Change laboratory

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By Alain Senteni, University of Mauritius, adapted by Daniel K. Schneider.


The Change Laboratory (CL) process (Engeström, Virkkunen et al., 1996) implements the cycles of expansive learning defined by Y. Engeström (1987).

Based on Yrjö Engeström's theory of expansive learning (1987), the generic Change Laboratory method was developed in 1997, as a condensed way to carry out Developmental Work Research, an activity theory based methodology for studying and developing work practices in collaboration between the researcher and the practitioner.

See also: Transformative pedagogy, Expansive learning, Activity theory.


Used in Finland in tens of public and private organizations representing many branches of industry, the CL has been applied succesfully in health care services in Finland (Engeström, 1996, 1999a)(Engeström, Virkkunen et al., 1996) or large telecommunication companies (Virkkunen & Ahonen, 2004), and also for the integration of ICT in schools (Engeström, Engeström & Suntio, 2002).

The purpose of the method is to help a work team or the members of an organizational unit to encounter the problems they face in their daily work and systematically analyze the systemic causes of these problems and design and implement a new form for the activity to overcome the root cause of daily problems (Virkkunen, 2005).

The change lab approach

The Change-Laboratory is a space that offers to practitioners a wide variety of instruments for analyzing disturbances and bottlenecks in the prevailing work practices. It allows for constructing new models and tools, and for putting them on trial; it is also a forum for the cooperation between expert interventionists and local practitioners. The typical form of Change laboratory relies on the physical attendance of the community in a dedicated physical space. Though, it is possible to create simultaneously virtual, ICT-based tools that facilitate various aspects of change laboratories, as in the Knowledge-Practices Laboratory1 (Hakkarainen, 2004) or in the Distributed Change Lab project (Senteni, 2005). The Distributed Change Laboratory (DCL) tools allow participants (teachers, school administrators, local and international investigators) to share their experiences between physical meetings. Intelligent computer-mediated support may especially be needed when pursuing change-laboratory interventions in remote communities without direct support from more experienced interventionists.

The change lab set-up (Engeström & Virkkunnen, 1996)

During the lab sessions, practitioners take momentarily distance from their individual tasks and routine. Their joint activity becomes the object of their collaborative inquiry and developmental experimentation. Participants usually meet during work hours, once every one/two weeks, or even every afternoon, in the context of an intensive workshop. Based on the ethnographic analysis of the current practices (mirror) and the contradictions they have to face, the CL focuses on producing a new model of activity that defines a Zone of Proximal Development for the group. This ZPD is the distance between present actions of the individuals and the new form of group activity collectively generated as a solution to contradictory constraints (double-bind) potentially embedded in their everyday actions. That ZPD becomes the conceptual space where the group can expand the object of its activity, to produce eventually a new object. When put on trial, the new model is evaluated by the group by means of reflective tools (mirroring diagrams, video, diaries, etc), so that it can be questioned, bent and improved.

Change lab methodology for teacher development

Developmental interventions using the Change Lab methodology were experimented successfully since 2005 in teachers training workshops (fig.5), in Mauritius (Senteni, 2006) and in Botswana (Senteni et al., 2005ab; 2006). A project, linking professional development of teachers for ICT integration and research started in November 2005 with a one week residential workshop in Botswana, involving a group of sixty teachers, head-teachers, teachers-trainers and policy-makers. The first workshop was organised by the Education Commission of the World Information Technology Forum (WITFOR 2005). The project was continued in 2006 in Botswana and Mauritius with the support of the Academy of Finland (2007-2008); it is now deemed to be expanded to Ethiopia, Madagascar and Seychelles (2007-2009), depending on additional funding requested in January 2007 from the European Union Edulink programme for ACP countries.

Collegial support for the professional development of teachers

See boundary-crossing learning and open and distance learning for some more discussion.



Engeström, Y. (2004). "New forms of learning in co-configuration work." Journal of Workplace Learning 16(1/2): 11-21.

Engeström, Y, Engeström, R., & Suntio, A. (2002) From paralyzing myths to expansive action: building computer-supported knowledge into the curriculum from below, CSCL 2002 Proceedings, pp.318-325, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc. Hillsdale, New Jersey, USA

Engeström, Y. (1999a) Innovative learning in work teams: Analyzing cycles of knowledge creation in practice. In Y. Engeström, R. Miettinen & R.-L-. Punamäki (Eds.), Perspectives on activity theory, (pp. 377-404). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Engeström, Y. (1999b) Activity Theory and individual and social transformation, in Yrjö Engeström, Reijo Miettinen and Raija-Leena Punamäki (Eds), Perspectives on Activity Theory, Cambridge University Press (462 p.), pp.19-38.

Engeström, Y., Virkkunen, J., Helle, M., Pihlaja, J. & Poikela, R. (1996). The Change laboratory as a tool for transforming work. Lifelong Learning in Europe, 1(2), 10-17.

Engeström, Y. (1996). "Developmental work research as educational research." Nordisk Pedagogik 16(no 3): 131 - 143.

Engeström, Y. (1987). Learning by expanding. Helsinki: Orienta-Konsultit Oy.

Hakkarainen, K., Palonen, T., Paavola, S. & Lehtinen, E. (2004). Communities of networked expertise: Professional and educational perspectives. Advances in Learning and Instruction Series. Amsterdam: Elsevier.

Hakkarainen, K., Sintonen, M. (2002) The Interrogative Model of Inquiry and Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning, Science & Education 11: Kluwer Academic Publishers. Printed in the Netherlands, pp. 25-43

Senteni, A. (2006). Building up diasporas from scratch : the conditions of emergence of process and collaboration in global knowledge communities, communication to the 4-th Pan-Commonwealth Forum on Open Learning (PCF4), Jamaïca, October, 2006.

Senteni, A. (2005a) Innovative Learning & Knowledge Communities for the integration of ICTs in enhancing education, WITFOR 2005 White Book - Education Commission (Projects & Resarch), Gaborone (Botswana), August 2005,

Senteni, A. (2005b) A comprehensive analysis of some initiatives for the integration of ICTs in education in Mauritius, WITFOR 2005 White Book - Education Commission (Best Practices Case Study), Gaborone (Botswana), August 2005

Senteni, A., Taurisson, A. (2005c) Innovative Learning & Knowledge Communities, UNESCO-IFIP publication 2005.

Senteni, A. (2004) From e-Learning to Technology-Enhanced Education, Educational Ecologies for Sustainable Development, World Computer Congress (IFIP-WCC), Toulouse (France) 22-27 August 2004.