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TITLEExploring Learning Processes within a Collaborative Study Circle: Cultural-historical activity theory perspective on individual and social transformation
AUTHOR 1Jean-Marie Nau
ABSTRACTProcesses of learning in communities outside school-related education; Bahá'í theories of how education can express humans as noble beings; knowledge as a manifestation of social reality; teleological history; humanity as an organically evolving entity.
NOTES Thesis submitted for the Master of Arts in Learning and Development in Multilingual and Multicultural Contexts, University of Luxembourg. Also posted to
TAGS* Institute process; Education; Ruhi Institute; Study circles

1. Abstract (see PDF below)

Aims and objectives

The purpose of this study is to explore learning processes of a collaborative study group, engaged on a path of individual and social transformation, with the perspective of cultural-historical activity theory. The topic opens up a window on processes in learning communities beyond school-related education. The objective is to gain insights how learning takes place in the activity, what the tools are that the participants use in the activity, how these tools guide their learning, and how the participants' multivoicedness influences the learning process.

Research as a process

Scientific method is a truth seeking exercise, is interpretive, and any researcher needs to be clear about the basic set of beliefs that guides his action, his interpretive framework, and the network that contains his (1) ontological (the kind of human being we are; the nature of our reality), (2) epistemological (the relationship between the inquirer and the known, the observer and the observed), and (3) methodological premises (how we know the world or gain knowledge of it).

(1) To consider man as a noble being, as mine rich in gems which education can bring out, is a core element of a conceptual framework that governs every educational activity, and stands at the centre of the empirical data I have observed. Bahá'í texts state that the crucial need facing humanity today is to find a unifying vision of the nature and purpose of life and of the future of society. The object of the Bahá'í Faith is to effect a transformation in the whole character of mankind. Every human being has a two-fold moral purpose; to develop their latent potentialities through efforts to contribute to the advancement of civilization (Institute for Global Prosperity, 2012).

(2 and 3) Our culture(s), our language(s), our belief(s), our institutions and educational systems influence our understanding. They are products of the human mind. Social reality mediates our engagement with the world, and we have the capacity to create anew this reality. I advance on a path of learning that reduces ambiguity, where the mind does have access to reliable knowledge. The nonfoundational approach to knowledge recognizes the legitimacy of different points of view and the limitations on certainty, but unlike a relativistic approach, permits judgments about inadequacy or error. Human capacity for comprehending reality is circumscribed, but the mind does have access to reliable knowledge. We learn to live with uncertainty, and without epistemological guarantees, we act and strive to reduce ambiguity. This research presents a modest contribution to explore a tiny facet and fragment of social reality, and is not a description of the world as it is. The study represents one perspective on social reality, a reality that is whole.

I take the teleological stand that history is not just a series of events, but develops. Humanity as an organic entity evolves, in its collective life, towards maturity. Humanity stands today at the threshold of maturity and the distinguishing attribute of this maturity is the unification of the human race. My belief in the oneness of humankind stands at the center of a conception of existence within which the nature of the fundamental processes and structures of the collective life on the planet are defined.

How the research was conducted: participants and research instruments

The unit of analysis consists of a group of five participants who start a course on how to provide children, aged five to eight, moral, spiritual, and values-based training. The data collected includes five video-recorded group sessions and interviews, written questionnaires, notes, and a number of documents, which include primary texts, written by the central authors and institutions of the Bahá'í community, by individuals or Bahá'í-inspired organisations. Each of the five video-recorded sessions lasted on average two hours, and there was a lapse of five months between the first study session and the last written questionnaire, carried out after session six. 21 excerpts chosen are analysed in depth.

The research is founded on the framework of the cultural-historical school of learning and development, which is referred to during the analysis of the interactional data. The concept of learning is applied to the individual and social plane. The analysis at the micro-level is referring to individual utterances and joint conversations. References are made to acquisition and participation approaches and their interconnectedness.

I use activity theory to frame the analysis and discourse analysis to analyze the data. Activity theory states, that a collective activity, with the basic purpose shared by others, is undertaken by people who are motivated by a purpose or towards the solution of a problem, which is mediated by tools, used in order to achieve an outcome.

When we communicate, we may strive for clarity, but we are always situated in an historical context and what we say is influenced by our multivoicedness. Reflecting on what people have said and written, and thereby discovering meaning and interpretation is the basis of discourse analysis (Gee, 2005).

Findings and Implications

The study shows how learning takes place through a complex interaction between all of the elements in the activity system. Nine distinct instances offer insights that this particular type of collaborative activity encourages and promotes the exchange of questions, ideas, experiences, thoughts and knowledge among participants:
  1. ideas bounce and comments resonate with other participants
  2. cultural differences meet in a collaborative activity through value negotiation
  3. a known concept connects to a new context of having to raise children
  4. the object of learning is considered a positive source, spread out worldwide for the first time
  5. learning develops through comparison and identity develops
  6. an research interest is shown in what participants do and how they do it
  7. the activity undertaken is value-oriented
  8. participants negotiate the suggested learning tools, mediation is present
  9. the tutor shares experiences and skills
The study shows that participants negotiate tools given by the content-based curriculum and suggests that participants in a collaborative learning activity focus on their objectives and outcome, and thus choose, define and appropriate themselves suitable tools. The following mediating artefacts, tools and signs were used by the participants and shaped their learning:
  • three languages (French, Luxembourgish, and German)
  • the curriculum and the negotiation of the tools provided
  • writing
  • participants' cultural-historical background and the tools they added to the activity
The study circle observed is at the beginning of its historicity. Study circles are developing with their own historicity in different contexts and cultures, and on the one, influence the way participants learn. On the other hand, as participants bring in their historicity and multivoicedness, they influence the learning activity. In this way, there is interconnectedness and mutual influence between participants and the learning activity. The study shows how participants bring into the activity their multivoicedness and historicity. Most of these voices help the participants towards reaching their objective and outcome.

In the analysis of the 21 excerpts, I identified 32 voices that participants bring into the activity, collected into seven interacting and overlapping categories:

  • voices that are in the name of everyone, or for everyone, when we see ourselves collectively
  • voices of those we care for and love
  • voices of those that are keen to learn and curious to find out more about human existence
  • voices of someone that takes part in an activity, someone that shares his skills, someone willing to contribute as best as possible.
  • voices of someone with certain qualities, skills and values that transmit and portray certain qualities
  • voices of those that endure physical hardship and are close to nature
  • voices of those not satisfied by certain learning tools
I suggest that participants, engaged in collaborative learning activities, raise their awareness that their multivoicedness influences their learning.

The study suggests that the existence and deliberate creation of certain conditions among participants in a learning activity influence the learning process. They include mutual trust, honesty, unity, a welcoming and encouraging attitude, a respect for the opinion of others, adopting a humble learning attitude, humour, and taking ownership of one's learning.

In a further research step, the challenge of expansive learning, that is, transforming the context of the learning activity through joint achievement can be analysed and achieved through an interventionist approach. Additionally, a more distant stance towards the processes in the collaborative study circle can be taken through a meta-level analysis, facilitated by the cultural-historical activity theory framework.

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