Why Cultural-Historical Activity Theory?

CHAT is a complex theory, deeply routed in the tradition of Vygostkian psychology, developed through a belief in the human construction of knowledge.  So why use something so complex to describe learning?  My answer would be because context is everything, and for me CHAT starts and ends with context.  The culture, the history, the current situation and power play of the individual, their relationship to others, all these impact on learning.

All are teachers, all are learners

Image by Denise Krebs CC BY 2.0

Applying CHAT to children learning

In teaching, we see right from early years that the experience of a child has a marked effect on how they approach a day at school – how they sleep, what they eat, who looks after them, what people say to them, what level of security they feel in their home situation, the quality and quantity of their human interactions with adults and peers all make such a difference to whether they arrive in the classroom ready to learn, or whether they need more help to develop their confidence to explore new things.

CHAT aims to give a full picture of this context, a deep understanding of the individual and their interaction with their environment.  Why would you not want to take that into account?  Grounded theory has its place, but it is almost the opposite in its design methodology – imagine you know nothing about this child and build on that, just think about what happens before you and nothing else.  The description and analysis will both be different if you are using a grounded perspective, I think, and to my mind, the grounded analysis will be less rich and less likely to enable you to form the whole picture which is required to explain why even when they are taught the same things, individuals differ widely in their attainment and understanding.

My learning

Indulge me in a personal perspective for a while if you will.  I grew up in a relatively poor area of Sheffield.  I went to ordinary schools including a bog-standard comprehensive.  It had been a grammar school granted, and there were one or two teachers left from then, which allowed me to indulge a passion for history – ancient history – and this took me to Oxford to study classics and ancient history.  I was clever in an ‘analytical’ way – I wanted to question things and debate them – ‘awkward’ is what some would call it.  And I was awkward in another way too – uncoordinated, clumsy, dreadful at all sports, surprisingly poor at spelling and slow at mental arithmetic.  Only when I was learning to drive did I put all this together, and having failed my sixth driving test and been told I’d be OK if there were only long, straight roads, I did some background reading.   I was teaching by then, and dyslexia was just becoming more publicised, and there was just enough info available to help me self-diagnose as dyspraxic.

I didn’t fit a pattern – didn’t reach the right milestones at the right time with regard to gross motor skills,  and something in the hard wiring of my brain was switched off the day I was supposed to internalise ‘left’ and ‘right’.  Whatever age you are supposed to start being able to plan where the ball is going and get your hand or the bat or the racket in the right place to hit it, well I must have been doing something else that day.  I loved reading, which I could do before school because the desire to read books was very strong, and writing, both of which I still love.  I counted myself ‘stupid’ for a long time, my academic successes just the exception that proves the rule, a bit of a fraud in the world of academia, and needing to be careful in case my utter foolishness was suddenly revealed to all.

How others learn

Not fitting a pattern probably resonated with me when I started to do voluntary work, including helping at a MIND playgroup for pre-school children with a variety of developmental differences.  I love children and their eagerness to engage in the world, but I started off working with those who sometimes found the world very challenging and not very inviting.  Helping them to learn to enjoy experiences through play was exceptionally rewarding.  I decided to be a primary school teacher, and then added to the voluntary work going into a primary school to help with reading, as well as an evening class for adults with learning difficulties.  Seeing the spectrum now from what was considered ‘normal’ to those with severe developmental ‘delay’ brought me to theories of child development from an unusual perspective.  Teacher training taught me children were either responding to stimuli, going through a stage which would soon be overtaken by another one, or more complicatedly, responding to their own personal experiences and reaching out for others, learning all sorts of complex things depending on who they played with, what they played with, and how they felt that day.

Behaviourism never appealed to me, but Piaget, well, he looks very attractive at the start.  We all go through phases, it’s easy to mark them out.  But I had come a different route, via children and adults and my own experience where things didn’t just fall into a neat sequence of events.  If some children did things before they were ‘supposed’ to, if others had exceptional skills, or exceptional difficulties, how did stage theory account for that?  Lots of outliers, exceptions to the rule?  Learning difficulties and dyslexia were just being properly researched and publicisied as I began teaching.  I think we now understanding learning as an individual journey much more acutely than we did then.

Teaching and learning

So moving on, time finds me taking my experience of teaching reception and year 1 to FE colleges to help train 16-18 year old who want to be nannies, or nursery nurses, and some adults who want to be classroom assistants.  I’d always welcomed parent helpers in my classroom, they made the atmosphere richer and more playful, and some of them took NVQs and I became their assessor, and I started to get interested in that aspect of training for work.  Another revelation about learning when I got to the first FE college – some of these 16 year old girls (all girls, despite our best efforts to recruit some boys) who had had 10 more years at school than the year 1 class I’d just finished teaching in June, had fewer basic skills than the little ones I’d left behind.  How could that have happened?  Through no fault of their own, somewhere from being one of those keen-to-learn and please little ones, life and school had changed their attitude to learning.  They had, by and large, very little confidence in their own abilities, attitudes fuelled by having tried but failed to achieve qualifications which depended on demonstrating learning that meant very little to them.  Some came to child-care because nothing else enthused them, or because entry criteria were low.  We lost many through the year who went to be shop assistants or work in bars.  The wages were better than they could expect even after they qualified.  Our society pays people doing some of the most important jobs, caring for, influencing and educating the very young (as well as the elderly and sick), so badly, and values what they do so little.  A real national scandal, but that’s another more political story. And then there were the adults, coming back to training after lives and families, many seeking a second-chance at learning themselves.  Life had taken them in different directions, now they brought their experience to bear on a new career.  Both groups taught me loads about learning.

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By SVG from Lumu [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


So what I’m trying to say, in this round-about way, is that I think learning is a big mess.  And I come to that conclusion from a wide and varied and very enjoyable set of experiences where I was set up as the ‘teacher’, the one who was supposed to know more, and to guide the minds before me on a certain path.  My conclusion about learning – the only rules are, there are no rules.  You end up where you are because of who you are, where you started, who said what to you, your brain chemistry, your accidents of birth – place, privilege, politics – every experience of people, school and life contribute to what you learn.  Context is everything.  How you learn today, this minute, is a massively complex logarithm that involves all your experiences and relationships to date, how much sleep you had last night, your aspirations, and whether you had toast or porridge for breakfast.  And all in almost equal measure.  And tomorrow the only guarantee is that it everything will almost certainly be different.  There’s a bit of Buddhist philosophy creeping in here – another of my influences – everything changes, you change, only the moment stays the same.  The ‘learning’ moment is ephemeral too.

This is what I love about activity theory.  It doesn’t set out to describe the world, but to change it.  It looks at that complex picture, and asks what can we do to change or disrupt the journey so that more learning can take place more easily, and more problems can be solved.  Because like the rest of life, learning is a series of problem-solving activities, isn’t it?  All engineering is problem-solving, I was told.  All life is learning.  Will it help to be in a group, to have more resources, to be listened to while you learn, to occasionally suggest that the ‘teacher’ might be the ‘pupil’? Sometimes I read articles and it just seems that the conclusions is that there is no pattern at all, but really the description is the pattern, describing the world accurately is the step before changing it.  And every experience of learning changes you as you learn, so nothing stays the same.  As Wolf-Michael et al (2012) said, quite memorably, ultimately ‘we come back to the inseparability of knowing and being.’

That’s the psychological background.  I’ve hinted at the political too.  I’m a natural Marxist, appalled at unfairness, horrified by rampant capitalism, sure there is a different and a better way to organise society.  But in the absence of any optimism on that score – as I write, Trump is reaching his first fortnight as POTUS and Britain is following behind the race to the right like a Brexit poodle – learning can change things. Enough already.

Next week – expansive learning theory.

2 thoughts on “Why Cultural-Historical Activity Theory?

  1. Alan Richards

    Hi Alison,
    A beautifully written piece that gives a touching perspective as to your personal learning experience. Your PhD proposal is very interesting too: I helped to create the offering for UNIPART and their PGCert. training programme. Please let me know if there is anything I can do to help introduce you to original architects of the collaboration.


    1. admin Post author

      Thanks Alan, it’s great to get the support of colleagues in DMLL. You’ll be able to follow the progress of the study here in successive blogs. Alison

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