Expansive learning

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

Expansive learning, is part of activity theory and can be considered as a kind of design methodology (developmental research) that aims at change.


The Developmental Work Research (DWR) is a methodology developed in Finland at the Centre for Historical Activity Theory of the University of Helsinki in Finland since the mid 1980s. DWR stands at the crossroad of education, knowledge management and knowledge creation, investigating the links between individual and social dimensions of learning and knowledge creation :

Nearly all authors emphasized that the most important aspect of human activity is its creativity and its ability to exceed and transcend given constraints and instructions [...] There has been very little research on creation of new artifacts, production of novel social patterns, and expansive transformation of activity contents. Vera John-Steiner (1985) work on creativity and the Developmental Work Research (DWR) approach originated in Finland may be mentioned as openings in this direction. (Engeström, 1999b, p.26-27)

Transformative pedagogies advocate developmental intervention methods such as DWR, for crossing boundaries between individual learning, collective learning and development of new organisational practices in educational institutions and systems. When applied in educational settings, DWR can serve as the basis of pedagogical approaches triggering changes requiring educational institutions to operate in a different way, based on concerted and continuous teamwork, according to new benchmarks of individual and collective performance, all paradigmatic changes putting at stakes learning in the knowledge society.

Motivation and questions

“Any theory of learning must answer at least four central questions: (1) Who are the subjects of learning, how are they defined and located?; (2) Why do they learn, what makes them make the effort?; (3) What do they learn, what are the contents and outcomes of learning?; and (4) How do they learn, what are the key actions or processes of learning?” (Engeström, 2001: 133)

“Standard theories of learning are focused on processes where a subject (traditionally an individual, more recently possibly also an organization) acquires some identifiable knowledge or skills in such a way that a corresponding, relatively lasting change in the behaviour of the subject may be observed. It is a self-evident presupposition that the knowledge or skill to be acquired is itself stable and reasonably well defined. There is a competent "teacher" who knows what is to be learned. The problem is that much of the most intriguing kinds of learning in work organizations violates this presupposition. People and organizations are all the time learning something that is not stable, not even defined or understood ahead of time. In important transformations of our personal lives and organizational practices, we must learn new forms of activity which are not yet there. They are literally learned as they are being created. There is no competent teacher. Standard learning theories have little to offer if one wants to understand these processes.” (Engeström, 2001: 137-138)

The process of expansive learning

The process comprises seven steps, that can be described as follows:

The cycles of expansive learning
1. ethnographic analysis of the current situation (steps 1,2)
  • questioning their present activity by jointly analyzing problematic situations in it;
  • analyzing the systemic and historical causes of the problems identified;
  • revealing and modeling inner contradictions of the systemic structure of the activity causing the problems
Transforming the model (steps 3,4)
  • representing the systemic structure of the activity in order to find a new form for the activity that would resolve in an expansive way the inner incompatibilities between its components;
  • finding a new interpretation of the purpose of the activity (object) and a new logic of organizing it,
  • creating a new activity model
Implementing the new model of activity (step 5)
  • concretizing and testing the new model (e.g. what changes do we try next month ? putting first steps into practice, pushing the next steps)
  • begining to transform the practice by designing and implementing new tools and solutions.
Reflecting on the new practice, consolidating it, spreading it (steps 6, 7)
  • teaching others what we have learned
  • codifying the new rules etc.

The change laboratory method

The Change laboratory (CL) process (Engeström, Virkkunen et al., 1996) implements the cycles of expansive learning defined by Y. Engeström in his seminal work (1987). Empowered practitioners are engaged in reflective cycles of deconstruction, reconstruction, trial and re-adjustement. The CL is a participatory approach whose objective is to reveal the needs and possibilities for development in an activity, not in relation to a given standard or objective, but by jointly constructing the zone of proximal development of this activity.



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 (2001). Expansive Learning at Work: toward an activity theoretical reconceptualization. Journal of Education and Work, Vol. 14, No. 1, 2001

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. (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.