The “What” and “Why” of Activity Theory

Map out the moving parts of your digital transformation

Have you heard of activity theory? With roots in a psychological theory pioneered by Soviet psychologist Sergei Rubinstein in the 1930s, it’s far from new. While the official explanations of the theory can sound a little heady—speaking of subjects, objects, artifacts, and how they interact—we believe it is a useful framework for digital leaders in Aotearoa.

In fact, it’s used in a masters thesis currently being written by Stephen, director here at Think e-Learning.

Here’s a little bit more about the basics of the theory and how it can be helpful for anyone leading projects of transformation in education.

Activity theory in a nutshell

The theory helps us to understand the moving parts in an activity (eg a lesson, or a PD initiative, or a BYOD rollout), and how the parts fit together. It lays out all the key aspects, and can be visualised with this triangular diagram:

The key components in the activity theory framework are as follows:

The Community

This includes students, teachers, heads of departments, parents, leadership teams, the school’s IT technicians, PD providers, and anyone else with a part to play. Think as far as the Board of Trustees who may be required to make funding decisions, for example.

The Division of Labour

This refers to the roles that each community member plays in the effort to move towards the goal or object of the activity. Who is doing what? How do these roles overlap?

The Rules

Perhaps a better term here would be “responsibilities” or “expectations”. Who should be doing what? Where do responsibilities lie for various aspects of the activity? As an example, teachers may be expected to use certain tools in their lessons, or include links to the Tapasā framework in

every lesson. Senior leadership may be

expected to read and act on reports from

the digital leader. The Rules also include

the everyday classroom rules for how students

interact with each other, with the teacher and

with the learning activities.

The Tools

These are the things being used as part of the activity. They could be tangible items, software platforms or other digital tools, and even more abstract things such as theories or framework, like a Modern Learning Environment or Flipped Learning approach. If it’s a non-person and it’s helping you reach the activity goal, include it here.

The Subject

Essentially, that’s you—the digital leader; the perspective from which we are considering the activity system. A more detailed exercise might involve drawing up the same activity system from different perspectives (one with the classroom teachers as the subject, another with the students as the subject, and so on) then comparing the different systems for deeper insight. But we’ll keep it simple today!

The Goal

What are you trying to achieve? Is it to run PD successfully? To have all or most teachers using Google products in their classrooms? To introduce a particular software? To ensure that all students are able to B their OD? Or is the real Goal not tied to technology at all? It could be that the Goal of the activity system is a certain level of achievement, or depth of understanding, or NCEA pass rate, with the technology just sitting in the Tools section. Whatever it is, the objective should be clear.

And like the Subject, this could be taken deeper too – you could draw up the same activity system with several different Goals, to look at what’s happening through several different lenses.

The Outcome

To be considered in retrospect, this details what ACTUALLY happened. What was the result of the activity in reality, and how did it compare to the stated goal?


How it can help ICT leaders

Activity theory is a helpful framework which allows leaders and aspiring leaders to see how all of the pieces fit together. Driving change involves a lot of moving parts, and mapping them out according to this structure makes it easier to keep track.

If you’re the person in your kura that’s been tasked with a digital transformation, first we suggest defining the specific goal. Then, fill out the template, including any person, object, or detail that seems potentially relevant. Seeing it laid out can:

  • Bring clarity to how each aspect of the activity interacts.

  • Help you to realise exactly who is involved on a larger scale—and more importantly, how they can work together to advance the goal.

  • Make it possible to identify gaps and opportunities.

The activity theory framework is not intended as accountability or a chore to be ticked off the list. Rather, it’s a useful tool for ICT leaders—or anyone driving change in an organisation—that will offer clarity, a holistic vision, and ultimately direction.

If you are interested in topics like this one and would like to arrange further training or resources for your team, get in touch with Think e-Learning! We love equipping leaders in the field as they ease their schools into digital literacy and discover the full potential of online learning.