concrete

Evolution of internal contradictions of the activity to be transformed, from primary to quaternary contradictions

Learning and instruction dialectically interconnected; their gap is of central importance

To search for revitalization of process theories of learning, we turned to cultural–historical activity theory. Within it, we examined two prominent process theories, namely those of Davydov and Engeström. The results of our examination are summarized in Table 2. The strength of the two cultural–historical theories is in their rejection of universalism. The theory of expansive learning also attempts to bring learning and instruction into a dialectical relationship, focusing on analysis of the gap and interplay between the two processess. In empirical research this implies that the actual actions taken by learners, as well as the plans, intentions and actions of instructors or interventionists, are examined in detail without assuming a correspondence between the two. Process theories of learning are necessary, as instructors and interventionists will always operate on the basis of some notions of desirable or optimal sequence of learning. To revitalize theorizing of learning processes, researchers need to give up explicit and implicit universalism and acknowledge the historical and cultural specificity and limitations of their favorite theory. This will also enable constructive comparisons and contrasts between different process theories. Multiplicity of learning processes should be embraced and celebrated. The second step in revitalization is recognition of the intimate relationship between learning and instruction, and a dialectical approach to this relationship. The gap between learning and instruction is a source of creative deviation and agency. The gap needs to be taken seriously and analyzed in detail.

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