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Metaphor and metamorphosis

March 5, 2010

Image: Orb Weaver spider in web

This week we’ve been reading a paper about activity theory by Finnish scholar Yrjo Engestrom. Engestrom is heir to a long and distinguished line of social learning theorists founded by 20th century Russian cultural-historical psychologists Lev Vygotsky, Alexander Luria and Alexei Leont’ev, whose central theme is the extent to which learning is embedded in, or mediated by, social relations, language, and cultural norms and artefacts.

Building on the work of Leont’ev in particular, Engestrom proposes the activity system as a model of how learning takes place. Engestrom’s system diagram shows learning as a situated activity engaged in by

Image: Engestrom's Human Activity System

a subject (the learner) with a learning object in view, aided and constrained by multiple factors: the language and tools available to him or her, the conventions of the learning event, and the community in which the learner is embedded together with its divisions of labour. In engaging with the object of learning, the subject uses concepts or other artefacts to help make meaning and produce a learning outcome of some kind. The oval on the right of the diagram, Engestrom writes, “indicates that object-oriented actions are always, explicitly or implicitly, characterised by ambiguity, surprise, interpretation, sense-making, and potential for change.” (Engestrom Y, 2001)

Activity systems are not sealed units, but relate horizontally to other activity systems, overlapping and combining outcomes in an expansive network of systems, their internal or external contradictions constantly triggering realignments of system components to create new solutions to emerging problems.

It’s a dynamic model which has many strengths. It emphasises the complex, active, and mediated nature of learning, the shifting interplay between the multiple factors bearing on every learning event, the social and cultural embeddedness of every learning act, and the potential for learning outcomes to transform and create.

Dynamic – but somehow rigid as well. Even when Engestrom is trying to capture complexity, his account, like his model, feels like a straightjacket. You can’t help feeling that real-life learning can never be as neat and clear-cut as the system diagram suggests. Why?

I think it’s because the model is not what the author thinks it is. It’s not so much a diagrammatic representation of a volatile, actually-existing system, more a likening of learning to a contrivance of rods, shafts, fulcrums and forces; less an analytical tool than a rhetorical comparison between the multiple connections and interdependencies of the learning process, and a complex and intricate piece of engineering. The activity system feels mechanical because, like Newton’s clockwork universe, it is using the metaphor of a machine…

….

Personally I much prefer another metaphorical attempt to capture the multiple interconnectedness of learning. In a paper we read last week, Sian Bayne uses the beautiful myth of Arachne to figure forth the transformations wrought in teacher and student identities when learning moves online. (Bayne S, 2005). Arachne was a weaver who became so supremely skillful that she surpassed her teacher, the goddess Athene. Humiliated in a tapestry-weaving competition between the two of them, the angry goddess punished Arachne by metamorphosing her into a spider, condemned to weaving her web for ever just to make a home and find food.

Ovid’s version of the myth includes detailed descriptions of the two tapestries: Athene’s a classical composition with scenes of mortals being punished for their hubris arranged in a border around a central image of Athene herself; Arachne’s more free-flowing and organic, an exuberant mass of images of metamorphosis and sex between humans and gods. Bayne reads the tale as an allegory, not just of up-ending the conventional hierarchy of teacher and student, but more widely of the shifting nature of online identities:

Athene’s tapestry places herself as teacher at the centre – [representing] the Cartesian subject, the acting subject firmly at the centre of a world ordered by reason… By contrast Arachne’s tapestry is centreless. No one image holds down and fills with meaning or moral the images which crowd the woven space… Arachne’s vision [is] a celebration of the fluidity of metamorphosis. (Bayne S, 2005)

It’s a very unmachine-like image of shifting, organic fecundity. Both Arachne’s tapestry design and her eventual fate resonate with creative transformation, including the changing shape of teaching and learning.

The metaphor extends into the arena of learning online in that here pedagogical methods and intentions rooted in principles of textual stability and the dissemination of knowledge among stable, autonomous subjects are often at odds with a medium in which both text and subject are liable to metamorphose, to the shape-shifting which is so much a part of our lives in the digital realm. (Bayne S, 2005)

This digital shape-shifting – this creative plasticity in both text and authorial identity – is highly evocative of Richard Lanham’s electronic orality which I blogged about a while back. But it’s also an account of learning and teaching, weaving and web-making, in which the spider’s web figures forth the countless interconnections and contingencies, elastic and ephemeral, involved in the act of learning.

….

Engestrom Y, 2001. Expansive Learning at Work: toward an activity theoretical reconceptualisation. Journal of Education and Work, vol 14, No1

Bayne S, 2005. Deceit, desire and control: the identities of learners and teachers in cyberspace, in Land, R and Bayne, S (eds) Education in Cyberspace. London: RoutledgeFalmer. Available online at http://www.malts.ed.ac.uk/staff/sian/desirepaper.htm

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6 Comments
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