Monday, July 25, 2016

Conceptual Cultural Historical Activity Theory (CHAT) Framework

We used a modified activity theory framework, originating from Russian scholars (Hakkarainen, 2004), but made popular in North America by Scandinavian theorist Yrjo Engestrom (1987). Specifically, Engestrom combined both theory and practice, developing a formal methodology in research for mapping complex human interactions from qualitative datasets. In its original form, Engestrom included subject, took, object, rules, community, distribution of labor, and outcomes as shown in Fig. 1. 
Figure 1: Activity system adapted from Engestrom (1987)
As explained by Yamagata-Lynch and Smaldino (2007) “subjects are participants of the activity and tools are the resources that subjects use to obtain the object of goal” (p. 366). They continue saying, “rules can be informal or formal regulations that subjects need to follow while engaging in the activity. The community is the group that subjects belong to and the division of labor is the shared responsibilities determined by the community (Yamagata-Lynch & Smaldino, 2007, p. 366). Engestrom (1987) developed this framework to “explore and document the sources of tensions in human or collective activities” (Yamagata-Lynch and Smaldino 2007, p. 366). He wanted to help participants identify tensions in their practices and develop strategies to overcome them, allowing a collective action as opposed to individual efforts (Cole & Engestrom, 1993; Engestrom, 1987, 1993). Both individual and group activities are linked by their social context. Using applications of Engestrom’s activity system framework, along with more recent use from Yamagata-Lynch and Smaldino (2007), not only gives us a descriptive research tool in qualitative analysis, but will also help us research the complex social construction of educational organizations.

For use in evaluating and improving K-12 school and university partnerships, Yamagata-Lynch and Smaldino (2007) went through the methodological process of modifying the Engesstrom’s (1987) original activity systems analysis model. They developed specific language to represent the various components of the model (i.e., subject, tool, object, rules, community, and division of labor) so that teacher participants would be able to understand the framework. By adding questions related to each component (Fig. 2), participants did not need a theoretical background in the accompanying activity systems literature.

Figure 2: Modified activity system from Yamaga-Lynch and Smaldino (2007). Reprinted with permission of Elsevier. Yamagata-Lynch, L.C., & Smaldino, S. (2007). Using Activity Theory to Evaluate and Improve K12 School and University Partnerships.
For our overarching “Schools as effective learning organizations” collaborative learning community research study, we use the modified activity system model from Yamagata-lynch and Smaldino (2007) as a theory of action framework. The instruments shown in Figs. 3-4 engage both student learners and teachers as learners in order to achieve specific objectives.
Figure 3: Activity Analysis Framework: Student Learners C-PEER (2015)

Student Learners

The objective for our student learners is the co-creation of learning experiences with teachers, schools, and the students’ communities.
  • Tools. In staying consistent with Yamagata-Lynch and Smaldino’s (2007) framework for an exploratory study of professional learning, we look at the resources that our student learners use in order to obtain the objective or goal. By asking What resources are currently available? and What resources do you need? we want student learners to help analyze what makes them successful as a learner. These include curriculum and instructional materials as well as classroom activities. We also look at home study supports such as available technology. We ask students survey questions about academic language and feedback used in the classroom, including self-assessments. Finally, an important tool we analyze is students’ self-regulation capacity. It is important for us to understand how students direct their own learning in school. Although there is no simple definition of the construct for self-regulation (Boekaerts & Corno, 2005), we hope this framework will help us as researchers to gain a detailed understanding of the cognitive and affective processes that underlie [the] actions that students initiate to regulate their motivation and learning in the classroom” (Boekaerts & Corno, 2005, p. 201). 
  • Rules. The rules defined by the activity analysis framework are both the formal and informal norms, policies, and processes that make up an educational environment. For example, classroom and school norms, discipline-related expectations, homework policies, and student academic placement processes are all polices that student learners must navigate in order to be successful in school. 
  • Community. The student learners’ community include the other students in the classroom, the teacher or any other supporting adults in the classroom, other students in the school, and parents or guardians engagement within the building. 
  • Participation Structures. Whereas Yamagata-Lynch and Smaldino’s (2007) framework describes a division of labor, asking such questions as What specific responsibilities do you have to meet your goal? and What other responsibilities do you share with your colleagues to meet your goal?, we label this as participation structures due to the organization structure of schools. We are analyzing the organization of the learning activities within the school (e.g.: individual versus group projects and heterogeneous versus homogenous student grouping). We look at the support systems in place, such as teacher’s assistants and special education. Finally, we want to know what sorts of technology structures are in place within the classrooms. 
  • Outcome and Indicators. Our intended objective for student learners is the co-creation of their learning experience with teachers, school, and the student’s community. Specifically, we are looking for students’ access to learning tools, cognitive, behavioral, and emotional engagement, and their abilities to gain appropriate knowledge and skills for their own defined success in school. Our data sets include performance trends, attendance and discipline data, and students’ perceptions of their school’s climate and the available social and emotional supports for students. 

Figure 4: Activity Analysis Framework: Teachers as learners C-PEER (2015)

Teachers as Learners

The objective for our teacher colleagues groups aggregated at the individual school level is the co-creation of learning experiences for their students as well as the continual improvement of skills, knowledge, and a mindset for effective teaching. Similar to the student learners, teacher participants are analyzing resources that they use in order to obtain the stated objective.
  • Tools. Similar to the tools described in the activity analysis framework for student learners, teachers as learners need to ask the same questions: What resources are currently available? and What resources do you need? For teachers, their tools include, curriculum and instructional materials, timely access to student progress data, protocols and time for collaborative consideration of student work, response to intervention (RtI) processes, feedback from teacher evaluations, and options for professional learning. 
  • Rules. Rules can be informal or formal regulations that teachers need to follow while teaching. These include instructional expectations, school norms as well as classroom norms, teacher resources for professional learning, collaboration among colleagues, and coaching, teacher evaluation systems, supports for innovations, and school requirements regarding professional learning communities (PLC’s). Our teacher surveys and focus group interviews will help us analyze schools as effective learning organizations. 
  • Community. A teacher’s community includes many of the same supports for students (e.g.: students and other adults in the classroom); however, teachers can also rely on other adults in the school. For example, teacher leaders, colleagues, coaches, administrators, and evaluators. A teacher may also have access to external facilitators or trainers, specifically related to professional learning opportunities. 
  • Participation Structures. We use the same questions Yamagata-Lynch and Smaldino (2007) ask for their framework, when analyzing teachers. Participation structures for teachers include time for planning and instruction, professional learning opportunities (whether required or by choice), and support systems (e.g.: coaching, mentoring, and access to teacher assistants and special education support). We want to analyze what structures are in place for peer learning and planning, supervisor/administrator-teacher interactions, and possible co-teaching. 
  • Outcome and Indicators. The objective for teachers as learners is the same as for students; however we are adding a continual need for improvement of knowledge, skills and mindset for effective teaching. Teachers’ objective to co-create a learning experience for their students can be measured through student engagement, modifications in pedagogical practice, and teachers’ active participation in school-wide improvement and innovation. Measuring student engagement is a dynamic process that has limited theoretical research (Handelsman, Briggs, Sullivan, & Towler, 2005). There are many tools to measure engagement (Marzano & Pickering, 2011). Our outcome indicators include data-driven reflection.