Activity theory on schooling

Activity theory is interesting on the topic of schooling.  Although not directly relevant to my study, which will only cover Higher Education, some of the principles must surely apply to all learning, regardless of whether it happens in an educational environment or at work.

Here’s a quick review of interesting things I’ve been reading about schools recently.

An article by Roth (2008) muses on the distinction between the ‘community’ section of the expanded activity triangle and it’s relationship to the ‘community of practice’ concept.  He comes to the conclusion, which can hardly be doubted, that the idea of a classroom as a ‘community of practice’ is problematic, since the community itself is an artificial construct, based usually on age distinctions, which is likely to dissolve at the end of the school year.  Being temporary doesn’t necessarily mean it can’t function as a community, of course, but it might be different from a community of practice in a work context, which may be a much more enduring construct based on professional roles in which there may be some churn in the actual personnel, but in essence may endure through this, at least to the end of a recognised project or piece of work.  Roth sees the benefits of the activity triangle in linking the notion of community to the object – this community can indeed be temporary, lasting only until the realisation of the objective, but it is a linkage which unites the people involved in a common purpose.

Even more controversially,Engeström (2009) discusses the merits of cheating, or rather, the mechanisms involved in preparing to use an aide memoir in a exam situation. His view is that the construction of a good ‘cheat sheet’ – the piece of paper or note to self which reminds you of the top points and headings that you needed to include in that exam essay, or the list of critical formulas you find difficult to memorise, shows more ‘learning’ than committing the facts to memory does.  He notes that one item on a successful cheat sheet can open the flood gates of memory and remind the individual of the linked points required for a good answer. I think we’ve all been in the position where we wish we had had access to that sheet, and have returned home, looked at our revision notes and thought ‘that’s the key word, if only I’d remembered that in the exam!’ Engeström regards the cheat sheet as an example of a double stimulus as well as something that mitigates against the idea of one single way of demonstrating acquired knowledge.

A cheat sheet imag

Of course, this is not to advocate cheating, especially the other pernicious types which involve plagarism or the purchase of essays or coursework, but it does raise interesting issues with exams themselves.  Whether a formal examination assesses more of your ability or more of your memory is a whole different can of worms ….


Engeström, Y., (2009) The Future of Activity Theory: A Rough Draft, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

Roth, W-M., (2008) On Theorizing and Clarifying, Mind, Culture, and Activity, 15, 3, 177-184, Routledge

Image by Hariadhi licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

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