Edited by Bert van Oers, Wim Wardekker, Ed Elbers, and René van der Veer
Our library got this book a while back, but unfortunately it's in that awful electronic format that you can only read in a full-fledged desktop browser. So I went ahead and bought the Kindle version. It was a good purchase - even though it's a collection (and I usually don't like collections that much), even though it's focused on education (not a research subject that typically appeals to me).
So what's good about it?
For me, the standout essay was Rene van der Veer's "Multiple Readings of Vygotsky." Here, van der Veer cautions us to see the limitations of Vygotsky's work as well as ways to contextualize it with later work. In particular, van der Veer recreates Leont'ev's famous experiment known as the Forbidden Colors Task (performed as part of Leont'ev's dissertation work under Vygotsky's supervision). In this experiment, people of various ages were asked to play a game in which they answered several questions with names of colors. They could use each color name only once, and two colors were forbidden outright. In one round, Leont'ev had them play the game without help; in another, he gave them a set of colored cards. Famously, Leont'ev noted that older children and adults used the cards as mediational means: they tended to flip the cards over to remind them which colors were no longer permitted. Individuals who used cards as mediational means tended to do better at the game.
Although this study has often been cited, van der Veer points out, it apparently has never been replicated. So van der Veer replicated it - and got some surprising findings: "more card use does not correlate with higher performance." Van der Veer draws on much more recent developmental research to demonstrate that, contra Leont'ev's assumptions, children learn to use cultural instruments quite early. The double stimulation method is still valuable, van der Veer tells us, but we must be cautious in interpreting its results.
Harmut Geist's chapter "The Formation Experiment in the Age of Hypermedia and Distance Learning" was similarly valuable. Geist distinguishes between the empiric-analytical paradigm common in the sciences and the causal-genetic method used in activity theory, cautioning us that without an understanding of their differences, we might switch between the two, making a hash of theory and analysis. Why? Geist explains:
Looking at the history of science, we find two different roots and basic ideas in scientific thinking: the idea and concept of evolution sensu Darwin, and the idea and concept of activity sensu Marx. The basic difference between the two ideas concerns the relation between human being and environment: Darwin pointed to "adaptation to the environment" as a basic idea, whereas Marx referred to "the adaptation of the environment." Basic to and pioneering for modern thinking was Darwin's idea that the existing living world was not created according to some plan or organized by an idea existing beforehand but evolved as an effect of the interdependence between environment and living beings. The feature that can explain it all is the ability of living beings to bring themselves more or less actively in line with the environment. The fitting into the environment explains the developmental potential of a living being - the survival of the fittest. This idea was fascinating and explained the evolution from the variety of life up to the development of the human being by self-organization. No ideas or principles or order-organizing rules were needed that come from outside. ... it was now possible to investigate humans using the methods of science.In contrast,
The dialectical analysis of human history, as it was done, for example, by Hegel and particularly by Marx, showed not only that humans adapt to the environment but also that they change it in accordance with their demands (from agriculture, the use of fire, the construction of houses, to the manipulation of genes). Activity is not an active adaptation ot the environment but the transformation of the environment and - in interrelation with it - of humans themselves.Geist locates the difference between constructivism and activity theory here:
Activity in the view of constructivism means the humans' active adaptation to the environment. Simply put: things are such that we cannot change them; therefore we must come to terms with them and adapt to the conditions of nature and society. Activity in the context of activity theory means active adaptation (change due to activity) of the environment to the humans' needs. Or, in simple terms: the environmental conditions are not suitable, so let us change them in order to be able to lead a better life and to cope better with the demands of life.Geist concludes that researchers working in each tradition will necessarily adapt different research programs and methods, then illustrates by comparing a classical experiment with an investigation based on the causal-genetic method.
Other chapters are similarly solid, but these two stood out to me, and I believe they're worth the price of admission. If you're interested in activity theory, and if you have a fairly solid grounding in how it's been deployed developmentally, take a look.