Article Summary: Engeström & Sannino (2010) Theory of Expansive Learning


To describe the foundations of expansive learning, including but not limited to ideas from cultural-historical activity theory (CHAT), summarize 20 years of research using expansive learning as a theoretical framework, and explore future directions and challenges. I will focus on only the first of these objectives.

Theory of Expansive Learning: Classification

Expansive learning is a learning theory for circumstances in which organizations need to break the mold and radically change what they do and how they do it. Learning in this case typically means learning as professionals or members of another type of community, and it does not mean instructing students. Expansive learning spans many dimensions used to classify learning theories.

  1. Is the learner primarily an individual or member of a community?
  2. Is the learning primarily a process that transmits culture or transforms culture?
  3. Is the learning primarily a process of vertical improvement (get better at tasks within a pre-defined set of skills) or horizontal movement (learn tasks outside of disciplinary boundaries and hybridize different cultural contexts)?
  4. Is the learning primarily a process of acquiring or creating knowledge based on empiricism or of forming new knowledge based on theory?

The anchors that are underlined for each dimension classify the theory of expansive learning. These classifications can be used to contrast expansive learning with other learning theories. Example 1: Unlike many cognitivist learning theories, which focus on the learner primarily as an individual (dimension 1), expansive learning focuses on the learner as a member of a community. Example 2: The legitimate peripheral participation framework (Lave & Wenger, 1991, book summary) is defined by dimensions 3 and 4, in which learning is a process of improving a set of skills in which the learner acquires or creates knowledge through observation. In contrast, expansive learning is a process of exploring new skills from other fields and positing new theoretical knowledge. Expansive learning has been applied across a variety of domains, organizations, and circumstances. About the only thing they all have in common is that learning is happening in non-traditional, hybrid, and multi-organizational settings.

Theory of Expansive Learning: Foundations

Expansive learning theory applies when learning about something that is not yet defined or practiced–when no one know what exactly needs to be learned. It is primarily based on six ideas from cultural-historical activity theory (CHAT).

  1. Distinction between action and activity: In activity theory, because the focus is on the learner as a member of community rather than an individual, there is a distinction between an action, which an individual does, and an activity, which a community achieves. The distinction allows for division of labor. In expansive learning, community members working together to combine different actions leads to developing entirely new activities.
  2. Zone of proximal development: Typically, the zone of proximal development means the gap between what a learner can do independently and what a learner can do with guidance from an instructor or in collaboration with more capable peers. In expansive learning, there is no well-defined activity that the learner strives for, so the zone of proximal development becomes a space for people with different skills and knowledge to generate new activities.
  3. Object-oriented: All activity theory is object-oriented, and an object can be anything that molds and results from an activity. In expansive learning, the object tends to be an objective (thanks to Rafi Santos for clarifying this for me). The object should be the central driver of change, rather than the motives of individuals in the activity system.
  4. Contradiction: As individuals with different motives try to influence the object of an activity, contradictions will occur. These contradictions and their resolutions are important to the transformations to the activity system, including the object, that are necessary for expansive learning.
  5. Ascending from the abstract to the concrete: From contradictions and questioning of existing models, new, simplistic ideas will emerge. These ideas will ascend from their initial abstract form, to models of the idea’s implementation in contexts of interest, to concrete systems of actions and activities within communities. A critical part of ascending from the abstract to the concrete is evaluation of the systems for achieving activities. Therefore, this is a cyclical process.
  6. Formative intervention/double stimulation: Activity theory is an interventionist theory of learning, but one that accounts for the influence of the learners and their socio-cultural-historical backgrounds. A common methodology is double stimulation, which gives learners a task to complete (first stimulus) and also a ambiguous object (second stimulus) that learners can use to enhance their actions and potential transform or reframe the task. These transformative actions are essential to transformations in expansive learning.

Why this is important

To demonstrate why this is important, let’s take an example that is dear to me. Say a group of computing education researchers wanted to increase computational literacy for as many children as possible. After finding that informal/after-school and elective classes are not broadening participation as much as they’d like, they decided that integrating computing into required courses in other disciplines was the most feasible solution to their goal. This integration requires the development of new activities. To achieve those activities, computing education researchers must learn about the content, teaching practices, and regulations of various disciplines; teachers of other disciplines must learn and implement computing-integrated lesson plans; teacher preparation programs must prepare future teachers to integrate computing in addition to their other requirements; and policy makers must create incentives and resources for transforming the current system into one that can achieve this new activity.

In this example, corresponding the list above, there is 1) a distinction between the actions that each group completes to achieve the new activity, 2) a mutual transversal of the zone of proximal development from various stakeholders as they find which actions are complementary, 3) computing-integrated lesson plans as objects for exploring new activities, and 4) contradictions between the motives of stakeholders (e.g., teachers might be motivated by using more powerful tools for learning about their discipline while policy makers might be motivated by a highly-skill labor force). To reach a solution, stakeholders must generate ideas that 5) ascend from simple or narrow solutions to complex, concrete systems that support practitioners in various contexts to achieve the activities and 6) evolve based on formative interventions that allow members of the community to add cultural meaning to the object and activity.

Expansive learning theory is important because it allows us to build the plane while flying from an existing activity system to an undefined activity system. The paper provides much more information about methods and tools to keep track of all of the moving parts involved in transformations like this in a way that is much more organized that anything else I’ve seen. This organization allows for generalization, and as the paper says, “Generalization is at the root of learning. Generalization is based on identifying and mastering variation,” (p. 3). As we breakdown disciplinary barriers, expansive learning theory can help us to learn from the process.

If you’re a computing education research interested in learning more about the social context of CS education, please look at this fabulous resource that Elizabeth Patitsas put together.

Engeström, Y., & Sannino, A. (2010). Studies of expansive learning: Foundations, findings and future challenges. Educational Research Review, 5(1), 1-24.

Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge University Press.

For more information about the article summary series or more article summary posts, visit the article summary series introduction.

3 thoughts on “Article Summary: Engeström & Sannino (2010) Theory of Expansive Learning

  1. This may be my favorite of your summaries, because it’s the most foreign to me. I’m not familiar with expansive learning, but I think I was doing that when I built Media Computation. I’ve wanted to learn about CHAT, so here is my starting place.

    I’m dissatisfied with the expansive learning recommendations, though. I liked your concrete example, but it highlighted for me what I disliked about the expansive learning framework.

    I’m working with social science faculty now, to explore how programming might be usefully integrated into their curricula. I do *not* see myself as learning history education, though. I don’t presume that I’m going to be able to develop enough expertise to be useful in the project. Rather, I ask how we can serve their goals. They show me lesson plans, and (with a team of student research assistants) we build exemplars of what might be useful. I see it as a form of servant leadership. Expansive learning, as I’m reading it, has an arrogance about it. Who am I to transform another’s discipline? In MediaComp, we simply offered to imagineer a learning experience ( In my current work, I offer a palette of computational options. It’s up to the CoP to choose value, not me.

    • I’d be curious what Ben or Rafi (or someone who knows more about CHAT and expansive learning than me) think about this. From my understanding, the point isn’t to learn about another discipline so that you can tell them what to do. I think, from the perspective of the computing educator who is trying to convince others to integrate computing at least, the first step is to demonstrate the general value of computing integration to people in another field. Then the second step is to ask them how we can adapt to serve their goals as well. Then we work together to find each other in the zone of proximal development and figure out where the value is and what a sustainable path forward would be. To do that, we each have to learn enough about each other’s fields to communicate well and understand each other’s goals.
      I agree with your comments but not the degree of some of your statements. You might never know enough about history education to be a history educator, but you know more about it now than you did before. That’s all that expansive learning asks. It would be arrogant (and unsustainable) to transform another’s discipline without their buy-in, input, and culture reflected in that transformation. From my reading, it seems that expansive learning is a framework for considering the buy-in, input, and culture from multiple perspectives to create something that is more than a sum of its parts.

  2. Pingback: Article Summaries: Series Introduction | Lauren Margulieux

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