Monday, June 08, 2015

Reading :: Training for Change

Training for change. New approach to instruction and learning in working life
By Yrjo Engestrom

This slim (122pp. without end matter) guidebook was published by the International Labour Office in 1994, seven years after Engestrom's highly theoretical Learning by Expanding. Although Training for Change is certainly different—a practical guidebook for workers rather than a theoretical text for academics—it's certainly rooted in Engestrom's theoretical work in general and activity theory in particular.

As Engestrom says in the introduction, this guidebook is meant for human resources development, personnel training, and other instances in which adults are being trained. Engestrom wants these adults to undergo actual learning: "meaningful construction and creative use of intelligent cognitive tools"; "participation, collaboration, and dialogue in communities of practice"; and "criticism of the given, as well as innovation and creation of new ideas, artifacts and forms of practice" (p.1).

Meaningful learning, Engestrom argues, involves construction: the student must not just receive but construct a picture of the world (p.12). Engestrom illustrates this proposition with the Vygotskian triangle, in which the "Learner" (subject) examines the object, a "problem" or "phenomenon needing explanation," via instruments, "tools of observation and experimentation, books, other people's explanations, etc." (p.12). The basis of productive learning, he says, is internalization, in which "we gradually loosen ourselves from concrete, external means and switch over to performing actions with the help of abstract concepts" (p.13). In fact, high-quality knowledge results from "continuous two-way movement between concrete details and general principles" (p.14).

Engestrom breaks down learning into different types: conditioning, imitation (p.15), trial-and-error (p.16), investigation (p.17), and expansive learning (p.17). The last is, of course, Engestrom's preferred topic: it represents "third-order learning" in which the learner "questions the validity of tasks and problems posed by the context and begins to transform the context itself" (p.17).

Investigative learning involves exposing contradictions to create a context of criticism (p.24). As in Learning by Expanding, Engestrom here draws on Davydov to describe an integral learning process with moments of motivation, orientation, internalization, externalization, critique, and control (pp.32-33). "An integral learning process also leads back to reality and practice, at a new level," Engestrom adds, neatly explaining the dialectical spiral of learning (p.34). Engestrom also maps Davydov's learning cycle onto the Vygotskian triangle, showing how the steps of the process entail movements among the triangle's elements (here, S=Subject, O=Object, T=Tools):

  1. motivation: S->O
  2. orientation: O->T
  3. internalization: T->S
  4. externalization: S->O
  5. critique: O->T
  6. control: T->S (p.35)
He adds that although this learning may take place within institutions, "communities of investigative learning can be built both in workplaces and in institutionally organized training courses. These communities of investigative learning are typically networks that cross and transcend boundaries between workplaces and training institutions. Such transitional communities rely on a high degree of lateral interaction and communication between relatively autonomous teams" (p.36). 

Engestrom also addresses three types of collaboration: coordination, cooperation, and communication (pp.40-41). This is the same typology he has used elsewhere; n.b., he uses the terms differently from how I use them in my latest book All Edge.

Also on p.41, Engestrom expands the triangle to include learning community, rules, and division of labor. On p.44, he describes a collective zone of proximal development, again demonstrating the expansion of Vygotsky's basic ideas for collective activity. 

Let's stop here. What is really striking about this book is that it beautifully and concisely describes third-generation activity theory in a simple, well illustrated way that can be easily followed by its target audience (in human resources development and personnel training) as well as casual readers. If you're interested in the fundamentals of 3GAT as a learning theory, but you are not sure where to start, this slim guidebook may fit the bill. 

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