CHAT blog 1: What’s with the triangles?

In my previous post, I mentioned that I would be writing some stuff on here about cultural-historical activity theory (CHAT, for short) and specifically in connection with teacher education. I think it’s a particularly fertile field for exploration and the theoretical tool-kit that CHAT provides is rich with possibilities for both analysing the complex and political practice of teacher education and for doing something about the problems such an analysis can surface!  And don’t just take my word for it: in the Education panel report from the last REF (Research Excellence Framework) audit in the UK (2014), CHAT-informed research into teacher ed was identified as one of a few successful areas of work in the field. And there has just been the first ever CHAT and Teacher Education winter/summer school for researchers in Melbourne (about more of which later).

My first teacher education research article that drew explicitly on Engestrom's version of CHAT

My first teacher education research article that drew explicitly on Engestrom’s version of CHAT

In some respects, you’re on to a loser with CHAT, though. For a start, it is very theoretical (as theories are meant to be, I suppose); it has diagrams in it (‘ouch’, if you don’t like geometry particularly); it is derived from Vygotsky (‘yeuch’, we are supposed to say; ‘Vygotsky is so passé, irrelevant, stupid, etc etc’. If this is what you believe, this blog isn’t for you! Go and read blogs by the latest set of government lackeys. At least they might make you laugh. Before they fall out of the sky, their wings having melted ….

But if you’e interested in finding out a bit more about this approach and evaluating it for yourself, I am going to write 3 or 4 posts over the next couple of months with ‘CHAT blog’ in the title that are intended to be introductory to the theory and also try to show their relevance to the fields of teacher education, teacher development and professional learning.

In this post, below, I provide an extract from the introduction to Learning and Collective Creativity – a book I edited with Annalisa Sannino – that is now out in paperback. The section below is a sort of glossary of key terms that I wrote for the introduction and that passed muster with Annalisa (!) and a few more besides. Of course they are our interpretations of the terms and not ‘definitions’ per se. But if you are interested in finding out more about this theory, it might be a start. If you decide you want to quote any of these, please reference:

Sannino, A. & Ellis, V. (2013) ‘Activity-theoretical and sociocultural studies of learning and collective creativity: An introduction’, in Sannino, A. & Ellis, V. eds. Learning and Collective Creativity: Activity-theoretical and sociocultural studies, London & New York: Routledge.

But first, part of the problem, as I have seen it above. A triangle – a graphical representation of a human activity system.

A typical graphical representation of an activity theory triange (they differ!)

A typical graphical representation of an activity theory triange (they differ!). This one – as so many – from the field of HCI (human-computer interaction)

The diagram is intended to show how some key concepts work together or against each other in order to explain how human activities (collective endeavours that have a cultural meaning in which individuals participate) evolve and change. Subjects are those individuals who are brought together to work on the same activity by potentially seeing and sharing the same object, an aspect of the social world that draws them in and motivates them (see below). Tools are the physical or symbolic resources those subjects/people to work on the object – or towards it. Their work together is governed by a division of labour – or the way in which the work is divided up and who gets to do which bit if it. Rules suggests that there are norms (which are value-laden) which influence how the members of the community (the collective of individual subjects) get their labour divided up. And if we substitute the straight lines of this triangle with double-headed arrows (something you will often see), that is to acknowledge that there are multi-level relationships between each of these concepts and they may be in contradiction.

Some of the key terms in depth, going back to Vygotsky and Leont’ev (an extract from Learning and Collective Creativity)

Zone of Proximal Development

The zone of proximal development is one of the most known concepts derived from Vygotsky’s work, usually referenced to the collection of papers published as Mind in Society in 1978 (Vygotsky, 1978). Vygotsky defines the zone of proximal development as:

the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers. (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 86)

From this definition, the distance between these levels is the “zone” or social space within which human development can be stimulated through collaboration. It was this distance that, for Vygotsky, constituted a more reliable and holistic assessment of the child’s development than the single measurement of an outcome. Vygotsky pointed out also that “with collaboration, direction, or some kind of help the child is always able to do more and solve more difficult tasks than he can independently” (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 209). In these texts, Vygotsky’s interest was in development (rather than in the learning of specific skills or concepts) and in collaboration within collective, social situations (rather than prioritizing the influence of an expert or instructor). But whereas Vygotsky’s emphasis was on the development of the individual child in his or her social situation, more recent extensions of Vygotsky’s ideas (Engeström, 1987) have emphasized the development of the collective and the role of education in leading that development. These recent advances in sociocultural and activity theory have led to methodological innovations discussed in the chapters of this volume that demonstrate the potential of educational or formative interventions in collective activities through the creation of zones of proximal development.


A. N. Leont’ev, Vygotsky’s student and colleague, shifted analytic focus in studying human development from the individual to the collective. Leont’ev distinguished between the automatic operations of the individual subject, the individual’s or group’s goal-oriented actions, and the level of activity that was given cultural and historical meaning and significance by a shared object—its object-orientedness. Leont’ev’s interest was in human activity, and he was a major contributor to the Soviet line of activity theory, arguing that, as Stetsenko puts it, “human psychological processes . . . are object-related in opposition to conceptualizing them as a solipsistic mental realm” (Stetsenko, 2005, p. 75). For Leont’ev, the object of activity was actually its “object-motive,” and he explained it as follows:

The main thing which distinguishes one activity from another, however, is the difference in their objects. It is exactly the object of an activity that gives it a predetermined direction. According to the terminology I have proposed, the object of the activity is its true motive. (Leont’ev, 1978, p. 62)

The importance of the object in activity theory derives from the interrelatedness of the two concepts, object and activity. Following Leont’ev, culturally or societally significant practices that have historically been undertaken by collectives and have a potentially shared object may be defined as activities. The object is both what engages and motivates the intentional participation of groups of people and what is fashioned and potentially transformed through their participation. As Kaptelinin points out, “the object of activity has a dual status; it is both a projection of the human mind onto the objective world and a projection of the world onto human mind” (Kaptelinin, 2005, p. 5). For researchers, as Kaptelinin also suggests, “the object of activity is a promising analytic tool providing the possibility of understanding not only what people are doing, but also why they are doing it” (Kaptelinin, 2005, p. 5).

This engagement of subjects by an object is what is referred to as object-orientation or object-relatedness. Object-orientation is a dialectical relationship through which both the subjects and the activity change. Davydov, Zinchenko, and Talyzina (1983) point out that “human activity is always directed towards the transformation of an object that is able to satisfy some specific need” (p. 32).

Expansive Learning

Expansive learning is essentially learning something that is not yet there. This goes beyond the acquisition of already well-established sets of knowledge and the participation in relatively stable practices. This is a creative type of learning in which learners join their forces to literally create something new. The metaphor of expansion depicts the multidirectional movement of learners constructing and implementing a new, wider, and more complex object for their activity. In expansive learning, the object of the activity is reconceptualized and transformed with the help of the mediating means employed and built throughout the process.

The theory of expansive learning is epistemologically grounded in the dialectics of ascending from the abstract to the concrete (Davydov, 1990; Il’enkov, 1977). At the beginning of a process of expansive learning, the object is only abstractly mastered as a partial entity, separated from the functionally interconnected system of the collective activity. By ascending to the concrete, an abstract object is progressively cultivated into concrete systemic manifestations and transformed into a material object that resonates with the needs of other human beings as well. These phases often require the subject to struggle and break out of previously acquired conceptions in conflict with new emerging ones (Sannino, 2010). This process opens up multiple possibilities for the learner to creatively experiment with new solutions and innovative ideas.

Expansive learning manifests itself in changes in the object of an activity. This can lead to qualitative transformations both at the level of individual actions and at the level of the collective activity and its broader context (Engeström & Sannino, 2010, p. 8). When human beings pursue and grasp the object of their activities, their long-term devoted engagement with the object can not only fulfill their lives, it can also have a significant societal impact.

Activity System

From the perspective of activity theory, the prime unit of analysis is the activity system. The model of an activity system is a representation of the social and historical organization of the concept of “object-orientated, collective, and culturally-mediated human activity” (Engeström & Miettinen, 1999, p. 9). “Culturally-mediated” refers to the role of artifacts—semiotic and material—in the participating subjects’ joint work on the object of their activity. The basic components of an activity system, therefore, include the subject, the object, mediating artifacts, the rules of participation, the specific community, and the division of labor among participants (Engeström, 1987).

Modeling the activity system in interventionist efforts reveals the potential of the internal tensions and contradictions as motives for change and transformation. And, as participants are never in the subject position in only one activity system at any one time, their participation in multiple and intersecting activity systems increases the potential for generative contradictions to be experienced, surfaced, and examined both between and within activity systems. The relationship between multiple activity systems and their outcomes (and their multiple perspectives and voices) is presented as the foundation of what is known as the “third generation” of activity theory (Engeström, 1996).

Double Stimulation

Vygotsky’s search for new methodological instruments led him to elaborate what he referred to as the principle of double stimulation (Vygotsky, 1987, 1997c). His aim in undertaking this approach to experimental methods in psychology was to challenge the researcher to see psychological processes as dynamic and historical, “undertaking changes right before one’s eyes” (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 61). Appropriating the language of behaviorism, Vygotsky described the researcher-set problem as the “stimulus-end” and the potentially helpful tools as the “stimulus-means” or “auxiliary means.” By studying the ways in which subjects appropriate these tools in their work on the problem—the object of their activity—Vygotsky argued that it was possible to reveal the ways in which those subjects made sense of the worlds they were acting in:

We simultaneously offer a second series of stimuli that have a special function. In this way, we are able to study the process of accomplishing a task by aid of the specific auxiliary means: Thus we are able to discover the inner structure and development of higher mental processes. (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 74)

In recent activity-theoretical research, double stimulation is at the core of intervention methods such as the Change Laboratories (Engeström, 2007; Sannino, 2011). In a Change Laboratory intervention, the “auxiliary means” is often a model of the activity system, represented diagrammatically and used with participants in a joint analysis of data generated from the current practices.


In an activity-theoretical analysis of change, the concept of contradiction is of great importance. Although sometimes sociocultural and other analyses refer to “tensions” much more loosely, contradictions in activity-theoretical terms are not only personally experienced, ontological dilemmas but also systemic and structural constraints that need to be overcome and broken away from in order for human agency to be exercised and new forms of activity to emerge. The importance of contradiction as a concept reveals the influence of Marxian historical analysis in the elaboration of activity theory. Vygotsky’s analysis of human development draws on Marx’s (e.g., Marx & Engels, 1964) dialectical materialism and understanding of historical change as the sublation of simultaneously ideal and material oppositions by a synthesis that both supersedes and contains them.

Engeström’s theory of expansive learning (1987) poses contradictions as the generators of change in the development of activity systems. Historically new forms of activity emerge when internal contradictions within the activity system are resolved. Participants in activity systems, upon recognizing the constraints of their situation (sometimes expressed as a “double-bind” or a situation characterized by conflicting demands), appropriate available cultural tools in order to break away from that situation and to transform it. Engeström (1987) identified four types of contradictions within activity systems beginning with the primary contradiction (under capitalist conditions) between use value and exchange value, most importantly with reference to the shared object. Secondary contradictions emerge between components of the activity system. Tertiary contradictions arise from the introduction of qualitatively new forms of the activity that are resisted by deep-seated old dynamics in the system. And quaternary contradictions emerge between interacting activity systems that need to reorganize their relations.

The Russian philosopher Il’enkov noted that historically new modes of action and production, “before becoming generally accepted and recognized, first emerge[s] as a certain deviation from previously accepted and codified norms” (Il’enkov, 1982, pp. 83–84). Such historically new forms of activity across various social worlds, emerging as Il’enkov suggested out of contradictions, as exceptions from the rule, may be regarded as history-making creative endeavors.


In the next post, I’ll focus more on the methodology of CHAT and link it to a specific project and publication that will be available to download. And if you would like a reference list for the citations in the text above, well ……