HomeConcept formation in the wild as educational challenge: an activity-theoretical research program

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Published on Wednesday, September 25, 2013 by Elsa Zotian


Un chercheur ou un groupe de chercheurs en éducation, internationalement reconnu, consacre plusieurs jours à la présentation de son travail sur invitation du CREAD : ce sont les « Conférences John Dewey ». Cette année, nous recevrons Yrjö Engeström, professeur à l'Université d'Helsinki, du 19 au 22 novembre 2013.


Les conférences sont ouvertes à tous, sur inscription à l'adresse : service-recherche@espe-bretagne.fr 

Lecture 1 : Mardi 19 novembre 2013, 14h00-17h00


The first lecture begins with an introduction to the idea of and relevant approaches to concept formation in the wild (Engeström & Sannino, 2012) as a challenge to education. Concept formation has traditionally been seen as a process in which students acquire well-defined scientific concepts determined by the curriculum. However, in the lives of both children and adults, concept formation is today increasingly a challenge of making sense of ill-defined phenomena, such as ‘global warming’ or ‘financial crisis’. Concept formation is therefore becoming an open-ended creative endeavor characterized by uncertainty, debate and continuous change. If this type of concept formation is ignored in schools, they risk becoming increasingly alienating and artificial environments for the concerns of students, parents and teachers.
To illuminate and analyze such processes of concept formation in the wild, the lecture then presents in detail a case of forming a new theoretical concept of ‘sustainable mobility’ in the home care of the elderly in the city of Helsinki in Finland (Engeström, Nummijoki & Sannino, 2012). The case demonstrates the process of ascending from the abstract to the concrete with the help of a ‘germ cell’ of the new concept. It also shows how physical bodily action and theoretical concept formation are intertwined and dependent on one another.

Lecture 2 : Mercredi 20 novembre 2013, 14h00-17h00


The second lecture analyzes collaborative concept formation as agentive future-making. ‘The idea of ‘critical encounter’, based on Vygotsky’s principle of double stimulation, is introduced and modeled as generic site of future-oriented concept formation. Related to Gutierrez’s notion of ‘third space’, a critical encounter is an event in which two or more relevant actors come together to deal with a problem that represents a potentially shared object and conflict of motives. In such a critical encounter, there is both complementarity and tension between the actors. To resolve the problem, the actors typically use mediating artifacts and draw on available source domains to take volitional action and to conceptualize the situation. Critical encounter is a potentially powerful lens for examining and reshaping educational practices.
To examine the potential of the notion of critical encounter, the lecture applies it to an analysis of 26 videotaped home care encounters in which the nurse and the patient face the challenge of implementing a new toolkit practice of supporting the client’s physical mobility. The analysis identifies actions of transformative agency and rudimentary future-oriented concept formation in the encounters.

Lecture 3 : Jeudi 21 novembre 2013, 14h00-17h00


The third lecture analyzes the possibility of gaining mutual understanding between culturally different groups of people, a foundational challenge to education in a globalized world. Cognitive models of intersubjective understanding, such as Herbert Clark’s theory of ‘common ground’, emphasize the mental and discursive aspects of mutual understanding. The lecture argues that this is not enough; focus needs to be shifted to the role and potential of shared material objects as sources of intersubjective understanding. ‘Common ground’ needs to be reconceptualized in terms of real objects between the subjects.
The lecture analyzes the formation of materially based common ground between two groups of builders of wooden boats, one located at the Bay of Bengal in India, the other one in Helsinki, Finland. The two groups have radically different educational and cultural backgrounds, they use very different tools and their boats are built for different purposes. The builders were asked to look at photos of the other boat building site and comment on them. Our analysis shows that they began to build mutual understanding by focusing on their shared object, the wooden boat. Common ground emerges as the generalized material object between the two groups, constructed by means of identifying salient differences, dimensions of difference, questions, comments on relationships, and comments on historical conditions.

Lecture 4 : Vendredi 22 novembre 2013, 14h00-17h00


The fourth lecture analyzes the potentials of conducting formative interventions in collective activity systems to enhance the formation of future-oriented and practically effective theoretical concepts. The methodology of formative interventions in introduced as a way to support and rigorously analyze change efforts aimed at collective concept formation (Engeström, 2011). The lecture builds on data from Change Laboratory interventions in three schools, one in Finland (Engeström, Engeström & Suntio, 2002), another one in Botswana (Virkkunen & al., 2012), and the third one in Russia. The three cases represent bottom-up local efforts at school change in different cultural contexts.
In each intervention, the participating teachers created a new concept and model for the zone of proximal development of their school. The lecture analyzes the contradictions, expressions of transformative agency, and epistemic learning actions involved in the formation of the new concept in these three cases.


  • ESPE de Bretagne - 153 rue Saint Malo
    Rennes, France (35)


  • Tuesday, November 19, 2013
  • Wednesday, November 20, 2013
  • Thursday, November 21, 2013
  • Friday, November 22, 2013

Attached files


  • Engeström, Vygotski, Dewey, activité


  • Jean-Noël Blocher
    courriel : jean-noel [dot] blocher [at] espe-bretagne [dot] fr

Information source

  • Jean-Noël Blocher
    courriel : jean-noel [dot] blocher [at] espe-bretagne [dot] fr

To cite this announcement

« Concept formation in the wild as educational challenge: an activity-theoretical research program », Lectures, Calenda, Published on Wednesday, September 25, 2013, https://calenda.org/260100

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