Cultural historical activity theory and Dewey’s idea-based social constructivism: Consequences for Educational Research
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.
We do follow and use the Danish Copyright legislation.