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Notes: Jonassen-1999-Activity theory as a framework for designing constructivist learning environments



Citekey: @Jonassen1999-dz

Jonassen, D. H., & Rohrer-Murphy, L. (1999). Activity theory as a framework for designing constructivist learning environments. Educational Technology Research and Development, 47(1), 61–79.






Activ- ity theory is a socio-cultural, socio-historical lens through which designers can analyze human activity systems. It focuses on the inter- action of human activity and consciousness within its relevant environmental context. (p. 1)

Activity the- ory posits that conscious learning emerges from activity (performance), not as a precursor to it. So activity theory provides us with an alternative way of viewing human thinking and activity. (p. 2)

Activity theory is a powerful socio-culturat and socio-historical lens through which we can analyze most forms of human activity. It focuses on the interaction of human activity and con- sciousness (the human mind as whole) within its relevant environmental context. (p. 2)

It is a useful framework because the assumptions of activity theory are very conso- nant with those of constructivism, situated learning, distributed cognitions, case-based rea- soning, social cognition, and everyday cognition that underlie CLEs (Jonassen & Land, 1999). It is also useful because activity theory has been used often enough in designing human-computer interactions in order to provide a clear opera- tional framework for designing CLEs. (p. 2)

Activity the- ory is a useful framework for understanding the totality of human work and praxis (Bodker, 1991a), that is, activity in context. (p. 2)

In this paper, we first elaborate the assump- tions that underlie activity theory, then describe the components of an activity system, and finally describe how activity theory may be used to analyze activities and settings for the purpose of designing CLEs. (p. 2)


Activity theory has its roots in the classical Ger- man philosophy of Kant and Hegel which emphasized both the historical development of ideas as well as the active and constructive role of humans. (p. 2)


The most appropriate unit of analysis is activity. The components of any activity are organized into activity systems (Engestr6m, 1987), a model of which is depicted as a triangle in Figure 1 (p. 2)

Activity theory is not a methodology. Rather it is a “philosophical framework for studying differ- ent forms of human praxis as developmental processes, both individual and social levels interlinked at the same time” (p. 532). Activity theory adopts Marx’s dialectic materialist view of activity and consciousness as dynamically interrelated (Leont’ev, 1972) (p. 2)

The primary focus of activity systems analysis is the top triangle of Figure I (the production of some object), in which the activity is accomplished. (p. 2)

The activity consists of a goal-directed hierar- chy of actions (see Figure 2) that are used to accomplish the object–the tasks, actions, and operations that transform the object. Activity (e.g., designing instructional materials) is the performance of conscious actions and consists of chains of actions (such as needs assessment, objective writing, drawing graphics, shooting video, etc.). Actions are chains of operations (e.g., camera operations, spreadsheet entries, telephone calls). All operations are actions when they are first performed because they require conscious effort to perform. (p. 3)

The subject of any activity is the individual or group of actors engaged in the activity. (p. 3)

With practice and internalization, activities collapse into actions and eventually into operations, as they become more automatic, requiring less conscious effort. (p. 3)

The object of the activity is the physical or mental product that is sought. (p. 3)

Tools can be anything used in the transfor- mation process (physical such as hammers or computers or mental, such as models or heuris- tics). The use of culture-specific tools shapes the way people act and think. (p. 3)

That is, the tools alter the activity and are, in turn, altered by the activity. For example, using an inquiry design model will result in dramati- cally different instructional materials (object) than a direct instruction model. (p. 3)


Activity: Minds in Context (p. 4)

The most fundamental assumption of activity theory is the unity of consciousness and activity (Kaptelinin, 1996). Activities are the human interactions with the objective world and the conscious activities that are a part of those inter- actions. (p. 4)

The learner (the subject in activity systems, see Figure 1) is the central, driving character in defining activity. While traditional theories of learning assume a Cartesian mind-body dual- ism with respect to the mind and external behavior, activity theory challenges that separa- tion. Mind and body (mental and physical) are interrelated, so knowing can only be interpreted in the context of doing. (p. 4)

Activity theory focuses on the purposeful actions that are realized through conscious intentions. (p. 5)

Consciousness in the World (p. 5)

Consciousness is n o t a set of discrete, disembodied acts(e.g.,decisionmaking, classifying,remembering) thatareregulatedbyexecutivecontrolmechanisms (Nardi,1996),which is the way that instructional designers typically analyze conscious knowledge. Rather, consciousness is the phenomenon that unifies attention, intention, memory, reasoning, and speech (Vygotsky, 1978). Consciousness is manifested in practice—“you are what you do” (p.7). (p. 5)

Object-Orientedness (p. 5)

The object of activity can be anything, so long as it can be transformed by subjects of the activity system. Objects may be physical objects (e.g., a house that is built), soft objects (e.g., computer program), or conceptual objects (e.g., a theory or model of activity that is negotiated). (p. 5)

That is, consciousness is embedded in the wider activity system that surrounds an individual’s activities, so that changes in the physical, mental, or social conditions of a person’s situation are internalized and directly reflected in the person’s conscious activities. (p. 5)

Intentlonallty (p. 5)

Historical-CulturalDimension (p. 6)

Activity is a historically developed phenomenon. That is, activities evolve over time within a culture. In order to understand the dynamics of a particular situation, it is necessary to grasp the changes or evolutions of that situation over time. (p. 6)

Community: A DialecticContext (p. 6)

As statedbefore,activitiesaresociallyand contextuallybound. So, any activitysystem can be described only in the contextof the community inwhich itoperates(seeFigure I).The communitynegotiatesand mediatestherulesand customs that describe how the community functions,what itbelieves,and theways thatit supportsdifferentactivities (p. 6)

any activity can only be understood by analyzing its historical development. (p. 6)

Activitytheory focuses on the centrality of activity in a cultural theory of cognition. (p. 6)

ToolMediation (p. 6)

Activity always involves artifacts (instruments, signs, procedures, machines, methods, laws, and forms of work organization). While cognitive psychology traditionally has focused only on mental representations, ignoring artifacts or mediating tools and signs, “activity cannot be understood without understanding the role of artifacts in everyday existence, especially the way that artifacts are integrated into social practice” (Nardi, 1996, p. 14). (p. 6)

tools mediate or alter the nature of human activity and, when internalized, influence humans’ mental development. Kaptelinen argues that all “human experience is shaped by the tools and sign systems we use” (1996, p. 10). (p. 7)

So “the human individual’s activity is a system of social relations. It does not exist without those social relations” (Leont’ev, 1981, pp. 46-7). Individuals involved in a particular activity are simultaneously members of other activity groups which have different objects, tools, and social relations. (p. 7)

There is a “horizontaIness” in activity-theory dynamics. (p. 7)

Collaboration (p. 7)

In addition to horizontal activity systems, there are dynamics that underlie (“verticalness”) any activity (see Figu~ 3). Each component of an activity is the result of other activities which produced it. (p. 7)

Very little, if any, meaningful activity is accomplished individually. People may perform individually in contexts such as school, but their ability to perform is predicated on groups of people. (p. 7)

Engestr6m (1987), (p. 7)

this is very interesting. mapping KB principles onto these mini-activities will be interesting. (p. 7)

Figure 3 ~ Nested nature of activity theory dynamics (p. 7)

described activity as “systems of collaborative human practice.” (p. 8)

EngestrOm, Y. (1987). Learning by expanding: An activity theoreticalapproachtodevelopmental research.Helsinki, Finland:Orienta-Konsultit Oy. (p. 18)

“Activitytheoryseemstherichestframework for studies of context in itscomprehensiveness and engagement with differentissuesofconsciousness,intentionality,and history”(Nardi, 1996,p.96). (p. 18)

Nardi, B,A. (1996). Studying context: A comparison of activity theory, situated action models, and distributed cognition. In B.A Nardi (Ed.), Context and consciousness: Activity theory and human-computer interaction. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. (p. 19)