EARLI 2015


Yrjö Engeström Keynote

Expansive learning across time, space, and hierarchical levels

Yrjö Engeström

CRADLE, University of Helsinki, Finland


Research on learning faces the problem of multiple levels: How is individual learning related to group learning, organizational learning, and learning in multi-organizational fields or networks? Research on implementation of innovations faces the problems of scaling up and sustainability: How is a local innovation distributed and generalized so as to have widespread and sustainable societal impact? This dual challenge is addressed in educational research by scholars such as Cobb and Jackson (2012), Datnow, Hubbard and Mehan (2002), Downing-Wilson, Lecusay and Cole (2011), and Scherrer, Israel and Resnick (2010). Hubbard, Mehan and Stein (2006) integrate the levels of learning problem and the implementation problem, regarding the educational reform itself as a learning process. I will take the same stance and attack the dual problem with the help of the theory of expansive learning (Engeström, 1987). 


Levels of learning need to be examined as levels in hierarchical structures of decision making, policy formation and power. The dilemma is that top-down reforms are typically poorly grounded in practical experience and thus meet with resistance – and bottom-up innovations are seldom endorsed by higher authorities, thus remaining local and difficult to sustain. I will argue that this dilemma may be transcended by introducing two additional dimensions into the analysis, namely those of temporal and spatial distribution. This means (a) that learning and innovation are seen as long-term cyclic processes characterized by discontinuities, and (b) that learning and innovation are seen as taking place in multiple sites and by multiple subjects in parallel. I will suggest two mechanisms, namely bridging (Engeström, Kerosuo & Kajamaa, 2007) and knotworking (Engeström, Engeström & Vähäaho, 1999), that may be developed and utilized as instruments for exploiting the two dimensions. I will discuss certain social movements as examples of powerful uses of the two mechanisms.


I will apply the three-dimensional framework in an analysis of two cases, namely (1) the case of building a new concept of educational management in the school system of Sao Paulo in Brazil, and (2) the case of creating and implementing a new concept of physical mobility in the municipal home care of the elderly in Helsinki, Finland. Both cases represent long-term formative interventions aimed at multi-level expansive learning and practical implementation of a demanding innovation.  




Cobb, P.& Jsckson, K. (2012). Analyzing educational policies: A learning design perspective. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 21(4), 487-521.


Datnow, A., Hubbard, L & Mehan, H. (2002). Extending educational reform: From one school to many. London: RoutledgeFalmer. 


Downing-Wilson, D., Lecusay, R. & Cole, M. (2011). Design experimentation and mutual appropriation: Two strategies for university/community collaborative after-school interventions. Theory & Psychology, 21(5), 656-680.