Activity Theory

Activity Theory is being employed in this action project research as it offers an effectual methodological approach to explore and understanding the actions of individuals within collaborative activities (Leadbetter et al., 2007), such as the projects planned by the young people within the Young Europeans Erasmus+ research.

Activity Theory was developed within the work of the Russian psychologist, Vygotsky, and from others working to support and develop his work, including Luria and Leontiev (Edwards et al., 2009). Their exploration of the interaction of people with one other and their environment facilitated through the tools they use (both physical objects and abstract constructs) has supported awareness of how the actions that people engage in within an activity offers understanding into their motivation and rationale for those actions (Edwards et al, 2009). When people are engaged cooperatively in activities within a community, they often have responsibility for specific tasks or roles [termed ‘Division of labour’] (Trust, 2017), with practices or rules that are shaped over time by customs or systems of working (Foot, 2014) [see Figure 1].


Other developments upon activity theory include the work of Engeström’s upon a variation of Cultural Historical Activity Theory (CHAT). CHAT examines the cultural and historical components that influence systems of working. Engeström created a model of an activity system that included some factors that are additional to the earlier work, “community, rules and division of labour” (Edwards et al, 2009, p.196).


Engeström’s model (figure 2) is helpful to aid the scrutiny of the interaction of these factors to support comprehension of the motivations, perceptions, behaviours and use of tools involved within collaboration between people working to achieve a desired goal (Edwards et a.l, 2009; Engeström, 2000; Chaiklin, Hedegaard and Jensen, 1999).

Communities and organisations, such as schools, do not exist in isolation but are influenced by the interaction of factors from other activity systems within the context in which they operate (Roth and Lee, 2007). Examples of these factors include national and local policies and legislation, the environment and diverse population. Engeström worked upon further developments of CHAT, the third generation of Activity Theory, to acknowledge this situational influence upon an activity system and support analysis and sense making of the complexity of the wider grouping of activity systems (Edwards et al., 2009; Engeström, 2001) (figure 3).


Figure 3 presents three interacting systems but it is important to acknowledge that there may be many more.


Chaiklin, S. Hedegaard, M., and Jensen, U.J. (1999) (eds) Activity theory and social practice cultural-historical approaches. Aarhus, Denmark : Aarhus University Press.

Edwards, A., Daniels, H., Gallagher, T., Leadbetter, J. and Warmington, P. (2009) Improving Inter-professional Collaborations. Multi-agency working for children’s wellbeing. Routledge: London.

Engeström, Y. (2001)’Expansive learning at work: Toward an activity theoretical reconceptualisation’, Journal of Education and Work, 14(1), pp.133-156 (Accessed 17th October, 2018).

Engeström, Y. (2000) ‘Activity theory as a framework for analysing and redesigning work’, Ergonomics, 43(7), pp.960-974.

Foot, K.A. (2014) ‘Cultural-Historical Activity Theory: Exploring a Theory to Inform Practice and Research’, Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment, 24, pp.329–347. DOI: 10.1080/10911359.2013.831011.

Leadbetter, J., Daniels, H., Edwards, A., Martin, D., Middleton, D., Popova, A., Warmington, P., Apostolov, A. and Brown, S. (2007) ‘Professional learning within multi-agency children’s services: researching into practice’, Educational Research, 49(1), pp.83-98.

Roth, W.M. and Lee, Y.J. ‘“Vygotsky’s neglected legacy”: Cutural-historical activity theory’, Review of Educational Research, 77(2), pp.186-232. (accessed 30th September 2018).

Trust, T. (2017) ‘Using cultural historical activity theory to examine how teachers seek and share knowledge in a peer-to-peer professional development network’ Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 33(1), pp.98-113.

van Eijck M, Roth W-M (2007) Improving Science Education for Sustainable Development. PLoS Biol 5(12): e306. Available from: (accessed 7th October, 2018).

Action Competence Approach in a Nutshell

This is an approach that seeks to develop a student’s skills, knowledge, motivation and self-confidence in taking their own decisions in relation to a given issue (e.g. health or environmental concerns). The approach is partly a response to the lack of democracy in most schools; after all, students are rarely offered opportunities to choose what to do.

In order to build the capacity of students to make decisions and be responsible for their choices, the action competence approach provides them with opportunities to engage with issues in their community beyond the classroom. One way of approaching this can be summed up as, IVAC:

  • Investigation
  • Vision
  • Action
  • Change

The students take the lead in investigating the background to an issue of their choice. They not only explore what is happening, they also need to find out why this has occurred and who is responsible.

At the vision stage, students think about how this situation could be improved; what’s their vision for change? They then decide on an action that can help to bring about their vision.

The term ‘action’ has a specific meaning in action competence. It must be done with a specific change in mind AND it must be something that the students have decided to do themselves. If they are simply doing what they are told, then this is merely an activity. This is summarised in Fig. 2:

Action Competence

The process is completed by the students evaluating any change that may have taken place as a result of their action.

We do hope that you will develop opportunities for such democratic, action-based learning when you organise field trips based on our suggestions. We wish you luck with your endeavours!

Reference: Jensen B B & Schnack K (1997) The Action Competence Approach in Environmental Education, Environmental Education Research, 3:2, 163-178

This project allows the young students at partner schools to learn from real-life engagement, from taking change action and from accomplishing important missions or projects with relevance to the students as well as the community. Details of these projects will appear when they are underway.