Encyclopedia of Teacher Education

Living Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Cultural Historical Activity Theory as influence in ECE

  • Anna PopovaEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-13-1179-6_104-1

Introducing CHAT

This entry introduces the main postulates of the cultural-historical activity theory (CHAT) following the legacy of Lev Vygotsky (1896–1943, Russia/USSR). The aim is to show how these theoretical ideas have influenced early childhood education (ECE) discourse. The entry highlights how the CHAT has provided opportunities to see child development and learning as deeply contextual issues. The accumulation of CHAT ideas through research in practice and some advancements in policy have enabled a vision of a child and an EC educator as both part of socio-cultural-historical dynamic contexts. To sum it up, the entry is another attempt to “advance a view of meaningful professional development in ECE as fundamentally collective, situated, historically accumulating, and multi-vocal” (Nuttall 2013, p. 202).

The CHAT theoretical framework is founded predominantly in the works of Lev Vygotsky and Aleksei Leontiev (1903–1979, Russia/USSR). Vygotsky is considered to be the creator of the cultural-historical psychology, whereas Leontiev’s main contribution was activity theory. Vygotsky and Leontiev’s ideas have been developed in cultural psychology, education psychology, and education through a number of methodological approaches. The ideas have gradually taken roots in the Western educational thought and practices. The CHAT ideas tend to be presented as juxtaposed to the maturation and behaviorist theories which argue that a child develops in a linear progression following particular stages of development. The main reason for this juxtaposition is that CHAT transformed the ways in which child development was seen, and as maturation and behaviorist theories still carry weight, the CHAT approach tends to be presented as an alternative viewpoint. This entry does not join this trend. Instead, it attempts to lead to a deeper understanding of the roots and branches of the socio-cultural theories.

Lev Vygotsky’s Cultural Historical Psychology: Children’s Development

The main postulate of Vygotsky’s (1978) cultural-historical theory claims that human development is culturally mediated. Contrary to previous claims in psychology preceding Vygotsky, the cultural-historical theory argues that humans do not depend only on stimulus and reaction for their development. Although these are important at early stages of development, Vygotsky argued that artefacts produced by human cultures played a leading role in the development. Thus, he turned the view of human development the other way round. He insisted that development always started outside the individual, in the cultural context. Through the process of internalization, individuals appropriate meanings offered to them by the cultural context and then externalize those meanings by creating their own sense of culturally enduring artefacts. This ensures that society is always in the process of development and that children do not just copy behaviors they observe. An example of this can be that a child who is abused does not copy abusive behavior by default. In fact, an exposure to the abusive environment can prompt an individual to advocate against child abuse later in life.

This breakthrough in psychology paved a way to see a child’s development in a different light. Before Vygotsky, children’s development was measured through staged laboratory experiments where a child was asked to perform a task. Usually, children of the same age could succeed or fail in the same tasks. Vygotsky argued that this was not an appropriate way to measure children’s development. Since children learnt by appropriating cultural tools, their development depended on cultural contexts, which, of course, involved interaction with others. Vygotsky stated that those individuals communicating with the child were able to ascertain what child could achieve next based on what they had already learnt. Thus, without giving the right answer, Vygotsky argued, others could prompt a child to succeed in tasks, which a child would not be able to do on their own.

This concept became known as the “zone of proximal development” (ZPD). The ZPD has been applied widely in education, but it has also been misinterpreted as a simple idea of helping or guiding the child. In fact, what Vygotsky meant was that in order for a child to develop within the ZPD, the more experienced others interacting with the child should know what the child had been learning, what cultural meanings had been appropriated, and in which ways these had been externalized. This analysis is deemed crucial for determining the space between the current and potential level of development. The concepts of mediation and ZPD have influenced ECE pedagogical approaches. The UK, New Zealand, and Australian ECE curricula, for example, encourage teachers to engage children in shared conversations, follow the child’s interest, and build up new challenges for a child that can be taken on with the help of others.

The concept of cultural mediation is linked to another of Vygotsky’s breakthroughs in psychological research. He argued that play was an important part of children’s development. In fact, without play, children struggle to internalize the cultural meanings they are exposed to and make sense of the cultural practices they are engaged in. Based on the argument that mediating artefacts carry with them specific cultural-historical meanings, Vygotsky argued that a child needs time and space to try those meanings out. We often notice that children act out social roles that they have observed in their life and adapt them in different imaginative scenarios. This also explains why young children who have to look after their baby siblings still choose to play with a doll, even though a doll can be made of sticks they found on the street.

Vygotsky’s idea of cultural mediation also accounts for the advancement of society from simple forms to more advanced forms (note that “primitive” was the term used in the original publication). Vygotsky argued that the growing complexity of cultural tools and norms explained the advancement of humanity. His argument helps account for technological progress and advancement of humanity’s insights into the world they inhabit. For ECE this means that more attention needs to be paid to the historical development of ECE as a field and particular contexts, such as local ECE settings. Without understanding how the socio-cultural conditions have emerged, it is impossible to provide relevant interventions. Working with young children does not mean interaction with children only. An ECE teacher has to interpret the community’s needs and family’s values, as well as the child’s particular needs.

Aleksei Leontiev’s Theory of Activity: Social, Cultural, and Historical Processes of Early Childhood Education

Leontiev’s contribution is not often referenced in ECE textbooks for student teachers or education psychology textbooks. Yet, his contribution to the understanding of how children develop by learning to live in society is huge. He developed the idea of socio-cultural-historical activities which constitute the everyday life of an individual. However, Leontiev’s idea of an activity is often misinterpreted as just something to do during the day (e.g., classroom activities). His concept is more profound. Leontiev explained that an activity is a social practice, which is oriented at an objectified social need. Thus, hunting used to be oriented at a collective need to feed the tribe. These days in modern societies hunting exists, but it is oriented at a different collective need; a possible interpretation of it can be called recreation. If a collective social object-motive cannot be identified, then there is no activity. He explained:

Activity [in its generic sense] is the nonadditive, molar unit of life for the material, corporeal subject. In a narrower sense (i.e., on the psychological level) it is the unit of life that is mediated by mental reflection. The real function of this unit is to orient the subject in the world of objects. In other words, activity is not a reaction or aggregate of reactions, but a system with its own structure, its own internal transformations, and its own development. (Leontiev 1979, p. 46)

So, according to Leontiev, humans develop as social beings by participating in a number of socio-cultural activities, such as education, work, and family life. ECE has a slightly different history from the other sectors of education and, therefore, can be defined as a socio-cultural activity, where an object-motive can be defined and analyzed. While the object-motive of ECE was to take care of children when the parents worked, the ECE staff’s qualifications were not considered important. Gradually, the object-motive was reformulated as the need to support the development of children’s potential; hence, there is an increasing requirement now in a number of countries that a proportion of ECE teachers in a setting should hold relevant qualifications. The modification of ECE curriculum is achieved by putting in place relevant policies. For example, in Australia the Early Years Learning Framework (EYLF) – the current curriculum framework for ECE – is based on socio-cultural theory. The framework takes the context of child development seriously and encourages professionals to explore children’s engagement in societal life. The framework puts play as the leading activity for the child’s development, following both Vygotsky and Leontiev’s theoretical ideas.

However, there is still much resistance to using play as the leading activity in ECE, and it is important to consider, in context, why this is the case. For example, in Australia, historic analysis of education may point toward academic achievement as the highest priority for education; this usually leads to practices in primary and secondary levels that “train” children to succeed in tests and exams. ECE’s object-motive is constantly in the process of being reformulated, being torn by systemic contradictions in other educational activities, such as schooling and higher education.

Implications for Teaching and Inquiry into ECE

The main postulates of CHAT have raised questions about appropriate teaching and methods of inquiry into practice that are more relevant to support children’s development and learning from the CHAT perspective. CHAT approach presupposes reflective inquiry into ECE practice in order to maintain the theoretical principles outlined in the above sections. Considering children as individuals engaging in collective socio-cultural activities that have particular histories presents a challenge. Questions are raised with regard to the focus of research – where the development happens. If the development is directed from outside inward and then gets interpreted back to the social environment, then it seems pertinent to know which aspects of reality and children practice inquiry should focus on. CHAT researchers have developed some ideas of how to overcome the perpetual dilemma of selecting a practice inquiry focus on either an individual or a social environment.

Children’s learning from this perspective can be seen as participation (Rogoff 1993). Rogoff suggests viewing children’s learning as occurring at three planes:
  • Apprenticeship (the community plane)

  • Guided participation (the interpersonal plane)

  • Participatory appropriation (the personal plane)

During apprenticeship, individuals are socialized into the community they are living in. This happens because humans become humans only in a social environment. Children join communities in family life, work, environmental projects, charity, and so forth. While they are being socialized, their participation in socio-cultural activities can be guided by others. Those who guide children’s participation in the community activities are aware of historically evolved social rules and values. Gradually, a young person becomes a full member of the community and becomes active in it. By actively contributing to the community, young people transform themselves and activities in which they participate.

This theoretical view has methodological implications for teachers and researchers in ECE. It is not enough to observe a child in situ or just ask a child for their perspective of what is going. It is also not enough to ask adults what they think of the child’s progress. A socio-cultural-historical analysis, which directly influences CHAT-based pedagogy, involves all three planes at the same time. Research and ECE practice should:
  • Inquire about the activities that the community engages in;

  • Explore the interactions of the child with others;

  • Understand how a child transforms their own learning by contributing to what she does with others.

This approach, following Vygotsky and Leontiev’s main theoretical framework, has provided ECE researchers and teachers with more dynamic methodological tools that can help capture the essence of children’s learning in socio-cultural contexts. Yet, it is not sufficient to research children’s learning, interactions, and community if nothing can be done to change the context. ECE teachers, from the CHAT perspective, should inquire into the cultural-historical development of the context in which they work with children and families (Popova 2015).

In response to the need for the multidimensional approach to understanding of learning and development, CHAT has made contributions to organizational research and intervention. Following Engeström’s (1987) idea of expansive learning, which prompted a series of organizational interventions around the world, the CHAT methodology of studying and creating change has been modified. Engeström’s methodological framework has roots in Vygotsky and Leontiev’s work. It aims to stimulate new learning in organizations by studying historical cycles of activities in this organization. The participants of the intervention process use a structural representation of an activity to analyze:
  • What the organization has been working on (object-motive)

  • What regulations and processes are in place to guide the work that is being done (rules)

  • In which ways the power is distributed in the organization (division of labor)

  • What mediating artifacts have been used (tools)

  • Who else is involved in the activities (community)

By examining historical data through a series of meetings, the participants consider contradictions in the activities of their organization and use the framework to create new forms of work, thus expanding the learning. This approach relies on Vygotsky’s idea of “double stimulation,” which implies that an individual does not act directly on the stimulus but looks for a mediating tool to interpret the situation and find ways to act on it. It also applies the idea of going from the abstract to the concrete. Before participants can reformulate their practices, they think about what they do using an abstract concept of an activity system. If they did not do that, they would be in danger of doing unfocused and decontextualized remodeling of what their organizational practices.

These methodological approaches carry important meanings for inquiry into ECE. Nuttall (2013, p. 208) argues that this methodological approach has three strengths: “understanding that individuals and systems develop together; acknowledgement of practice as institutionally and historically produced; and orientation to shared objects of work rather than individual performance.” Such insights have implications for assessment and evaluation of ECE settings. Taking the CHAT approach, it becomes inappropriate to evaluate only what the setting has achieved by the time of assessment. It is also important to know why this has been achieved and what potential for transformation of activities the setting may have. For example, a setting in an economically deprived area may get a low-quality assessment rating based on the criteria used for assessment at that time. If there is no information collected about how the setting has been working, what support has been received from the community, what the community’s values are with regard to ECE (childcare, children’s development and well-being, preparation for school), and how staff have been working with the community, it is impossible to assess and evaluate the work that has been done adequately. The CHAT framework offers a dynamic methodological framework, which can help see assessment as a support mechanism rather than a simple accountability tool.

The Past, Present, and Future of ECE: The CHAT View

The overview provided above raises pertinent questions for ECE practitioners, policy-makers, and researchers. If practitioners are to see themselves as providing guided participation, they need to be equipped with tools of unpacking the historical development of the community and the origin of the socio-cultural values. For example, a number of ECE higher education courses ask students to generate their own professional philosophy. Although this may be important, one’s professional philosophy implies an individual’s take on the ECE, taking into account their own personal history and values. From the CHAT perspective, an ECE teacher’s philosophy is a product of a careful and subtle analysis of socio-cultural contexts against the dominant discourses in society. CHAT sees teacher’s work as collective and situated. It seems student teachers may need to be equipped with CHAT tools and skills of practice-based research to enable them to use embedded skills of contextual analysis.

There is a danger of focusing on teacher’s skills and competencies only. There is a historical legacy of blaming the teacher for any downfall in the education system. The CHAT theoretical apparatus gives a chance for policy-makers and researchers to generate a new imaginary, which can pave way to a reconstructed ECE discourse. The imaginary then has to see teachers only as partners in the socio-cultural milieu of ECE. Policy-makers, researchers, teacher educators, families, and other community members, according to CHAT, contribute to the ongoing construction of ECE as a socio-cultural activity. If the creation of the new policies, curricula, and teacher education courses can be seen as a focused work on reformulating the object-motive of ECE and transforming mediating tools, then there is a possibility to free ECE from “the blame the teacher” discourse or “reinventing the policy wheel,” which often happens in the education field. Instead, collective and multivoiced communities can start generating alternative views of ECE as a socio-cultural activity that is actively constructed by all the participants. Innovative interventions mentioned above can become part of the everyday life of ECE communities and teacher education courses. To conclude, the new imaginary will demand from the activity participants to treat history of activity development as an integral part of the whole and not as a separate and superfluous aspect of ECE. This overview has attempted to demonstrate that the legacy of Vygotsky and Leontiev is still very current; it offers multiple opportunities for the emancipation and empowerment of the people involved in ECE: children, teachers, and parents alike.


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© Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Education and ArtsAustralian Catholic UniversityMelbourneAustralia

Section editors and affiliations

  • Sue Stover
    • 1
  • Valerie Margrain
    • 2
  1. 1.Auckland University of Technology, New ZealandAucklandNew Zealand
  2. 2.Faculty of Humanities and Social SciencesKarlstad UniversityKarlstadSweden