Cultural historical activity theory and Dewey’s idea-based social constructivism: Consequences for Educational Research

  • May Britt Postholm Programme for teacher Education, Norwegian University of Science and Technology
Keywords: learning, activity, community, practice, constructivism, pragmatism


Background: Our theoretical perspectives direct our

research processes. The article contributes to the debate

on Cultural Historical Activity Theory (CHAT) and

Dewey’s idea-based social constructivism, and to the

debate on methodology and how the researcher’s theoretical

stance guides the researcher in his or her work.

Purpose: The article presents fundamental ideas

within CHAT and Dewey’s idea-based social constructivism.

The purpose of the text is to discuss and examine

how ideas in these two theories guide educational

research conducted within the framework of these two

approaches. Furthermore, the article aims to contribute

to the discussion on CHAT and Dewey’s theory.

Sources of evidence: Ideas based on Vygotsky’s

theories, represented mainly by James Wertsch, Michael

Cole, Barbara Rogoff and Yrjö Engeström, and

Dewey’s ideas, are examined and discussed in relation

to educational research. Furthermore, statements made

by Mietinnen, Garrison and Rorty are taken into account

in the discussion on the two outlined theories.

Main argument: When CHAT and Dewey’s theory

guide researchers in their work, they have to take the

context or situation into consideration. Artefacts are

treated as part of this context, and therefore have to be

a focal point of the research. In educational research the

classroom and the teacher are also central parts of the

learning environment or context. The teacher is the one

to form the learning environment in which the pupils

think and act, and therefore, the teacher’s role in the

classroom is important. If researchers are to manage to

focus on pupils’ learning, they must direct their research

focus both on the teacher as an organizer of the activities

and on the collaborating and supporting processes

between the teacher and the pupils, and between the

pupils. This means that the research focus has to include

both activity and dialogue, which includes processes in

all their complexity.

Conclusions: Mediating artefacts play a central role

both in CHAT and Dewey’s theory. If the researcher is

to ascertain what the pupils learn when using specific

artefacts, he or she will have to study the activities or

processes within which these learning aids are used.

This indicates that the researcher has to study learning

processes in progress. Garrison states that Dewey’s approach

is a philosophy of cultural development. Miettinen

finds that Dewey’s theory does not serve as the

foundation for both historical and cultural analyses of

action. I disagree with Rorty and Mietinnen, and rather

follow Garrison’s lead. In both theories, social, cultural

and historical factors are, in my opinion, viewed as

decisive factors intertwined in what happens here and

now. Therefore the setting that frames the activity with

its social, cultural and historical aspects also has to be

brought into focus in one’s research activity.

How to Cite
Postholm, M. B. (1). Cultural historical activity theory and Dewey’s idea-based social constructivism: Consequences for Educational Research. Outlines. Critical Practice Studies, 10(1), 37-48. Retrieved from