CHAT blog 2: Understanding CHAT as a methodological project

CHAT is, at its core, as with the psychology of Vygotsky that underpins it, a methodological project; it is about seeing the world and acting on it in specific ways. For Vygotsky, this meant challenging the scientistic and even inhumane version of psychology that prevailed at the time of his writing. Simultaneously, he was (perhaps unsurprisingly given the political culture at that time) committed to a socialist ideal of progress – a modernist commitment to development through ‘properly’ scientific means. The tradition of activity-theoretical work that has grown up around intervention research has continued this commitment to progress and, indeed, the commitment to theory – specifically the potential power of theory to move people and practices on.

In a recent article on teacher rounds I co-wrote with Gower, Frederick and Childs, we explored the CHAT tradition of formative intervention in connection with the rounds idea and addressed three methodological issues about all types of formative intervention:

What is the role of theory?

What is the relationship between the individual and the collective when developing practice (which is, by definition, collective)?

What is the meaning of collaboration in this type of intervention focused on the development of practice?

For me, those are the key questions to ask of the formative intervention approach that has become known as Developmental Work Research (DWR). DWR certainly has a strong faith in the power of theoretical mediation to bring about change; it brings individuals together to work on a shared practice for which they may not have the same engaging motive; there is an assumption that their deliberations in collaborating will be rational and evidence-based. They may be. But these assumptions do lead to questions that are essential to ask.

Cultural-Historical Perspectives on Teacher Education and Development

Cultural-Historical Perspectives on Teacher Education and Development

In the section below, I provide an extract from my chapter in Cultural-Historical Perspectives on Teacher Education and Development: Learning Teaching, a book I edited a few years ago with Peter Smagorinsky and Anne Edwards. In my chapter, I focused on the methodological side of the Vygotskian project and the DWR approach to intervention research with particular reference to teacher education. Specifically, I focus on what Vygotsky called (usually, according to one translation) the ‘double stimulation strategy’ – basically an approach to research where a problem is set for research participants to work on and you also give them tools to work on it and observe how they do. Double stimulation – the problem and the tools. Now stop giggling.

If you would like to cite this extract, please refer to:

Ellis, V. (2010) ‘Studying the Process of Change: The Double Stimulation Strategy in Research on Teacher Learning’, in Ellis, V., Edwards, A. & Smagorinsky, P. eds. Cultural Historical Perspectives on Teacher Education and Development: Learning Teaching, London & New York: Routledge.


The methodological foundations of the CHAT formative intervention approach (an extract from Cultural Historical Perspectives on Teacher Education and Development)

This chapter focuses on one of Vygotsky’s key methodological concepts: the double stimulation strategy (Vygotsky 1978, 1987, 1999), a radical re-conceptualization of the behaviourist experimental method that makes the unit of analysis the process or activity of engaging with a task rather than merely the outcome or product. In such a re-conceptualization, the researcher’s analytic gaze is directed at the mediation of the subject’s or participant’s activity by physical or psychological tools (see Cole 1996 for what he refers to as Vygotsky’s ‘basic mediational triangle’). For Vygotsky, the psychological tool of principal interest was speech, principally spoken but also written (Vygotsky 1986), although his work is characterised by attention at different times to social as well as semiotic mediation and the associated concept of the ‘zone of proximal development’ (Moll 1990, Vygotsky 1978). Moreover, this re-conceptualization challenges the researcher to see psychological processes as historical and dynamic, ‘undergoing changes right before one’s eyes’ (Vygotsky 1978: 61) and, further still, capable of being provoked by the researcher.

In illustrating the significance of this methodological concept in researching teacher education and development, I will refer to two examples of my own work: first, a study of beginning English teachers’ concept formation and conceptual development (Ellis 2007a, 2007b); and second, a formative intervention into the organizational learning of a school-university teacher education partnership (Ellis 2008, 2007c). The argument of the chapter is that the double stimulation strategy is useful and productive in conceptualizing and designing research into teacher learning that seeks to explain its complexity and to trace the history of its development. The two illustrations will also reflect the different emphases and shifts in Vygotsky’s work from semiotic to social processes of mediation and the potential of the research method itself to stimulate positive change.


In Vygotsky’s texts, the double stimulation strategy (Vygotsky 1978) is variously referred to as ‘the functional method of dual stimulation’ (e.g. Vygotsky 1987), ‘the instrumental method’ (e.g. Vygotsky 1978, 1999) and by other formulations (see Engeström 2007: 364). For consistency’s sake, I will use the phrase ‘double stimulation strategy’ throughout this chapter to represent the way in which researchers give their research participants a means of working on a problem or engaging in a task. The task or problem Vygotsky referred to as the ‘stimulus-end’ (1978) and the potentially problem-solving tools donated as the ‘stimulus-means’. In his own experiments, he used the double stimulation strategy to reveal the ways in which children 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 the aid of specific auxiliary means: thus we are able to discover the inner structure and development of higher mental processes (Vygotsky 1978: 74).

The ways in which the research subjects use the ‘second-series of stimuli’ or ‘auxiliary means’ to work on the object or problem-space – the ‘first’ stimuli or stimulus-end – revealed for Vygotsky the subjects’ ‘higher mental functions’ (Vygotsky 1987, 1997), how they construct and reconstruct the object of activity and the culturally and historically mediating function of the stimulus-means. The researcher’s interest is in how they use the donated tools, the sense they make of them, the ways in which their activity is shaped by the tool-use and, potentially, the ways in which subjects re-shape the meaning of the tools – all of which is studied in relation to how the subjects perceive and are motivated by the object. An example relevant to the study of teacher learning might be a researcher’s introduction of an unfamiliar lesson-planning template as a ‘second series of stimuli’ into the planning processes of teachers in order to reveal how they understand the concept of curriculum or the materiality of the students they are teaching.

Vygotsky distinguished between degrees of ‘ready-made’-ness in stimulus-means and explained the distinction thus:

we do not necessarily have to present to the subject a prepared external means with which we might solve the proposed problem . . . . In not giving the child a ready symbol, we could trace the way all the essential mechanisms of the complex symbolic activity of the child develop during the spontaneous expanding of the devices he used.’ (Vygotsky 1999: 60)

In other words, Vygotsky left open the possibility, taken up by Wertsch in his distinction between explicit and implicit mediation (Wertsch 2007), that less prepared or ‘ready-made’ means might be particularly effective in enabling the researcher to trace ‘complex symbolic activity’ by opening up more space for subjects’ agency and providing greater opportunities for engaging in difficult but generative problem-solving activities.


… Engeström describes DWR as an explicit application of Vygotsky’s double stimulation strategy where the stimulus-means of the conceptual tools of activity theory are donated to participants in order to help them work on a problem of practice (Engeström 2007).

The claims for DWR as a formative methodology are that it enables participants to do more than simply work on improving their own performance through action research methods or through participation in a researcher-led design experiment (ibid). DWR claims to develop understanding among participants of how their existing practices and discourses have been shaped culturally and historically so that they might be worked on and developed at the level of the social system. This critical understanding, it is claimed, is stimulated by the power of the conceptual tools of activity theory (represented by the triangular image of the activity system) in helping participants analyse how the object of their collective activity is constructed, how rules and a division of labour have emerged historically within a community of practitioners, and how cultural tools are appropriated by members of that community – and how these might be changed for the better. Engeström has recently written for the first time at length about the methodology of DWR and readers are encouraged to turn to his authoritative account for detailed procedures (ibid: 370 – 382).


Again, if you would like the references to the works cited in this extract, the book is available from your library (through inter-library loan, perhaps) or from your friendly, local bookseller.