CHAT – Cultural Historical Activity Theory

Bateson (1972) draws our attention to the relationship between man and his tools. He asks:

“Suppose I am a blind man, and I use a stick…Is my mental system bounded at the handle of the stick? Is it bounded by my skin? Does it start halfway up the stick? Does it start at the tip of the stick? But these are nonsense questions…If what you are trying to explain is a given piece of behavior, such as the locomotion of the blind man, then, for this purpose, you will need the street, the stick, the man; the street, the stick, and so on, round and round.”

As such, the stick becomes an integral part of the blind person’s sensory system and it is precisely this relationship between people and tools that sociocultural theories (SCTs) seek to address. SCT is able to provide researchers and thinkers with a framework for understanding the ways in which digital technologies and literacy practices transform each other through a deictic relationship.

Writing, being a highly protean craft, is situated within and bound up with some sort of ‘activity system’ which shapes it, and is also shaped by it. And far from working alone, even a solitary writer is drawing on a complex combination of socio-cultural and historical resources (language, knowledge of the world, technologies, conventions, etc.), and as such, a writer is enaged in a social act, not just communication.

In order for me to investigate the relationship between people and computers, when it comes to writing assessment in a classroom, I can look at some key constructs in SCTs to guide me:

Mediation (the idea that humans do not act directly on the world):
After Vygotsy, his protégé Leont’ev (1979) developed the ‘Activity Theory’ school of thought. This sees an ‘activity system’ as the primary unit of analysis. That is, not simply the study of the writer, and his/her writing tool, or the individual workings of his/her mind, but the entire system in which it all takes place via the cultural tools used.

An analysis can, therefore, shift across multiple views to study an activity system, triangulating the various views (Engestrom, 1990). A central question if I adopt an AT analysis is choosing the most useful ‘lenses’ or perspectives for analysis among the many possible ones (Rogoff, 1993)

I feel that the lens of CHAT can provide insights into changes in writers’ practices or into how their writing is restructured or impacted when a computer is the writing tool. CHAT could also provide insights into conflicts between students’ beliefs and their actual writing practices and to help us understand instances of student resistance to new tools in contexts of new uses of technology for learning. CHAT can help illuminate challenges related to cultures of use of tools occurring when students approach a new task with old habits.

Interaction and co-construction:
Learning is mediated between a novice, more knowledgeable others, and cultural artefacts; i.e. it is interpsychological.
This usually involves some form of mentoring by a more knowledgeable person who engages in joint instructional activities through ‘scaffolding’ (Bruner, 1974). This appropriation process is reciprocal, mutual, and promotes cognitive change, rather than the mere ‘transfer’ of knowledge from a teacher to a learner.
Learning is then constructed individually in the mind of the novice, i.e. it is intrapsychological. Vygotsky further believed that this development principally takes place through a form of apprenticeship learning, where interaction with teachers or peers allows the learner to advance through their zone of proximal development (ZPD). This is Vygotsky’s notion of the range of possibilities or potential of the learner to develop. Thus, instructional activities should occur beyond what the learner can do, but not beyond what he/she knows.
Learning is, therefore, in some way collaborative, even in the absence of more knowledgeable others.
Whilst looking at a writing assessment performed in a collaborative classroom setting, where learners produce their own text on computer but discuss their work with other learners, we can investigate the activity by looking at the interaction and co-construction processes. From this perspective writing is hardly a solitary activity, as we discuss ideas with others; envisage how the intended audience will respond to our writing. It is, therefore, shaped by this constant interaction and interpenetration, leading to “a high social polish and lustre by the effects of reactions and response… on the part of the social audience” (Voloshinov, 1986: p. 93).

If I am to document the process of writing in this context, then this could involve a multi-modal ethnography (video recording of task with audio of collaboration with screen capture), and I believe the data has the potential to be very rich, with not only verbal data revealing how learners edited, revised, etc (stuff which cognitive researchers are interested in), but also the literacy practices, participation frameworks, etc. I could focus on the mediation between the participants (technological and otherwise) in the system using CHAT’s “triangular” (Engestrom, 1987, 1990) framework for the analysis and evaluation.

The data could be interpreted using CHAT (cultural historical activity theory) as a theoretical framework, with the context of a writing assessment as an ‘activity system’. This is because modern implementations of CHAT in investigating how material artefacts mediate human activity have seen common ground with ANT (actor-network theory) insights, but with more of a focus on human agency – and intentionality – rather than on perfect symmetry as in ‘pure’ ANT. Such is the ‘third’ generation of activity theory research which is moving from studying single activities to exploring the networks of interacting activities.

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