Activity theory as a lens for characterizing the participatory unit
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Handbook of research on educational communications and technology (2004)

Since the cognitive revolution of the sixties, representation has served as the central concept of cognitive theory and representational theories of mind have provided the establishment view in cognitive science (Fodor, 1980; Gardner, 1985; Vera & Simon, 1993). Central to this line of thinking is the belief that knowledge exists solely in the head, and instruction involves finding the most efficient means for facilitating the “acquisition” of this knowledge (Gagne, Briggs, & Wager, 1993). Over the last two decades, however, numerous educational psychologists and instructional designers have begun abandoning cognitive theories that emphasize individual thinkers and their isolated minds. Instead, these researchers have adopted theories that emphasize the social and contextualized nature of cognition and meaning (Brown, Collins, & Duguid, 1989; Greeno, 1989, 1997; Hollan, Hutchins, & Kirsch, 2000; Lave & Wenger, 1991; Resnick, 1987; Salomon, 1993). Central to these reconceptualizations is an emphasis on contextualized activity and ongoing participation as the core units of analysis (Barab & Kirshner, 2001; Barab & Plucker, 2002; Brown & Duguid, 1991; Cook & Yanow, 1993; Gherardi, Nicolini, & Odella, 1998; Henricksson, 2000; Yanow, 2000). Sfard (1998) characterized the current shift in cognitive science and educational theory as a move away from the “acquisition” metaphor towards a “participation” metaphor in which knowledge, reconceived as “knowing about,” is considered a fundamentally situated activity. In spite of the wealth of theoretical contributions in terms of conceptualizing learning as participation, there have been less empirical and methodological contributions to aid researchers attempting to characterize a participatory unit of activity. This reconceptualization of knowledge as a contextualized act, while attractive in theory, becomes problematic when attempting to describe one’s functioning in a particular context. Of core consequence is the question: What is the ontological unit of analysis for characterizing activity?1 Defining the participatory unit is a core challenge facing educators who wish to translate these theoretical conjectures into applied models. In this chapter we describe Activity Theory (Engestr¨om, 1987, 1993, 1999a; Leont’ev, 1974, 1981, 1989) and demonstrate its usefulness as a theoretical and methodological lens for characterizing, analyzing, and designing for the participatory unit. Activity Theory is a psychological and multidisciplinary theory with a naturalistic emphasis that offers a framework for describing activity and provides a set of perspectives on practice that interlink individual and social levels (Engestr¨om, 1987, 1993; Leont’ev, 1974; Nardi, 1996). Although relatively new to Western researchers, Activity Theory has a long tradition as a theoretical perspective in the former Soviet Union (Leont’ev, 1974, 1981, 1989; Vygotsky, 1978, 1987; Wertsch, 1985) and over the last decade has become more accepted in the United States.
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