Bodong Chen

Crisscross Landscapes

Notes: Sannino et al. (2016). Formative Interventions for Expansive Learning and Transformative Agency



Citekey: @Sannino2016-lr

Sannino, A., Engeström, Y., & Lemos, M. (2016). Formative Interventions for Expansive Learning and Transformative Agency. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 25(4), 599–633.


Summarize: A very nicely (and also densely written) paper presenting three cases of expansive learning. It highlights six theoretical lens to be used in analysis of expansive learning. The cases are from two schools and a university library. Formative interventions are also compared with design-based research.


This article examines formative interventions as we understand them in cultural- historical activity theory and reflects on key differences between this intervention research tradition and design-based research as it is conceived in the learning sciences tradition. (p. 2)

Together these cases illustrate that an activity-theoretical formative intervention approach differs from design- based research in the following ways: (a) formative interventions are based on design done by the learners; (b) the collective design effort is seen as part of an expansive learning process including participatory analyses and implementation phases; © rather than aiming at transferable and scalable solutions, formative interventions aim at generative solutions developing over lengthy periods of time both in the researched activities and in the research community. (p. 2)

Cultural-historical activity theory has from the very beginning been an activist and interventionist approach (Sannino, 2011). (p. 2)

We call these methods formative interventions (Engeström, 2011). (p. 3)

However, as one of us has argued before (Engeström, 2011), the emphasis on completeness, finality, and closure in much of the central literature on design-based research makes it difficult to take the agency of the learners as a foundational point of departure in this research tradition. (p. 3)

Whereas Brown innovatively advocated the collaborative role of participants in design experiments, we seek to take a step further, seeing ourselves as interven- ing in design processes of which we cannot possibly be the engineers in control. (p. 3)

In formative interventions, the design is driven by historically formed contradictions (Engeström & Sannino, 2011) in the learners’ activities and is the result of learners’ collective efforts to understand and face these contra- dictions and the problems they engender. The collective design effort is itself the core of an expansive learning process, involving reconceptualization and practical transformation of the object of the learners’ activity. For this process to occur, the involvement of a researcher-interventionist is not essential. Collectives conduct formative interventions on themselves to address unsus- tainable contradictions and transform their activities— we call such efforts intraventions. When researcher-interventionists are part of the process, their role is to intervene by provoking and supporting the process led and owned by the learners. (p. 3)

In this article we focus on a formative intervention method called the Change Laboratory or CL (Engeström et al., 1996; Virkkunen & Newnham, 2013). (p. 4)

A CL intervention typically consists of 6 to 12 weekly sessions that last for about 2 hr each, with one or more subsequent follow-up sessions. In the CL sessions, participants and researcher-interventionists use a set of representational devices designed for jointly analyzing disturbances and contradictions in their activities and for developing new solutions. The conceptual tools of the CL are derived from two epistemological principles, namely, the principle of double stimulation and the principle of ascending from the abstract to the concrete (Sannino, 2011). (p. 4)

successful CLs lead to outcomes that cannot be fully anticipated by the interven- tionist. (p. 4)

Here we aim to address three key questions to highlight the unique nature of formative interventions: 1. In which ways were the objects of the activities practically transformed in the three formative interventions? 2. What methods of data analysis were developed and used in the two CL cases, and what do these methods yield in terms of moving forward our understanding of formative interventions? 3. What kinds of indications of the generative potential of formative inter- ventions may be identified in the two CL cases? (p. 4)


We begin by clarifying the specific activity- theoretical meaning of the terms object, expansive learning, and agency, referred to but not fully explained in the introduction. (p. 5)

The object of activity is a central concept in this framework, because different kinds of activity are distinguished by their objects. In English, the word object does not convey the crucial difference between an arbitrary thing out there and an entity at which activities are directed. (p. 5)

In this sense, the object has drawing power and refers to something at which human efforts are directed. (p. 5)

Because of its link to human needs, an object is a historically developing entity that is never fully attained or complete. (p. 5)

in KB, an idea as an object of the ‘activity’. (it needs to be clarified activity in AT is different from what KB is traditionally criticizing. ) (p. 5)

The object is a cultural (p. 5)

A single actor can only grasp some aspects of the object, so it is typically difficult to articulate by an individual. An object is contested and often also fragmented. Moreover, an object carries in itself the pervasive contradictions of its given socioeconomic forma- tion. In capitalism any object is at least potentially a contradictory unity of use value and exchange value. The deep-seated contradictions in objects make them dynamic and unpredictable. (p. 6)

the object - collectively understood -> community discourse. contradictions within the object -> very interesting.. (p. 6)

and collective construct that has a long historical half-life. (p. 6)

Expansive learning (Engeström, 2015) distinguishes itself by its focus on learning within and between activities in society at large, beyond the confines of school. Expansive learning is a creative type of learning in which learners join their forces to literally create something novel, essentially learning something that does not yet exist. (p. 6)

The metaphor of expansion depicts the multidirectional movement of learners constructing and implementing a new, wider, and more complex object for their activity. This is done with the help of mediating means used and built throughout the design process. (p. 6)

Transformative agency is a quality of expansive learning. Learning expan- sively requires breaking away from the given frame of action and taking the initiative to transform it. (p. 6)

this is so like KB, which refers to epistemic agency. Transformative agency makes it even more explicit that agency is geared towards being transformative. (p. 6)

Object-centered expansive learning and transformative agency are pursued through formative interventions by mobilizing procedures and analyses based on the epistemological principles of double stimulation and ascending from the abstract to the concrete. (p. 6)

the idea of ascending from the abstract to the concrete – is it aligned with objectifying ideas? not sure. (p. 6)

Double stimulation is a principle of volition and agency (Sannino, 2015; Vygotsky, 1987) that underlies the procedures and analyses of formative inter- ventions. This principle is highlighted in Vygotsky’ s(1997) work on the devel- opment of children and clinical patients. (p. 6)

Rather than giving a child a task, ignoring the way she reinterpreted it, and then observing how she behaved, Vygotsky and his collea- gues typically also gave the child potentially useful mediating artifacts— tools or signs. The action of the child to take up and use these mediational means (p. 6)

radically changed the nature of the task and eventually revealed potential cap- abilities and emerging new psychological formations of the child. (p. 7)

Vygotsky (1987) used the example of a waiting experiment to illustrate double stimulation. In this procedure, a subject is left in a room to wait for an experiment to begin, but no one comes and nothing happens. Facing a conflict and oscillating between the urge to leave and the commitment to stay, the subject is at first paralyzed. The subject then identifies an external artifact, such as the clock on the wall, and turns it into a crucial sign: “ When the hand moves to the vertical position, I will leave.” After this, execution of the action of leaving happens as if automatically. In double stimulation, the first stimulus is the problematic situa- tion, which triggers a paralyzing conflict of motives. In trying to cope with the problem, actors use artifacts that serve the function of meaningful signs. These signs are second stimuli, with the help of which the subjects can gain control of and transform the problematic situation. (p. 7)

This example highlights the fact that a conflict of motives plays a key role in double stimulation. If conflicts of motives and agency are disregarded, double stimulation is easily reduced to just another term for the general notion of mediation (p. 7)

The principle of ascending from the abstract to the concrete is foundational in dialectical thinking. In activity theory, Davydov (1990, 2008), inspired by Ilyenkov (1982), turned this principle into a theory of learning and into an interventionist approach for changing school instruction. The most well-known example is Davydov’ s work on elementary school mathematics learning. (p. 7)

Key to understanding the principle of ascending to the concrete is the concept of a germ cell. The most well-known example of a germ cell is the commodity in Marx’ s theory of capitalism (Ilyenkov, 1982): Every commodity is a contra- dictory unity of use value and exchange value. For Davydov, the germ cell of mathematics is the real number, which is a particular case of a general relation- ship of quantities, where one of them is taken as a measure for computing the other. (p. 7)

By ascending from the abstract to the concrete, one can attain a rich recon- ceptualization of the object of activity. This is a process that goes beyond mere observation and categorization. It consists of practical experimentation with a problematic situation, connecting it to its genetic-historical origins and abstract- ing from it an explanatory basic relation, also called germ cell. A germ cell abstraction is a unity of opposites. This internally contradictory unity can gen- erate complex, theoretically mastered concrete developments. The germ cell is expansive in that it opens up rich and diverse possibilities of explanation, practical application, and creative solutions (Engeström, Nummijoki, & Sannino, 2012 (p. 8)

In formative interventions the researcher-interventionists offer participants theo- retical and methodological resources to engage in practical experimentations that can lead to generative, novel outcomes, which we would term theoretically mastered concrete developments. (p. 8)

The notion of generativity is not new in the learning sciences. In the 1970s Wittrock (1974) saw learning as a process of generating meaningful relations among concepts and between knowledge and experience. Formative interven- tions foster “ generative reasoning” (Greeno, 1989, p. 313) by means of con- structing germ cell ideas. The learners ascend to the concrete by generating novel implementations and extensions of the germ cell. (p. 8)

In the analysis of the three cases, we use six conceptual lenses derived from the core epistemological principles in our theoretical framework, that is, the principle of double stimulation and the principle of ascending from the abstract to the concrete. These six conceptual lenses are (a) first stimulus, (b) conflict of motives, © second stimuli, (d) practical experimentation, (e) germ cell, and (f) theoretically mastered concrete developments. (p. 9)

aims at answering our first research question: How was the object of activity formed? (p. 9)

The six conceptual lenses are obviously intertwined and cannot be presented in a mechanical order without distorting the dynamics of the actual intervention. (p. 9)

so we need more dynamic analytical devices. (p. 9)

In addition to the six conceptual lenses, we analyze the two CL cases in order to answer our second and third research questions: What methodological devel- opments took place, and what indications of generativity can be identified? (p. 9)


Our first case concerns a change initiative undertaken in a school located in a favela, a shantytown in south São Paulo, Brazil. (p. 9)

In this case, the well-being of the community became the object of change efforts and expansive learning. The trash is a concrete instantiation of the evolving object of the school’ s activity. (p. 9)

Rather, after the local initiative by the two coordinators had been under way for some time, the third author of this article began to observe and document the local change effort without acting as an interventionist. (p. 10)

The data consisted of documents produced by the participants, interviews, and observation periods on site, supported by photographs and video recordings. The initial analysis was conducted in a temporal and narrative mode by constructing a thick description of the events and participants’ reflections on them along a timeline. In this article, the initial narrative is interpreted and condensed through the conceptual lenses introduced in our conceptual framework. (p. 10)

Seen in terms of the principle of double stimulation, the flood and its consequences were the first stimulus, posing a serious problem and threat to the population and school. (p. 10)

In the same context the coordinators constructed a new educational management plan that served as a second stimulus to find a way out. (p. 10)

Practical experimentations in line with the principle of ascending from the abstract to the concrete were initiated with the help of the new management plan. These included organizing a student relay race on the flood site; meetings in the neighborhood health care center; debates on how the community could deal with trash; (p. 10)

The school also produced a film and organized a movie session inviting the community to watch themselves in an improvised theater in the same street where the river overflows. In the school, the teachers worked with the river issue in classrooms connecting it with the curricula of their different subjects. Eventually the experimentations led to a manifesto titled My Stream, My Life, compiled by the leading pedagogical coordinator from materials produced during these events with the community. This manifesto became the germ cell for sustained and expanding transformation efforts (p. 11)

The manifesto as a germ cell captures the essence of a new, emerging object. The passage from the manifesto and the paradoxical expression “ trash is life” convey the generative expansive potential of practical experimentations through which an entire community became aware of its own rights and acquired con- fidence that it could make a difference. The manifesto gave continuity and meaning to numerous further efforts by the community to improve its life. (p. 11)

In what sense was this a formative intervention? Formative interventions, including intraventions, aim at transforming the participants’ vital collective activities (p. 12)

nterventions happen when people try to transform activities— their own or others’— in some deliberate and systematic ways. (p. 12)


In the fall of 1998, a research group1 conducted an 11-week CL intervention with the teachers of a middle school located in Jakomäki, a disadvantaged area of Helsinki, Finland (p. 12)

In weekly 2-hr sessions, with the help of conceptual tools from activity theory, the teachers discussed and analyzed videotaped problem situations and accounts from their daily experiences. By putting the problems in a historical perspective, they identified present developmental challenges in the activity of the school. (p. 12)

On this basis, the teachers constructed a vision for the school’ s future and designed six sets of practical changes as immediate steps toward their vision. The teachers implemented the changes during the winter and spring of 1999 and continued to do so in the 1999– 2000 school year.2 (p. 12)

We examine in particular the impact of this innovation on the transformation of the object of the teachers’ work activity— the students and their learning. (p. 13)

Before the CL sessions, members of the research group spent about 2 months collecting ethnographic data in the school. Samples from these data, mainly in the form of recorded interviews and videotaped interactions inside and outside classrooms, were selected and presented to the participants as first stimuli in the early sessions of the intervention. (p. 13)

The paradox was that apathetic students are relatively easy to control, but active and energetic students may pose a risk. Many participants experienced and expressed this as a conflict of motives: Should students be trusted or controlled? (p. 13)

The researcher-interventionists invited the participants to analyze the histor- ical roots of their current troubles and to model different developmental phases of the school. This was done by dividing the teachers into groups according to the decade in which they had started working at the school: the 1970s group, the 1980s group, the 1990s group, and the newcomer group. Each group worked out a description of the schoolwork and its contradictions in the respective decade. In these accounts, the emergence of student apathy was connected to socioeconomic changes in the community. (p. 13)

The next step in the CL was the envisioning of the future model of the activity. Each one of the teachers was asked to take home a copy of the general model of an activity system (Engeström, 2015, p. 63) and to fill the template with features that would describe the teacher’ s vision of how the school should function in the future. (p. 13)

This three-phase vision functioned as the second stimulus in the intervention. In itself the three-phase vision was not a solution to the conflict of motives; it was an instrument with the help of which a concrete solution could be constructed. (p. 14)

In the seventh session of the CL, the teachers selected concrete issues for their immediate change efforts. A taskforce group of interested teachers took respon- sibility for each of the six issues. P (p. 14)

As we see it, these practical experimentations paved the way for the formulation and implementation of the final project as germ cell. It soon became clear that, among the issues selected as foci of practical experimentation, the final project was the most ambitious spearhead of change. It involved all of the teachers and was also enthusiastically accepted by an assembly of student representatives. The final project taskforce discussed the relationship between the vision (second stimulus) and the emerging germ cell innovation, and it is noteworthy that the participants defined the final project as a change that represented the middle-range vision, not merely the short-term improvements. (p. 14)

The final project attempted to go beyond deep-seated constraints in school instruction. It allowed the students and required the teachers to operate beyond and across the encapsulated school subjects. It allowed the students and required the teachers to work on a long-term basis, preparing final projects over a whole semester, thus going beyond the temporal punctuation of lessons and tests. (p. 14)

Perhaps most important, the final project introduced work motivated by the pride of achieving something beyond the obligatory demands of the curriculum. (p. 14)

From this point of view, the final project may be seen as a germ cell— a small but potentially expansive change capsule. (p. 15)

The immigrant students ’ teachers were strongly in favor of involving their students in the final project and argued this positive orientation with the help of insights from their own current and prior experiences of working with them. (p. 15)

ascending to the concrete goes beyond the practical implementations of the final project. When implemented, this germ cell had the potential to change the way in which the teachers constructed their object, the students, and their learning. (p. 16)

Analysis of the Intervention (p. 16)

When teachers talk about their students, they talk about and categorize the object of their work. A major research goal of the analysis of the Jakomäki case was to discover changes in the overall profile of the categories that the teachers used to evaluate students, the object of their activity (Engeström, Engeström, & Suntio, 2002a). (p. 16)

he analytical procedure focus on changes that occurred over time in very basic, typically dichotomous categorizations. For this a method called longitudinal categorization analysis was developed. Related to ethnomethodological membership categorization analysis (Hester & Eglin, 1997; Lepper, 2000; Stokoe, 2012), longitudinal categorization analysis is aimed at identifying durable sea changes in a community rather than minute short-term variations in individuals or small groups. (p. 16)

In order to isolate statements corresponding to such categories, researchers coded transcripts of the teachers’ recorded conversations in 11 discussion (p. 16)

sessions into 256 topical sequences, out of which 161 were focused on students. These 161 sequences were further coded as either positive or negative. (p. 17)

This kind of analysis yields a picture of what happened after a CL intervention in the basic orientation of a working community. (p. 17)

The 11- month period of data collection was divided into seven phases. The analysis showed a progressive shift toward predominantly positive talk about the students (see Figure 1). The shift did not happen abruptly. (p. 17)

It is important to note that negative talk did not disappear. In other words, the emergence of positive talk about students was truly an expansion and enrichment of the repertoire; it did not emerge at the cost of previous ways of talking. (p. 18)

Generativity (p. 18)

Indications of generativity in the CL intervention at Jakomäki middle school may be observed following the three dimensions presented in our theoretical frame- work: local continuity, domain appropriation, and method appropriation. Local continuity was manifested in the decision of the teachers to engage in a second round of CL intervention in 2000– 2001. (p. 18)

Method appropriation may be observed as well. The methodological insight of tracing the evolution of negative and positive categorizations of students was further pursued and developed by Sannino (2010a), Virkkunen et al. (2012), and Rainio and Hofmann (2015). (p. 18)

Sannino ’ s(2008) analysis of such breaking-out actions in the Jakomäki school intervention led to the first typification of expressions of (p. 18)

transformative agency, which was subsequently elaborated into a method of analysis of formative intervention processes in its own right (Haapasaari, Enges- tröm, & Kerosuo, 2014; Vänninen, Pereira Querol, & Engeström, 2015). (p. 19)


The Intervention (p. 19)

In the fall of 2010, a CRADLE research team3 conducted a CL in the City Center Campus Library of the University of Helsinki. (p. 19)

The researchers’ working hypothesis was that research groups do in fact need new kinds of library services to master large and complex sets of data as well as the demands of information searching, electronic publishing, evaluating one’ s own research, and maintaining visibility in the scientific community. (p. 19)

the present object of the library’ s work with researchers was an individual researcher’ s discrete request for publications or publication-related information. The new object would be a long-term partnership with a research group needing support in managing data, publishing, and following the global flow of publications. This new object would require a new division of labor, new competences, and a new organization model for the library. (p. 19)

The researcher-interventionists suggested knotworking (Engeström et al., 1999) as a preliminary characterization of the new type of work needed in the library. In knotworking, services would be coconstructed and continuously reconfigured in flexibly changing collaborative formations or partnerships between librarians and research groups. (p. 21)

Key managers and staff members of the library quickly adopted the idea of knotworking as a second stimulus for the change effort. (p. 21)

A prior analysis (Engeström, 2013) showed an interesting increase in the frequencies of the use of the terms knot and knotworking starting halfway through the CL and culminating in the last two sessions of the intervention. (p. 21)

The notion of knot took shape as a tension-laden unity of turning inward to pool and combine the competences of staff in flexible ways— and turning outward to manage partnerships with research groups. (p. 22)

Analysis of the Intervention (p. 22)

A primary research goal of the analysis of the library case was to gain a firmer understanding of the dynamics of expansive learning that occurs in the CL. The data consisted of transcripts of the videotaped discussions in the eight CL sessions. (p. 22)

4,184 speaking turns (p. 22)

For this, a specific method was developed called analysis of expansive learning actions and deviations from instructional intentions. The method has its roots in Davydov’ s work on the learning actions involved in the process of ascending from the abstract to the concrete (Davydov, 2008). (p. 23)

a typology of seven expansive learning actions (Engeström & Sannino, 2010): (a) questioning, criticizing, or rejecting some aspects of accepted practices and existing wisdom; (b) analyzing problematic situations by tracing their origins and evolution (genetic-historical analysis) or by constructing a representation of the inner systemic relations of the activity (actual– empirical analysis); © modeling the newly found explanatory relationship in some pub- licly observable and transmittable medium; (d) examining the model in practical experimentations aimed at fully grasping its dynamics, potentials, and limita- tions; (e) implementing the model by means of practical applications, enrich- ments, and conceptual extensions; (f) reflecting on and evaluating the process; and (g) consolidating the outcomes toward a new stable activity. These learning actions also serve as a general model for the interventionists’ instructional intentions in a CL. (p. 23)

Finally, to identify the deviations, it was necessary to specify the instructional intentions of the researcher-interventionists. For this, the written plans of the interventionists as well as recordings of the planning discussions of the inter- ventionist group were used (p. 23)

This analysis yields a picture of the dynamics of learning with the CL intervention. It reveals to what extent the seven expansive learning actions were actually taken in the process, to what extent they formed cyclic patterns, and to what extent deviations from instructional intentions took place. (p. 24)

The analysis of the CL transcripts shows that six of the seven expansive learning actions occurred in the data, the most frequent ones being the action of analyzing the situation and the action of modeling, followed by the action of examining the new model and the action of questioning (see Figure 2). (p. 24)

it’s interesting these analyses of expansive learning take the form of a simple line chart. some claims made here might be circular - findings led by design. The richness of writing is here but the presentation of coding results looks simple/simplistic. (p. 24)

In the light of these findings, expansive learning emerges as a process inter- spersed with frequent nonexpansive actions, some supportive, some neutral, some digressing, some also adverse to expansion. (p. 25)


Table 1 summarizes the findings of our inquiry. (p. 27)

In response to the first research question, in each one of the three interven- tions, learners expansively transformed the object of their activity. In the intra- vention in Brazil, the standard object of school instruction— students and the knowledge prescribed in the curriculum— was radically opened up. Students and school knowledge became embedded in the broader object of quality of life in the community, epitomized by the river and the trash. In the middle school CL, the expansion of the object was focused on the students: Apathetic students were reconceptualized as capable and potentially competent. This expanded view of students was epitomized in the students’ possibility to raise their grades by producing a competent final project. In the university library CL, the anonymous researchers as recipients of routine services and associated instructions were reconceptualized as collaboration partners in need of complex, jointly designed services. This expansion was epitomized in the successful effort to make research services a fully acknowledged and supported key function of the library. (p. 27)

Formative interventions are expansive learning processes in which learners willfully reconceptualize and practically transform the object of their activity to face its unsustainable historically formed contradictions. (p. 27)

TABLE 1 Summary of Findings From the Analyses of the Three Interventions (p. 28)

provoke and support the expansion of the object of the learners’ activity by mobilizing concepts and principles stemming from cultural-historical activity theory. (p. 29)

Our second question concerns the methods of analysis developed to examine CL processes. We have discussed two such methods, namely, the longitudinal categorization analysis and the analysis of expansive learning actions and devia- tions from instructional intentions. Other methods developed specifically to analyze entire CL processes include the analysis of discursive manifestations of contradictions (Engeström & Sannino, 2011) and the analysis of expressions of transformative agency (Haapasaari et al., 2014; Vänninen et al., 2015). (p. 29)

How do formative interventions such as the ones discussed here differ from design-based research in the learning sciences tradition? An activity-theoretical formative intervention approach is distinctive in three ways: (a) Formative interventions are based on design done by the learners; (b) the collective design effort is seen as part of an expansive learning process including participatory analyses4 and implementation phases; and © rather than aiming at transferable and scalable solutions (Clarke & Dede, 2009; Fishman, Marx, Blumenfeld, Krajcik, & Soloway, 2004), formative interventions aim at generative solutions developing over comparatively lengthy periods of time both in the researched activities and in the research community. (p. 31)

Sannino, A. (2011). Activity theory as an activist and interventionist theory. Theory & Psychology, 21(5), 571– 597. doi:10.11770959354311417485 (p. 35)

Sannino, A. (2015). The principle of double stimulation: A path to volitional action. Learning, Culture, and Social Interaction, 6,1– 15. doi:10.1016/j.lcsi.2015.01.001 (p. 35)