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CHAT workshop for Emerging ICT in HE research

Last week I attended a short workshop on Cultural Historical Activity Theory (given by Joanne Hardman) as part of an NRF-funded research project on the use of emerging ICTs in Higher Education. Here are my notes from the session (this was all very new to me and I probably got a few things wrong. Feel free to point out any problems with what I’ve written):
CHAT has no theoretical framework, and is partly a method and partly theoretical
There are 3 different approaches to AT, going through Vygotsky, Leont’ev, Engstrom
Rote learning is appropriate in some instances for e.g. learning terminology. “Good” or “bad” is dependent on the objective of the teaching and learning activity. Rote learning is not appropriate to develop conceptual understanding.
Will the introduction of innovative technology in the classroom lead to changes in T&L practice?
How do people learn? Learning = cognitive change
Learning new technical skills doesn’t lead to cognitive change
Piaget = learning happens when we add to what we already know
Lev Vygotsky (1896 – 1934)
“Authentic learning situation” = real life examples that students are familiar with using their own lived experiences
“It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being but, on the the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness” – Marx (1859). At the time, learning was about the individual.
Learning and conceptual knowledge comes from interaction with others
If students are performing poorly, we may need to look at our social interactions with them.
Lower cognitive functions are things you’re born with i.e. we share these with animals e.g. perception, memory
Higher cognitive functions are unique to humans i.e. they need to be taught, you can’t learn them on your own e.g. selective attention, logical memory
Vogystky’s theory is an instructional theory.
“Structured process of mediation by a culturally more advanced peer” → you have to be taught, you can’t learn it on your own i.e. it must be mediated
What do people do with technology to effect change? This must happen through mediation. Instruction in and of itself doesn’t automatically lead to learning. So even if technological change is leading to innovative practice, without mediation, learning doesn’t actually happen.
Mediation requires an other.
Imitation is the first action towards developing mediation
General genetic law = every function in a child’s development appears twice. First on the social level, and later on the individual level. First between people (interpsychological), and then inside the child (intrapsychological). This applies equally to voluntary attention, logical memory, and the formulation of concepts. All the higher functions originate as actual relations between human individuals.
If students are not learning in your class, it’s a function of their social self, not their cognitive self.
Mind in society, not mind and society (“Mind in society” – Vygotsky)
The general genetic law → ZPD (the extent of what someone is currently able to do or think), the potential to learn with assistance (“the space that opens up in social interaction that leads to cognitive change”). ZPD = potential to learn with guided assistance.
In the classroom, consider staggering activities / tasks that open up different ZPD’s i.e. expect different things from / provide different inputs to students who are at different levels (requires sensitivity to where they’re at)
ZPD = the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers…the actual developmental level characterises mental development retrospectively, while the ZPD characterises mental development prospectively (Vygotsky, 1978)
ZPD = responsive pedagogy
“Instruction is only useful when it moves ahead of development”
Conceptualising working in the ZPD (Langer & Applebee, 1986):
  • Ownership – of the activity
  • Appropriateness – to the students current knowledge
  • Structure – embodying a “natural” sequence of thought and action
  • Collaboration – between teacher and student
  • Internalisation – via gradual withdrawal of the scaffolding and transfer of control
Mediation in the classroom, through:
  • modeling
  • guiding
  • questioning
  • helping
  • structuring
  • recruiting attention
  • prompting
Mediation is about providing tools to help someone get to the answer. It’s not about giving the answers.
Alexei Leont’ev
Vygotsky focused on how signs and symbols (i.e. semiotics → language and writing) led to cognitive change. This has problems in an illiterate society. This had issues in Stalin’s Russia, as many of the population were illiterate. So Leont’ev focused on activity to mediate cognitive development.
“Without a theoretical conception of the social world one cannot analyse activity”
Leont’ev differentiated between collective activity and individual action e.g. hunting is a collective activity made up of individual actions. You need to study the activity, and not the actions, as the actions provide only a very narrow view of the whole.
Individual students are part of many activity systems.
Leont’ev’s activity theory (second generation):
  • Operations – fossilised and automatic e.g. typing
  • Actions – individual
  • Activity – communal, motivator, need-state i.e. requires a motive (“what is the need-state that drives the activity?”)


The structure of human activity (1987), triangle = a heuristic diagram for representing a method, → reason that this is a method, rather than a theory (the theory is Vygotsky)
  • Division of labor – different roles e.g. we operationalise behaviour by assigning roles. This is also about power
  • Community – shares an object e.g. the object of this workshop is “understanding of AT”
  • Rules – are horizontal and vertical (like power). Instructional: “put up your hand if you want to ask a question”. Disciplinary: “no talking when I’m talking”
  • Object – the thing we have in common e.g. our understanding of AT. Activity systems are defined by the object
  • Subject – the thing / group that is being studied / analysed in an activity system (we are the subjects in this workshop)
  • Tools
If you want to study change in an activity system, you have to first identify the contradictions / tensions / conflicts / breakdowns:
  • Primary – within each node of a system
  • Secondary – between nodes in one system
  • Tertiary – between activity systems, when role-players outside the system impacts on those within the system e.g. how will students be affected by external activity systems during our study?
  • Quaternary – exists between nodes in activity systems
No activity system operates in isolation.
There is no defined analytical framework for studying an activity.
Change laboratory is the method for expansive learning (Engestrom). The following process could be used in our case studies. Very similar to Action Research, but with a strong underlying theory, which AR sometimes lacks.
  • What is the primary contradiction need-state for our question? Questioning.
  • Secondary contradictions double bind (historical analysis, actual empirical analysis). Why is the need there?
  • Model the new solution
  • Examine the new model
  • Implement the new model (tertiary contradiction resistance e.g. pushback from others)
  • Reflect on the process (quaternary contradictions re-alignment with neighbours)
  • Consolidate the new practice
Providing anonymity is one way to empower students to participate, especially shy, marginalised and disempowered learners.
Change laboratory: an intervention method that involves sustained efforts to analyse and transform social practice. It comprises a series of workgroup meetings to reflect on current practices and envision future activities. Essential aspects of change laboratories are:
  • Using videotaped practices as a “mirror” for assessing current activity
  • Generating ideas and tools e.g. charts, that help to assess past, present and future activity
  • Modeling present practices by using activity-system analysis
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education learning students teaching

Posted to Diigo 12/10/2010

    • The zone of proximal development is the area between what an individual can achieve on their own and what they can achieve with assistance
    • A student should constantly be reaching slightly beyond their capabilities rather than working within them
    • students should lead their learning and teachers simply assist and rather than judging students on what they know in standardised tests, learning should be done through looking closely at their zone of proximal development
    • If informal learning is as important as formal learning, then varying the way students are assessed can only work in their favour
    • Relevant, meaningful activities that both engage students emotionally and connect with what they already know are what help build neural connections and long-term memory storage
    • it’s necessary for learners to attach a new piece of information to an old one
    • If a student acquires new information that’s unrelated to anything already stored in his brain, it’s tough for the new information to get into those networks because it has no scaffolding to cling to
    • a solid amount of research also links personal relevance and emotional engagement to memory storage
    • “the learner’s emotional reaction to the outcome of his efforts … shapes his future behavior,”
    • if [a student] doesn’t believe a particular activity is interesting, relevant, or within the scope of his capabilities, it’s probably not going to sink in
    • too much emotion can be as detrimental to learning as too little: distractions and stress can also block receptivity to new ideas
    • Make it student directed. Give students a choice of assignments on a particular topic, or ask them to design one of their own. “When students are involved in designing the lesson, they better understand the goal…and become more emotionally invested in and attached to the learning outcomes.”
    • Connect it to their lives and what they already know. Taking the time to brainstorm about what students already know and would like to learn about a topic helps them to create goals — and helps teachers see the best points of departure for new ideas. Making cross-curricular connections also helps solidify those neural loops
    • With no reference point and no intrigue, information is fairly likely to go in one ear and straight out the other
    • Happy learners are healthy learners, if students do not feel comfortable in a classroom setting, they will not learn. Physiologically speaking, stressed brains are not able to form the necessary neural connections
    • The amygdala, for instance, processes emotions, stores the memories of emotional reactions, and reacts so aggressively to stress that it will physically prevent information from reaching the centers of the brain necessary for absorbing new knowledge
    • Even feelings like embarrassment, boredom, or frustration — not only fear — can spur the brain to enter the proverbial “fight or flight” mode
    • The amygdala goes into overdrive and gets in the way of the parts of the brain that can store memories
    • it makes sense — on many levels — to cultivate the learning atmosphere as much as the learning itself. “Reducing stress and establishing a positive emotional climate in the classroom is arguably the most essential component of teaching,”
    • Make the classroom stress free. Lighten the mood by making jokes and spurring curiosity; create a welcoming and consistent environment; give students frequent opportunities to ask questions and engage in discussions without judgment; and determine achievable challenges for each learner
    • Encourage participation, not perfection. A classroom in which mistakes are encouraged is a positive learning environment, both neurologically and socially speaking
    • “Students will allow themselves to experience failure only if they can do so within an atmosphere of trust and respect.”
    • This kind of positive reinforcement from the get-go allows students to let their guard down (known in neuro-speak as calming their “affective filters”). Listening to students in general, and listening to their intentions in particular, can help relax anxious brains.
    • Practice active listening. “Focus on what students are trying to say
    • Intelligence is not fixed, it turns out, nor planted firmly in our brains from birth. Rather, it’s forming and developing throughout our lives
    • neuroplasticity is defined as the selective organizing of connections between neurons in our brains
    • neuroplasticity is defined as the selective organizing of connections between neurons in our brain
    • “cells that fire together, wire together”
    • “Practice makes permanent. The more times the network is stimulated, the stronger and more efficient it becomes.”
    • both morale and grade points increase when students understand the idea that intelligence is malleable
    • Practice, practice, practice. Repeating an activity, retrieving a memory, and reviewing material in a variety of ways helps build thicker, stronger, more hard-wired connections in the brain
    • Put information in context. Recognizing that learning is, essentially, the formation of new or stronger neural connections, it makes sense to prioritize activities that help students tap into already-existing pathways
    • “Whenever new material is presented in such a way that students see relationships between concepts, they generate greater brain cell activity and achieve more successful long-term memory storage and retrieval.”
    • Let students know that this is how the brain works. “Especially for students who believe they are ‘not smart,’ the realization that they can literally change their brains through study and review is empowering.”
diigo learning research teaching

Posted to Diigo 06/18/2010

    • Salmon’s model moves away from the increasingly dated notion that the effective eLearning can be achieved through static learning objects (Downes 2005), and takes a social learning perspective with particular emphasis on communities of practice, providing a framework to support Wenger’s assertion that “learning cannot be designed: it can only be designed for – that is, facilitated or frustrated” (1998, p. 228).
    • Salmon’s model is also reliant upon scaffolding, extending Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development (in Attwell 2006) proposition with the model’s structure implying that the moderator acts as an initial scaffold who gradually shifts responsibility for development to the learning community under their guidance, with learners developing their own scaffolding based on relationships with many within the community, and eventually, beyond the community.
    • Lead by Example
    • It is an essential part of our jobs to model what we would like to see
    • Get Personal
    • Be willing to share of yourself. Share your stories and your life
    • be willing to be open
    • Be Honest
    • you need to be willing to share your thoughts and opinions about things
    • Accept that You’re Human
    • Learn for mistakes and move on
    • Be Knowledgeable and Share
    • Share of yourself and of your passions. Make your presence in a space one that has personality and share what you have
    • Share the things you find online
    • Maintain Consistency
    • Maintaining consistency will allow your students to be comfortable in your space, understanding what happens there and able to concentrate on what they are being asked to do
    • Let it Go
    • Be prepared to see cycles between students and even within the contributions of single students
    • Don’t Give Up
    • How can we change what we are asking them to do in order for them to grow into their roles
    • “My job is to present the material in an interesting and meaningful way,” he would say. “It is the student’s job to learn that material.”

      Implicit in his statement was the idea that it was the student’s role to adjust to the various styles employed by different teachers. Whether the teacher featured a lecture format or a hands-on approach was immaterial – the assumption was that students were the ones who needed to be flexible

    • any failure on the student’s part to master the material was not the responsibility of the teacher
    • students moved along as a group, each doing the same set of assignments, each expected to master the exact same set of learning objectives by a date set forth in the syllabus
    • differentiating for a specific learner was perceived as showing favoritism
    • today’s teacher is expected to adjust to the varied preferences of students so as to maximize the learning potential of each individual in the classroom
    • Personalizing learning involves differentiating the curricula, including expectations and timelines, and utilizing various instructional approaches so as to best meet the needs of each individual
    • The challenge is not so much what those elements consist of but how to piece the elements together to form a cohesive strategy
    • But technology also plays a more important role in the personalization process. Ultimately it is the conduit for teachers to move to a learning approach that features materials developed for each individual student
    • One of the critical elements to a cohesive strategy involves the concept of a learning platform
    • First teachers must have a clear understanding of the learning needs of each student
    • teachers must monitor and assess student progress intently
    • Learning paths must then be created that match the aptitude and learning styles of every individual
    • One of the first elements is increased communication among educators themselves as well as with their individual students
    • That means increased use of email
    • Better yet, it means posting that assignment online for students and parents to access directly
    • No one educator could possibly create unique learning materials for every single student
    • An expectation that all teachers are ready for such steps is destined for failure
    • Whereas in Africa limited infrastructure is producing an information bottleneck, access in the UK is restricted by ‘denial of service’ restrictions placed upon a competent and fast modern system
    • how do we go about managing the risks more effectively to allow NHS staff to access online learning resources and tools which many of us take for granted
    • what processes people perceived as important for knowledge maturing within their organisation and how ell they though these processes were important. The two processes perceived as most important were ‘reflection’ and ‘building relationships’ between people. These were also the two processes seen as amongst the least supported
    • The issue of ‘reflection’ is more complex. e-Portfolio researchers have always emphasised the centrality of reflection to learning, yet it is hard to see concrete examples of how this can be supported
    • the amount of redundant, inconsequential, and outright poor research has swelled in recent decades
    • 40.6 percent of the articles published in the top science and social-science journals (the figures do not include the humanities) were cited in the period 2002 to 2006
    • As a result, instead of contributing to knowledge in various disciplines, the increasing number of low-cited publications only adds to the bulk of words and numbers to be reviewed
    • The avalanche of ignored research has a profoundly damaging effect on the enterprise as a whole. Not only does the uncited work itself require years of field and library or laboratory research. It also requires colleagues to read it and provide feedback, as well as reviewers to evaluate it formally for publication. Then, once it is published, it joins the multitudes of other, related publications that researchers must read and evaluate for relevance to their own work. Reviewer time and energy requirements multiply by the year
    • The pace of publication accelerates, encouraging projects that don’t require extensive, time-consuming inquiry and evidence gathering
    • Questionable work finds its way more easily through the review process and enters into the domain of knowledge
    • Aspiring researchers are turned into publish-or-perish entrepreneurs, often becoming more or less cynical about the higher ideals of the pursuit of knowledge
    • The surest guarantee of integrity, peer review, falls under a debilitating crush of findings, for peer review can handle only so much material without breaking down. More isn’t better. At some point, quality gives way to quantity
    • Several fixes come to mind:
    • First, limit the number of papers to the best three, four, or five that a job or promotion candidate can submit. That would encourage more comprehensive and focused publishing
    • Second, make more use of citation and journal “impact factors
    • Third, change the length of papers published in print: Limit manuscripts to five to six journal-length pages
    • and put a longer version up on a journal’s Web site
    • what we surely need is a change in the academic culture that has given rise to the oversupply of journals
    • Finally, researchers themselves would devote more attention to fewer and better papers actually published, and more journals might be more discriminating
    • the present ‘industrial’ schooling system is fast becoming dysfunctional, neither providing the skills and competences required in our economies nor corresponding to the ways in which we are using the procedural and social aspects of technology for learning and developing and sharing knowledge
    • Personal Learning Environments can support and mediate individual and group based learning in multiple contexts and promote learner autonomy and control
    • The role of teachers in such an environment would be to support, model and scaffold learning
    • Such approaches to learning recognise the role of informal learning and the role of context
    • Schools can only form one part of such collaborative and networked knowledge constellation
    • institutions must rethink and recast their role as part of community and distributed networks supporting learning and collaborative knowledge development
    • the major impact of the uses of new technologies and social networking for learning is to move learning out of the institutions and into wider society
    • This is a two way process, not only schools reaching outwards, but also opening up to the community, distributed or otherwise, to join in collaborative learning processes
    • At the same time new interfaces to computers and networks are likely to render the keyboard obsolescent, allowing the integration of computers and learning in everyday life and activity