Activity Theory and SLA | TESL Lessons

Activity Theory

Activity Theory was developed by a group of Russian psychologists called the Kharkovites, of which the best known is A. N. Leont’ev. This theory was a development of Vygotskian theory. Lantolf (2000) described it as “a unified account of Vygotsky’s original proposals on the nature and development of human behavior” (p. 8).

Leontiev (1981) proposed that people possess ‘motives’ that determine how they respond to a particular task. Motives can be biologically determined (for example, the need to satisfy hunger) or, more importantly socially-constructed (for example, the need to learn an L2. Different motives of people to a single particular task lead to different activities, reflected in different patterns of a particular task.

Thorne (2004) emphasised that a single activity system does not exist in isolation but is influenced by multiple other activity systems. He (2004, pp. 7-8) summarised the main characteristics of activity theory as:

  • Activity theory is not a static or purely descriptive approach; rather, the use of activity theory implies transformation and innovation.
  • All activity systems are heterogeneous and multi-voiced and may include conflict and resistance as readily as cooperation and collaboration.
  • Activity is central. There is no ‘student’ or ‘teacher’ or ‘technology’ centered pedagogy from an activity theory perspective. Rather, agents play various roles and share an orientation to the activity.
  • Activity systems don’t work alone. Multiple activity systems are always at work and will have varying influences on the local or focus activity at hand.

One might add that activity systems are dynamic. Individuals can realign their motives in the course of carrying out an activity, thus changing the activity. It is crucially important for SLA researchers to recognise that elicitation devices (such as tasks) do not simply provide data but rather constitute activities that need to be examined microgenetically (Seedhouse, 2005).

Motives are not just personal; they are socially constructed. The key to understanding a learner’s motive, then, lies in delineating the ‘activity system’ (Engestrom, 1993) from which a participant’s motive stems. An activity system consists of the subjects, the objects of the activity, and the meditational means (i.e. the symbolic or material artifacts), as in Vygotsky’s model of mediated action, but importantly, it also involves a contextual framework made up of the community of subjects who are sharing the same object of the activity, the understood rules that govern that community, and the division of labour within the community setting. Together these components, which interact with each other, comprise a functional activity system (Ellis, 2008). However, all the participants or subjects are not part of the same functional activity system. What defines the object of the activity and therefore the specific activity system is the individual participants’ motives and these can vary (Ellis, 2008).

In essence, activity theory provides a holistic perspective on human behaviour, addressing cognitive and social aspects of mediated activity. People do things because they are motivated to do them.

Built on the tenets of Vygotskian sociocultural theory, activity theory maintains that human activity is fundamentally artifact-mediated and goal-oriented. In other words, people do not function individually or independently of others, but they mediate and are mediated by the social relationships they have with others. Likewise, they pursue their goals through the use of culturally constructed physical and symbolic artifacts. Thus, human cognition is situated in and develops through activities unique to the societies in which they have been constructed during their collective histories. Rather than exploring learning and development by isolating a single factor and controlling for all others, an activity theoretical perspective attempts to construct a holistic view of human activities as well as human agency within these activities (Johnson, 2009).

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