Originally posted: Thu, 31 Mar 2005 21:38:37
In this collection, participants tackle the question of how learning is transferred from one activity to another -- specifically, from vocational education and training to the job and back again. This is familiar ground for Engestrom, who has long been involved with developmental work and who has consistently deployed activity theory to do so. Like Engestrom, many (but not all) of the authors use an activity theoretical orientation to frame their inquiries.
It's also ground in which I am becoming more interested, since I see this to be an increasingly important topic of study. Increasing work fragmentation and interconnections among different vocations, decreasing job security and stability, and increasing base levels of education mean that we're looking at "lifelong learning" (continual deskilling and reskilling) in the near and medium term, at least. I'm going to be examining my Telecorp data in these terms soon. So we (and, practically speaking, I) need to know how workers move into different vocations, bring in old skills and models, and learn new ones. And we need to figure out how innovations, destabilizations, and solutions are generated as a result of these boundary-crossings.
Here, I'll discuss several of the essays, particularly in terms of what they can tell us about the theory and practice of vocational learning, and more specifically what they tell us about activity networks.
"From Transfer to Boundary-crossing Between School and Work as a Tool for Developing Vocational Education: An Introduction," by Terttu Tuomi-Grohn, Yrjo Engestrom, and Michael Young
In this opening chapter, the authors overview and make the case for the collection. "In a changing world," they say, "there are new demands for expertise." But
dominant approaches to cognition share a narrow and "vertical" view of expertise in which some have more knowledge than others. Characteristically they distinguish between "stages" or "levels" of knowledge and skill. Such a vertical image assumes a uniform, singular model of what counts as an "expert" in any given field. (p.3)
In contrast, the authors argue for a more "multi-dimensional" (really, two-dimensional) understanding of expertise. They add a "horizontal" dimension:
experts are viewed as operating in, and move between, multiple parallel activity contexts. These multiple contexts demand and afford different, complementary but also conflicting cognitive tools, rules, and patterns of social interaction. Criteria of expert knowledge and skill are different in the various contexts. Experts face the challenge of negotiating and combining ingredients from different contexts to achieve hybrid solutions. The vertical master-novice relationship, and with it in some cases the professional monopoly on expertise, is problematized as demands for more dialogical problem solving increase. (p.3)
Those who have been following the development of activity theory will notice (a) the easy move into "parallel activity contexts," i.e., activity systems with their own internal rules and expectations as well as external relations with other activity systems; (b) the similarly easy reference to dialogism, which is perhaps more problematic than the authors let on, since Bakhtinian dialogism has a very different orientation from the dialectical materialism that shaped activity theory.
In any case, the authors then point out that this new understanding of expertise includes polyvocality (an increasing tendency for experts to be involved in multiple communities of practice) and boundary-crossing (moving and negotiating between these communities of practice) (p.3). To understand these, the authors urge us to take as our unit of analysis not the individual, but the collective activity system. The developmental transfer between activity systems thus becomes a focus of the collection (p.4).
"Conceptualizing Transfer: From Standard Notions to Developmental Perspectives" by Terttu Tuomi-Grohn and Yrjo Engestrom
In Chapter 2, Tuomi-Grohn and Engestrom pick up these themes by comparing various theories of transfer. I'll skip the other theories and get to the activity-theoretical view that the authors themselves espouse.
The authors review Davydov's contributions to activity theory in the USSR and report that "Paradoxically, in spite of the theoretical intent, collective activity systems did not become units of empirical analysis and experimentation during the Soviet regime" (p.30). (They don't mention what seems to be the obvious explanation to me, which is that it's not in a totalitarian regime's interest to encourage such explorations.) But they find enough to build on in Davydov's dialectical model of learning (pp.30-31). They contrast it with their own expansive learning model, seeing three main differences:
- The learning task is not given. In work settings, problem-solving and learning take place when someone questions received wisdom (p.32).
- The means of modeling has a dual character: (a) "practicioners model the past and present contradictions in their activity system in order to understand where the causes of trouble lie and on which aspects of the activity they shall focus their change efforts"; (b) "practicioners also model a future vision of their activity, in which they depict expansive solutions to the contradictions" (p.32).
- Ascending to the concrete: "implementation of the new model in practice and consolidation/proliferation of the new practice" (p.32).
The discussion inevitably turns to the question of heterogeneous networks and knotworking that Engestrom and his collaborators have explored elsewhere -- and this process of knotworking, of pulling together, elucidating, and negotiating, is termed "the practical essence of developmental transfer" (p.33).
"Transfer and Transition in Vocational Education: Some Theoretical Considerations" by David Guile and Michael Young
These authors overview some concepts in the literature, such as the difference between craft apprenticeship and technician apprenticeship models (p.67) and distinctions among different types of knowledge (tacit and simulated; situated and codified; corporate, disciplinary, and pedagogic) (p.69). Perhaps more importantly, they elaborate on the difference between vertical and horizontal development, describing vertical development as apprehending concepts at greater degrees of abstraction and horizontal development as apprehending concepts across the borders of various activity systems, and they neatly summarize Engestrom's work in this regard (p.70). Intriguingly, they later criticize "'post-modernist' interpreters of activity theory" for reducing knowledge to communities of knowers (p.75).
Guile and Young also criticize Engestrom's Learning by Expanding model, which they appreciate but criticize for not making clear how learners draw from codified knowledge.
"Exploration of an Industrial Enterprise as a Method of Boundary-Crossing in Vocational Education" by Barbel Furstenau
Let's skip past Furstneau's main argument and look at how this author handles the question of boundary-crossing. According to Furstenau, boundary-crossing involves the interaction of activity systems. Furstenau draws on Wenger (whose book I'll have to reread soon) to categorize forms of boundary-sharing as reifications, participation, and combinations of the two.
Reifications include boundary objects, which can be artifacts (cf. Star) and "internalized cognitive artifacts, like shared mental models" (cf. Engestrom et al 1995). "Boundary objects can be interpreted as mediating artifacts," ones that maintain a common identity across sites (activities) while being plastic enough to adapt to local constraints (p.90).
Participation can take the form of brokering, in which "people use their common membership in various activity systems to coordinate perspectives, to transfer ideas or to introduce elements of one practice into another" (pp.90-91, and here Furstenau cites Wegner again).
Combinations include "boundary encounters, such as meetings, conversations and visits" (p.91).
"Developing Competence During Practice Periods: The Learner's Perspective" by Johan van der Sanden and Christa Teurlings
I'm just going to pull out one gem from this one:
Most of the novice railway guards we interviewed were of the opinion that learning on-the-job (i.e. on the train) was by far more effective than learning off-the-job. This position is illustrated by the following statement of one of the participants: "During the course you are told by the trainer what to do on the train; being on-the-job, however, my coach asked me to quickly forget what was instructed." (p.126)
"Boundary-crossing in the Context of Intercultural Learning" by Susanne Weber
Although I'm not particularly interrested in intercultural learning, what caught my attention here was Weber's portrayal of it as the development of activity systems. On the last page, Weber portrays cultures as activity systems whose objects are boundary objects that are collaboratively negotiated to form an "emerging 'activity system' or new 'INTER-CULTURE'" (p.171). Two activity systems negotiate to form a third. To put it mildly, however, there seem to be considerable difficulties in portraying an entire culture as an activity, and several more in portraying interculture as a third, emergent activity. In fact, what bothers me about activity theory these days is that it lends itself to drawing exactly these sorts of boundaries, and when we draw those triangles we tend to assume internal integrity and unity in the activities. It's not just that things are more complicated than the simple diagram Weber presents -- it's that the diagram and the theory underneath it tend to expect a dialectical unity on which we can rely, rather than a dialogical set of overlapping and interconnecting relationships. That is, there seems to be no place for multiplicity.
"Developmental Transfer as a Goal of Internship in Practical Nursing" by Terttu Tuomi-Grohn
This was one of the most useful chapters to me, although the empirical case was not well presented or organized. Tuomi-Grohn is eager to explore the phenomenon of horizontal learning, claiming that "significant learning processes are achieved by collective activities" and "meaningful transfer takes place between collective activity systems" (p.200). In this view, novel solutions come from the expertise of the overlapping activities, in a multifaceted and multidirectional fashion. Tuomi-Grohn doesn't use the term dialectic here. "In the case of developmental transfer," Tuomi-Grohn adds, "the ZPD" (Zone of Proximal Development) "is expanded to encompass the collaboration of different activity systems" (p.200). Again, activity networks are developmental first and foremost.
Then we get to an exploration and recontextualization of knotworking. "In developmental projects, collaborative teams of students, practitioners and teachers will have to develop knowledge and skills (cognitive tools) that meet the challenges of the projects. This is done by constructing and combining heterogeneous networks and 'knots' of expertise" (p.202, with a cite to Engestrom, Engestrom, and Vahaaho 1999). In such situations, expertise is not primarily manifested in tools; problems are new rather than codifiable and repeatable. This leads to a productive discussion of Star's boundary objects as "a useful tool to analyze the creation of new concepts and practices needed in the creation of horizontal expertise" and of Wegner's boundary practice as cooperation among activity systems (p.203). This leads to a discussion of boundary-crossers as "people who move from one activity system to another and work in two or more activity systems simultaneously, sharing the boundary object and the work based on it with some partners in the other activity system" (p.203).
Unfortunately, in the empirical case, Tuomi-Grohn draws on the notion of network without defining it well or relating it solidly to the work described above. The notion of networks becomes very thin here, though Tuomi-Grohn does point out that "creating networks refers either to seeking knowledge and help, or disseminating knowledge outside the collaborative team" (p.211). Later, Tuomi-Grohn supplies diagrams of networks whose nodes are named after roles but appear to represent activity systems in which those roles are the subjects (p.225). In any case, these network diagrams do not appear to be the sequenced flowcharts that have been used to represent activity networks in others' work.
"Promoting Developmental Transfer in Vocational Teacher Education" by Pirjo Lambert
Lambert, on the other hand, does chain activity systems sequentially and call them a network (p.236). He cites Engestrom, Engestrom, and Karkkainen (whose article I'll have to read) in claiming that "boundry-crossing is linked with the creation of new kinds of task combinations, collaborative connections and dialogical expertise that are breaking down boundaries between professions and disciplines" (p.239). He also cites Engestrom as saying that activity theory is dialectical and developmental (p.240) -- a nice summary and a cite that I'll need to draw on for a related argument I'm trying to make elsewhere. As readers of this blog know, I'm skeptical that dialectics and dialogism can be resolved, but Engestrom has attempted to do just that, without grappling with the theoretical difficulties as far as I can tell; on p.241 Lambert points to a cite in which Engestrom brings dialogism into the fold.
"Workplace Learning across Activity Systems: A Case Study of Sales Engineers" by Sten R. Ludvigsen, Anton Havnes, and Leif Chr. Lahn
This last chapter was in many ways the most valuable for me because it tackles the question of boundary-crossing in ways directly applicable to my own workplace studies. The authors begin by talking about
a process of "customerization" where the added value of products is found in shaping a new context of use. A recent example is the way telecommunication companies promote mobile telephones by combining technical solutions, design, life style, marketing innovations, etc. Thus technical products could be seen as sociotechnical products, and consequently the basic skills of engineers and technicians have been extended to include social competence." (p.291)
In the ensuing case study of sales engineers, the authors argue that salespersons do not simply learn as individuals how to cross contexts and communities of practice. They also mediate their work heavily with cultural tools, particularly boundary objects that "bridge the gap between different areas of practice and support mutual understanding and learning between salespersons and customers" (p.292). This is a challenge because "one characteristic of modern society is that knowledge is highly specialized. In the production of different goods and services, agents often have to adjust to different contexts and communicate across various specialized fields of knowledge. Communicating with people from other domains (with their specialized language) is crucial" (p.292). So "the transfer of knowledge that takes place across contexts and domains is characterized by simultaneousness rather than by temporal development" (p.292) -- that is, horizontally, not just vertically.
The authors draw on concepts discussed elsewhere in this review -- boundary-crossing, boundary objects and polycontextuality -- to examine the case. And in their conclusion, they emphasize that this boundary-crossing work involves negotiating the conflicting goals of different activity systems: "The sales engineers from Norex do not consider themselves as members of the project organization responsible for constructional design, but they try to make alliances with nodes in the network" (p.307). Of course they do. But of these alliances, and the political-rhetorical actions that sustain them, activity theorists tend to say little. What I want to see is a principled discussion of polycontextuality that brings to the forefront the issues of dialogism, multiplicity, and alliances that I've touched on in this review, one that examines the question of whether activity theory's developmental perspective allows us to explore political-rhetorical alliances in a thoroughgoing manner. >
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