MET:Social Learning Theory

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This page was originally authored by Andrew Forrest (2011).

Main Ideas

Lev Vygotsky
Alexander Luria
Alexei Nikolaevich Leont'ev
Yrjö Engeström

Activity theory is an idea that was first developed in the 1920’s. At that time there were two fundamental assumptions that defined the idea of Activity Theory (Miller, 2002):

1. Knowledge is mediated through the use of tools and artifacts

2. The ‘activity’ is the basic unit of analysis

Activity theory theorizes that when individuals engage and interact with their environment they concern themselves with production and using tools to obtain results. These tools are "exteriorized" forms of mental processes and as these mental processes are transformed into tools, they become more readily accessible and communicable to other people. The end result is that the foundation of social interaction is supported by external criteria (Fjeld et al, 2002).

This theory originated in the Soviet Union and was founded by the research and studies of Lev Vygotsky, Alexander Luria, and Alexei Nikolaevich Leont'ev.

This relatively new psychological idea remained isolated behind the ‘Iron Curtain’ and did not migrate into western cultures until a half century later. In the 1970’s Yrjö Engeström became interested in Activity Theory and is responsible for making the theory popular in the western world. Engeström presented the idea that Activity Theory is not a process for individual learning. Rather, the learning is a functioning activity system that adapts and evolves acoording to the community of learners, the tools and processes used, and the challenges that develop when working within a social community (Engeström, 1999).

Activity Theory Models

Activity Theory proposes different models to explain how activities are carried out. Vygotsky's first generation model explains that tools are used to mediate between the subject and the object, or goal of the activity. The activity is completed in order to achieve a desired outcome (Engeström, 1999). File:First Generation-trim.jpg

In the second generation model Engeström expanded Vygotsky’s original triangle concept of Activity Theory and added a level where social components are examined in how they influence an activity. These social influences include community, rules, and division of labour. Engeström’s model also illustrates how the new social influences relate to each other. The lines show that all the elements do not directly manipulate each other and that only natural social linkages help an activity reach a desired goal (Engeström, 1999). Take a look at how the subject is linked to division of labor. Without the extra variable, community, a subject is not able to divide tasks in order for the goal to be reached. In addition, rules would not be applicable to an individual without the community making sure that they are followed.


Activity Theory Summary

Five Principals of Activity Theory

Activity Theory can be summarized through the following five principles (Engeström, 1999):

1. Activities are mediated through the manipulations of artifacts and objects.

2. An activity system is made up of a community of ideas and traditions where the application of dividing labor creates different positions and all participants bring with them multiple layers of historical conventions, rules, and objects.

3. Activity systems develop and transform over time which allows for problems and potentials to be understood.

4. An activity system will undoubtedly be changed due to contradictions because as the system evolves new objects, or rules, and could contradict a specific role in the community.

5. An activity system is susceptible to ‘expansive transformation’ where an established system could be radically changed and reconceptualized.

Pros and Cons of Activity Theory

The advantages of Activity Theory to accomplish a goal as a group are:

1. Emphasizes motivation and rationale for an individual or group.

2. The system is useful in identifying the outcome or goal of an activity.

3. Through the sharing of historical conventions the members of the community are exposed to new tools and resources.

4. There is an opportunity to learn from others within the community.

5. Has structure that can help a group achieve their goal.

The disadvantages of Activity Theory to accomplish a goal as a group are:

1. The system cannot anticipate specific contradictions which will likely make the activity evolve in a direction that makes one adapt.

2. The theory itself is relatively new and therefore has some abstract ideologies that make difficult to comprehend and apply completely.

3. Rigid structure in carrying out an activity can discourage creativity.


Bandura, A. (1977). Social learning theory. Engelwood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.

Engeström, J. (1999). Outline of Three Generations of Activity Theory. Retrieved From:

Fjeld, M., Lauche, K., Bichsel, M., Voorhorst, F., Krueger, H., Rauterberg, M. (2002): Physical and Virtual Tools: Activity Theory Applied to the Design of Groupware. In B. A. Nardi & D. F. Redmiles (eds.) A Special Issue of Computer Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW): Activity Theory and the Practice of Design, Volume 11 (1-2), pp. 153-180.

Miller, P. H. (2002). Theories of Developmental Psychology, 4th Ed. (pp. 367-407; Vygotsky's Socio-Cultural Approach). New York: Worth.

See Also

Situated Cognition / Learning Theory

Virtual Communities of Practice