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Mind, Culture, and Activity, 9(1), 4366.

DIALOGUE IN ACTIVITY THEORY Gordon Wells Ontario Institute for Studies in Education University of Toronto

As a number of recent publications have shown (Beach, 1999; Engestrom, Miettinen, & Punamaki, 1999; Nardi, 1996), activity theory is proving a useful tool for analyzing and theorizing about workplace activity settings, in which it is relatively easy to identify material objects that subjects transform through the use of artifacts of various kinds. It has also proved useful in realms of symbolic activity in which texts of various kinds function as object and/or mediating artifacts (Bazerman, 1994; Russell, 1995). However, it has not been used to any great extent to address issues of classroom learning and teaching, in which the object is purportedly the understanding of events, concepts, and theoretical relationships, and the mediational means - the descriptions, narratives and explanations in speech as well as writing - through which this understanding is achieved. Perhaps this is not so surprising. Activity theory, as formulated by Leont'ev (1981), accounted primarily for material activity and its outcome in the form of transformed material objects; similarly, the artifacts that provided the mediational means tended to be material tools, such as spears, gearshifts and computers. In more recent work, spoken and written discourse have begun to figure in the lists of mediating artifacts, although exactly how they function as such has not been explored in very much detail. The purpose of this paper, then, is to advance exploration of the role of dialogue in the activity of learning and teaching. The Activity System of Schooling Schooling is by no means homogeneous, even within a particular country or local community, although through much of the twentieth century the aim of curriculum planners and

2 administrators has mean to make it so. As I shall explain below, the reason for this variation is to be found in the unpredictable nature and outcome of any interaction that is co-constructed. Even with the most rigid teacher and the most passive and submissive students, there is no certainty about how the interaction between them will unfold nor about what meanings will be constructed (Lemke, 1985). Nevertheless, for much of the history of public schooling, it has been assumed, in practice as well as in theory, that given the same curriculum content as object, the same outcome will be achieved by all students in all comparable classrooms. And to ensure that this outcome does indeed result, schooling has been regularized by the creation of gradelevel-specific textbooks that function as the principal means of homogenized curriculum delivery (Miettinen, 1999). However, as Engestrm points out, this pedagogic tradition, referred to as school-going, or doing school, involves a strange reversal of object and instrument. Rather than textbooks serving to mediate the exploration of significant educational topics as the object of the activity of schooling: In school-going text takes the role of the object. This object is molded by pupils in a curious manner: the outcome of their activity is above all the same text reproduced and modified orally or in written form. (Engestrm, 1987, p. 101; quoted in Miettinen, 1999, p. 326.) Engestrm (1991) gives a clear example of this process in the way in which the phases of the moon are traditionally studied. Learning about this topic becomes essentially a matter of construing the two-dimensional representation of the relationship between the sun, the earth and the moon that is shown in the textbook, and being able to reproduce this relationship in response to teacher questions or items in tests. Given the inadequacy of the textbook representation, it is not surprising that a substantial majority of students construct seriously misconceived versions of this relationship. Engestrms point in presenting this example is to criticize what he calls the encapsulation of schooling - its separation from the real world of activities, to understand and prepare for which should be the purpose of schooling. And in the remainder of his article, he offers a number of

3 superior alternative approaches to the same topic. However, while agreeing with this aspect of his argument, I believe that there is another feature of traditional schooling which, as Miettinen (1999) and others have pointed out, is equally responsible for the barrenness of schooling experienced by so many students. This is the mode of interaction through which lessons are typically conducted. Referred to as the recitation script by (Tharp & Gallimore, 1988), the ubiquitous practice of conducting lessons through a succession of discourse exchanges in which teachers ask questions about the text and/or its topic to which they already know the answer and then evaluate the students responses and perhaps add comments of their own of various kinds (Mehan, 1979)(Lemke, 1990), is the antithesis of the way in which knowledge is co-constructed in settings in which knowing-in-action is consequential for the activity in progress. Drawing on Deweys (1938) emphasis on learning by doing and by Vygotskys (1987) equal emphasis on semiotic mediation, I have recently proposed that education be approached as essentially an activity of dialogic inquiry (Wells, 1999). My suggestion is that schooling should be seen as fundamentally a form of semiotic apprenticeship, in which students engage in investigations of issues, problems and questions of personal as well as cultural concern and represent the processes and results of their knowing-in-action in contributions to a multi-modal dialogue that is principally aimed at increasing their individual and collective understanding of the issues and problems addressed. While this dialogue is absolutely central to the desired outcome, I am equally convinced that it will be most progressive (Bereiter, 1994) when it is focused on an object that is to be constructed and improved. This object can take many forms. In a grade two classroom that I observed, for example, the children started by constructing elastic-powered vehicles and, when these were functioning reasonably well, they investigated the relationship between the number of turns of the driving elastic band around the vehicles axle and the distance travelled, on smooth as well as rough surfaces, and with and without tires. In a grades six and seven study of the Black Death, students identified issues they wished to investigate and one group attempted to construct an explanation of why the physicians of that time wore a bird-like cape, in the belief that this would provide protection against infection.

4 In the first of these two examples, the dialogue was carried out in collaborative action as the students built and improved their vehicles and then subsequently in a whole class oral discussion in which they attempted to explain the results obtained by one of the students. In the second example, the dialogue was carried on in writing, as the students posted notes to the relevant section of the Knowledge Wall in their classroom and responded to the notes of others (Hume, in press). In both cases, much informal spoken dialogue also occurred as the students worked on their vehicles and written notes, respectively. From these two examples, two points become clear. The first is that the object that is worked upon may be either material or symbolic - although, as Cole (1996) points out, it is always both. In the case of the vehicle, it was both a model car and an embodiment-in-action of the principle of kinetic energy; in the case of the doctors clothing, the contributions to the Knowledge Wall were both hypothetical explanations and texts written on Post-it notes. This dual status of objects is very significant. The materiality of the object is critical in allowing it to become a focus of joint activity - something that can be sensually perceived, handled and acted upon. At the same time, it is the symbolic aspect of the object that allows it to participate in the students progressive attempts to increase their understanding of the phenomena under investigation. However, it is the combination of the two modes that makes the object so important, since it enables the teacher to mediate between the abstract curriculum devised by experts outside the classroom and the interests and competencies of the particular students for whose educational progress s/he is responsible. The question I address in this paper is: How should such events be represented within the framework of activity theory? Models of Mediated Action As already mentioned, Wertsch (1998) suggests that agent-acting-with-mediational-means is the basic unit in describing human activity. This can be represented by the familiar Vygotskian triangular diagram shown in figure 1.

5 Artifact



Figure 1. Mediated action Whereas other species act directly upon the object of interest to them, humans on most occasions interpose an artifact between themselves and the object of interest, thereby enabling them to act more effectively. What is missing from this representation, however, is the cultural and historical context within which action occurs. This is what Leontev emphasized with his tri-stratal account in terms of activity-motive, action-goal, operation-prevailing conditions. From his perspective, in order to account for actual behavior, the action in progress needs to be seen both as a (partial) instantiation of a cultural activity, with its driving motive, and also as realized through operations selected according to the relevant conditions in the situation. For example, in times long past, the activity of hunting involved the coordination of more than one action - one group driving the game towards a second group who killed the approaching animals. Those responsible for the second action, the goal of which was to kill the animals, might select as operation either throwing spears, using slings, or shooting arrows, depending on the artifacts available to the group and the relative likelihood of success with any of these missiles in the terrain and prevailing conditions. Or, to take a stereotypical example within the activity of Education, the goal of ensuring that students learn and remember the capitals of European countries (action) might be achieved through the use of either a quiz, in which students respond to specific questions and are evaluated on their responses, or a worksheet on which they draw lines between the locations marked on a map and the matching entries on a list of the names of capital cities. Both of these mediational

6 means of reinforcing the link between names and locations constitute operations, between which the teacher chooses according to his/her judgement as to which would be most effective with the particular group of students. In order to represent the way in which action is embedded within this more complex organizational structure of activity, Engestrm (Cole & Engestrm, 1993)(Engestrm, 1987) has created the expanded triangle shown in figure 2.

Figure 2. Expanded Triangle of an Activity System In this model, as Engestrm explains: the subject refers to the individual or sub-group whose agency is chosen as the point of view in the analysis. The object refers to the 'raw material' or 'problem space' at which the activity is directed and which is molded and transformed into outcomes with the help of physical and symbolic, external and internal mediating instruments, including both tools and signs. The community comprises multiple individuals and/or sub-groups who share the same general object and who

7 construct themselves as distinct from other communities. The division of labor refers to both the horizontal division of tasks between the members of the community and to the vertical division of power and status. Finally the rules refer to the explicit and implicit regulations, norms and conventions that constrain actions and interactions within the activity system. (webpage) To return to the educational example referred to above, the class as a whole would be the community in question and the division of labor would clearly distinguish between the different responsibilities of teacher and students, while the rules and conventions would include positive and negative evaluation of student responses, including perhaps the assignment of marks to discriminate between individual performances, and the rule that students should not assist each other by supplying information to those who do not appear to be able to supply it by themselves. A further feature of this model of an activity system is the way in which it alerts one to possible sites of tension and potential breakdown. For example, in the kind of lesson carried out according to the recitation script (Tharp & Gallimore, 1988), the division of authority and labor between teacher and students, in which the teacher maintains the role of primary knower (Berry, 1981) throughout, casts the students in a purely responsive role and limits their active participation in the construction of knowledge. As a result, the outcome of the action from the students subject position is one of memorized information rather than the active appropriation and transformation of geographical knowledge that the curriculum designer presumably intended. Such tensions are the norm in any established activity system, with the result that, as points out, the system is constantly working through contradictions within and between its elements. In this sense, an activity system is a virtual disturbance- and innovation-producing machine (Engestrm, webpage). There is no question that, compared with the simple triangle of mediated action, Engestrms representation of an activity system is much more comprehensive, particularly in the version that shows the relationships between related activity systems (webpage, fig. 6). However, it still appears to prioritize a unidirectional form of artifact-mediated, object-oriented action, in which a subject, or group of subjects acting together, acts to transform an object and thereby yield a

8 recognizable outcome. Much more difficult to see is the reciprocal influences that participants in a dialogue have on each other through the text that they co-construct. Similarly, this representation does not well capture the mutual adjustments that are involved in working in the zone of proximal development (Vygotsky, 1987) and the transformation of identity experienced by one or more of the participants. It seems, therefore, that a rather different form of representation is needed to highlight the reciprocal relationship between the semiotic actions of subjects engaged in dialogue. As Penuel (1995) argues, the choice of methodological frame shapes what we interpret or explain about human action. Tools and Signs as Mediating Means The present exploratory paper is certainly not the first attempt to understand the relationship between artifact-mediated action and semiotically mediated interaction. Some years ago, on the xpractice branch of the xlchc listserv organized by Mike Cole from UCSD, this subject was discussed at some length. Arne Raeithel proposed that the distinguishing mark of sign mediated action in comparison with tool mediated action (narrow sense) is precisely that the object of the activity is the subject itself. Subject acts on Subject via mediational means (30 Mar 1995). In the same message, he included two contrasting diagrams, which I here reproduce (figures 3a and 3b) as accurately as I can with my different technology:
Rules -- Community -- Distribution and Violence Control \ / \ / \ / \ / \ / \ / \ / \ / Subject ----- Object ==> result for exchange / \ / \ with others or later self / \ / \ / \ / \ / \ / \ Experience -- Means -- Realisation = personal means = physical means of orientation of production

Figure 3a. Expanded Triangle of Cooperative Production

Rules -- Community -- Rules \ / \ / \ / \ / \ / \ / \ / \ / Subject ----- Subject ==> result in exchange with others / \ / \ or larger/later self / \ / \ / \ / \ / \ / \ Experience -- Means -- Experience

Figure 3b. Expanded Triangle of Communication This contrasting pair of diagrams certainly brings out some of the essential difference between object-oriented action and subject-oriented interaction, but Raeithel was not satisfied with it and, over the next few days, he developed a pyramidal representation (shown in two dimensions, of course) that I and others found very illuminating. To my knowledge, however, the proposal was unfortunately never developed into a published article. One reason for Raeithels dissatisfaction was a problem that he had himself pointed out in a slightly earlier message, when he commented on Vygotsky's deceptively beautiful equation of two triangles, one a representation of tool-mediated action and the other of sign-mediated action. A sign does not have the direct causal force of a tool, rather it must be picked up by the second subject, accepted as meaningful and legitimate, and turned into some action by its/her/his own force. As Vygotsky never published the diagram, Raeithel surmised that Vygotsky, too, had some misgivings about the simple equation of tool and sign. This problem was spelled out in more detail in a subsequent message by Lemke: I do not believe that the Subject terms in these two different triads can be unproblematically identified with one another. The Subject of sign processes foregrounds different aspects of agency (namely semiotic agency, the agentive role in the semantics of verbal or otherwise semiotic processes), whereas the Subject of tool processes corresponds more to material agency and the agentive role in the semantic of material effective-action processes. One can make this

10 argument either entirely in semantic terms, or in terms of some notionally 'real' distinction between semiotic and material aspects of action. This is not to say that these two are separable in practice; every semiotic process is also a material one, every material process can be semioticized. But our notions, and discursive usages, about what a Subject is, are, I think, very different in the two cases. (xlchc, 2 April 1995) As both Raeithel and Lemke make clear, material tools and semiotic signs play different roles in activity. While they may both be directed in some sense to the same object, the agency of the users of signs and tools is of a different kind, as is the way in which they bring about their transformative effects. As the recipient of a semiotic action, the addressee is more likely to produce a rejoinder or to perform a relevant material action him/herself than to be transformed in any significant material way. A sign can, therefore, be considered only metaphorically as a tool. But, as just suggested, there is a further distinction that needs to be considered with respect to signs. Some signs are used to cause another subject to perform an action, as in the case of verbal commands and traffic signals. It is in these cases that the sign most closely approximates a material tool in mediating action - although the action is typically performed through the agency of a subject other than the one who issues the sign. However, many signs are not intended to direct another subjects action, or at least not immediately. Instead, their function is to contribute to the construction and exploration of a possible world (Bruner, 1986) that is collaboratively undertaken through the successive contributions that the participants make to the emerging text of dialogue. Although ultimately anchored in the actual material world of the participants past and present experiences, the relationship between words and world can range from directive through descriptive to hypothetical or purely imaginary (cf. Searle, 1976) and, in most forms of dialogue, is negotiated rather than unilaterally imposed. Dialogue, then, is different from tool-mediated action in a number of ways. First, although it requires the production and exchange of utterances in some material medium, the action that is performed is one of meaning, which is only indirectly related to the material utterance acts through the semiotic conventions of the community. Second, it is not the co-participants who are

11 the object of the speakers utterance act - except in the sense that the utterance is directed to them; rather, the object is the issue, problem or topic that is the focus of their joint consideration. And third, while a material artifact may be one intended outcome of their joint action, as, for example, in the case of a political communiqu, a film script or the formulation of a theory, this is not necessarily the case. Much dialogue of significance to the participants yields no overt material artifact - unless a technological device is used to record the interaction; instead, the outcome to which the participants aim is an enriched understanding of the object, both individually and collectively. However, it does not follow from these differences that dialogue, unlike tool-mediated action, has no impact on the material world. Much dialogue is intimately related to the actual world, either as planning for or reflecting on actions to be or already performed. And, even where the relationship is more tenuous, as in artistic, philosophical or scientific discourse, the meanings made "can come to color and change our perception of the 'actual' world, as envisioning possibilities in it not presently recognized" (Wartofsky, 1979,p. 209). Thus, material and semiotic actions should not be thought of as mutually exclusive alternative forms of joint activity. Frequently, they occur simultaneously or alternate as phases in the same activity; in either case they are in important ways complementary. As well as distinguishing the different modes in which tools and signs mediate activity, therefore, it is equally important to try to understand what might be called their intertextuality (Lemke,1996). In the remainder of this paper, I shall attempt to carry this program further through an exploration of a particular episode of interaction in a grades four and five classroom in Metro Toronto that was video-recorded some years ago. In fact, a copy of the initial transcript of this episode was what prompted some of Raeithels diagrammatic suggestions discussed above. While I have a somewhat different account to suggest, my proposal is essentially a further contribution to the dialogue that was carried on by email at that time.

12 Planning to Make a Model from Junk Material Two girls, Linda and Janet (age 9 yrs), are working together to carry out an assignment set by their teacher. Along with the other members of the class, they are to collaborate as a pair in making a "technology" object (i.e. something that serves or might serve a purpose), using collected junk materials that are to be found in the classroom. They are also to write individual entries in their learning logs about what they are doing. At the beginning of the episode, they have not yet decided what to make. Janet has already written some preliminary thoughts in her journal, which she reads aloud to Linda to get the activity going. This prompts Linda to start writing her journal entry. While she does so, Janet picks up an illustrated book, An Early Start to Technology (Richards, 1990), and looks at the pictures. One of these sparks her interest and she describes it to Linda, who also looks at the book. Turning to the next page, they see a picture of a model land yacht. As they discuss what materials they might use and how it would work, they gradually arrive at an agreement to make a boat on wheels, as they decide to call it. They then turn back to writing about this decision in their learning logs, complete with a rough drawing of the object to be made. Altogether, the episode last about 15 minutes and consists of some 25 interactional sequences and over 125 'utterances'. The episode was of particular interest to me for two reasons. First, I was fascinated by the way in which the decision to make the model land yacht emerged from a combination of their talk and the entries they were writing in their learning logs; and second, the role of the illustrated book in the decision greatly intrigued me. There were other features of interest as well: the way in which the two girls negotiated their relationship with each other (although they had been in the same classroom all year, they had not worked together before), and also with a pair of twin girls, recently arrived from a non-English-speaking country, who were working at the same table; the large part played by non-verbal communication in their negotiations, particularly Janets dramatic gestures; and the way in which the teachers instructions affected the girls construal of the task. In fact, the episode is far too rich for one paper to do justice to all these issues so, in what follows, I shall focus only on the first two, and then only in a summary fashion. My intention is to use this example of classroom interaction to illustrate an alternative way of conceptualizing and representing diagrammatically the interplay between tool- and sign-mediated

13 action in the context of joint activity. As I wrote in my message to Raeithel, My main question is: Is the interactional discourse between J and L best seen as a further means, or as the activity itself? Or, putting it differently, is what's going on best diagrammed as in the first of your two versions, as in the second, or in some combination of the two? Co-Constructing Artifacts and Meanings At one level, the object of the activity, of which this episode is the first actional realisation, is to construct a working model (1) from junk materials. (In a subsequent episode several days later, the girls do, in fact, engage jointly in the material action of constructing the model and then in the action of propelling it with the air current produced by a hair dryer.) At a second level, the object is the construction of a specification (2) of an object (1) to be constructed according to the criteria specified by the teacher. And at a third level, the object - achieved during this episode is to reach a decision (3) on what object (1) to make. In addition, there is a fourth object, to be worked on in parallel with all of the others, which is to make entries in their learning logs (4) describing and reflecting on the processes involved in (1) - (3). What is particularly interesting is that none of these objects exist in advance of the activity; each has to be co-constructed with the mediational means available. A second interesting feature of the activity is the relationship among the constitutive actions. Apart from the creation of log entries, which is supposed to continue throughout the activity, these actions form both a temporal sequence, each being dependent on the outcome of the one that preceded, and a sequence of a different kind, which might be described as the progressive externalization of an idea. Writing about writing, (Smith, 1982) describes the somewhat similar process of externalizing an idea in the creation of a publishable text (although in most cases unlike here - this is carried out as a solo activity). In his view, writing involves a progressive specification of what one wants to say, which is only fully discovered and achieved in engagement with the actual words on the page. That is to say, meaning is emergent; it does not pre-exist the activity, simply waiting to be given linguistic and material embodiment in the

14 written text. In many respects, this applies also to Janet and Lindas creation of the land yacht. In writing for publication, there are frequently external constraints that have to be accommodated, and a wider community who may provide assistance and whose envisaged response provides a larger contextual purpose (motive) for the activity. There is also a wide variety of mediational means, including other examples of the genre (model texts), sources for ideas (reference books, suggestions from other people), and the dialogue (usually with self) in which these other material/semiotic artifacts are construed, evaluated, and transformed for use if appropriate for the action in progress. These features also apply to the land yacht activity as a whole, and to varying degrees to each of the constitutive actions. In this context, it is instructive to consider the final action, that of making the material object so that it would actually sail. In putting together the land yacht, the two girls first gathered together the selected material parts - a block of wood, several lengths of dowel, the caps of four film canisters, a square piece of fabric, glue, and some small nails - and the tools they would need - a hammer, a ruler, and a saw. Then they began to assemble the parts though a process involving operations of cutting, glueing and hammering. They also involved a considerable amount of trial and error: the mast did not stand firmly on the first attempt and two of the wheels would not turn. These problems required both deliberation and modification of the initial operations, now consciously performed as stepped-up goal-directed actions (cf. Leontevs (1981) distinction between action and operation). In this constructional action, the girls acted jointly as subject; there was no fixed division of labor between them, although within the wider community there was such a division, with the girls carrying out the material actions and the teacher and one or two peers offering advice, even when not requested to do so. The rule of using junk materials was carefully followed (glue and nails were excluded from this regulation) and the requirement that their land yacht should be able to sail was always in the background. However, while the intended outcome is clear, it is less easy to be certain about either object or mediational means. In one sense, the object was the collection of materials that was assembled, but from another it

15 was the envisaged outcome - or, alternatively, the specifications for the outcome artifact - that constituted the object that was transformed and given material realisation through the constructional action. The mediational means certainly included the material operations with hammer and glue-gun; they also included the intrapersonal (egocentric speech) and interpersonal discourse that selected and controlled the material operations. But the illustration of a land yacht that originally caught the girls attention continued to play a mediating role, now as a visual representation of the genre of material artifact to be produced. Against this account, let us now set an account of the action of reaching a decision about what to make. The evidence on which this account will be based is constituted by an augmented transcript of the first x sequences of the recorded episode (figure 4). A key to the symbols and codes used will be found in Appendix 1. Figure 4. Starting to Construct a 'Boat on Wheels'
Ref. Spk Text The two girls are sitting on two adjacent sides of an octoganal table. Both are busy writing in their science logs, though Janet seems to be writing more than Linda. They work in silence for about a minute. Then both pause and look up. An Early Start to Technology is open in front of them. Also at the same table, X and Y are preparing to make a similar artifact. 01 02 03 L What are we `planning on \making? J I put \this .. (reads) "So far me and Linda are looking at the junk \/materials-" C J Can I \/see? (to J) Yeah \sure (to C) [2 L<w J<w D N] 1 N D: Joint Intend R G: Report I J makes a minor G: Inform correction to her text as she pauses D: C asks to have the I Permission book R J waves her pencil to G: accede to C and it Permission drops on the floor; she leans down to pick I Gaze Gest Seq Ex M Discourse Code Comments L brushes her hair back with her hand; J uses both hands to arrange her hair in a much more dramatic movement. J continues writing; L stares into space, her head supported by r hand, elbow on table. After 5 secs, she speaks

04 05

it up. C takes the book. G: J returns to interact. Boundary with L L looks over to read G: Inform J's text J makes l h gest, from palm down to up and extended away from her. She edits her text, adding 'and' L begins to add to her [to self] text and writes for a few seconds G: Inform L looks at C G: Inform Head nod and pencil flourish on 'NOT' She has difficulty getting the intonation to match the sentence structure and makes several selfcorrections. Repeats l.h.gest (08) twice, fast. J drops her voice on the last two words, looking straight at L. Repeats gest in 08 with l h vertical. Gest seems rather dramatically nonchalant L flicks her hair with r hand L speaks as she writes her text; J watches L for 6 secs, looks up and then leans over to C J asks C to let her have the book

06 07

\OK . (reads quickly) "So far me and Linda are looking at the `junk -materials .. at *things that- `AND at things that \move x x"

J<L J<w




09 10 11


I'm going to put"-`and at things that \move . -with pulleys, gears, wheels, axles and per/\haps more. We have deci- we haven't- we have *NOT decided . `what- . we have `not decided /\WHAT.




G: Inform E


But- but we `will be *looking \today" .



G: Inform


We haven't *decided `what we're Gz J<>L \/doing but we'll be looking \today

G: Report


\OK .*

A: Ack


so "We are . /looking" (..10..)



[to self]


(to C) Is it ok if we use <this book now> ..

D: Permission +

Constraint 18 19 just while we figure something \out? .. (to C) \Thank you (>C) G: C releases the books [R] [N-V Act] and J takes it F (>J) A: Thank L takes eraser from [to self] the containeron the table and uses it J starts to look through the book, talking to herself inaudibly while L continues to write (18 sec). J is looking at a picture of Egyptians using rollers to move stone blocks in building the pyramids. Exaggerated rise-fall I D: Call inton. L looks at the book G: Eval too. J taps the logs in I [L] A: (Nthe picture with her V Act} pencil Both index and G: Suggest thumbs on book; oscillates l index and thumb together, taps on the corner of the picture Makes pushing away gest, both hands, palm flat and down. Busy movements of both hands ending with l to r path on picture with r index L pulls the book R A: Agree towards herself I G: Suggest J touching a picture at the top of next page with pencil I D: Joint Taps new picture with


Where's the \eraser? (? to self)



L<w J<b

22 23

/\Linda! . this is \/neat, if we got `two- got one two three four- `four paper towel \/rolls .. a */\box . or .. we could even use a piece of *\wood ..

J<b> L Go Go



One of us would be *\/pushing it . like with our \/hands and- and . the other one of us can be */\pulling it along this-




27 28 29 30 31


Mm - that's one thing to /\move .. as you see *`there it is /\there except they use /\pencils .... <Let's look at /that x>.. Po N


Action D: Joint Action G: Stall pencil L sits up straight.

32 33 34 35 36 37


Let's look through some \more . Let's seeYes, because you *have to use- be able to use \/junk with this ... \Yeah Look at that /\sailboat .... That's *\neat L<J J<b L<b Po J<b Po/ Gf ?






Yeah and then we could make something like use *`air to make it \/roll . */\wind power . like use */wind power? (suggesting)




J turns to the next page G: Makes small circling Justificatio movements with pencil in r hand. n A: Agree L leans over and D: Action touches picture. J looks hard at G: [N'sailboat' for 4 secs, VAct] then taps the picture G: Eval with her pencil, as if giving approval. Makes beat with G: Suggest pencil in r h and nods on 'air'. Repeats beat and keeps hand extended. Small repeat. J considers for a moment, looking up with mouth open, A+: Agree arms wide apart in judgment; then taps once with pencil on picture on 'yeah'. G: -J taps rapidly on A+: Agree picture thenlooks at L on 'wind power' G: Justifi- L pulls book towards cation herself so that she can see better. D: Suggestion J demonstrates, G: raising imaginary Suggestion newspaper then flapping with both arms extended, then adjusts her hair. L copies J's A: Agree demonstration.



J */\Yeah


42 43


I mean- . <that's-> *Yeah /\wind power

L<b J<b J<L L<b E



-that's . junkHow are we going to have \wind power? If we took a *newspaper and went like \/that?

45 46

J< Da




\Yeah ..



L shrugs her G: shoulders and makes Counter2-handed speculative Suggestion gesture, looking briefly at J. L and J (still adjusting her hair grip) watch something going on in the room for 7 secs. Then L continues writing D: C asks to look at the I Permission book, taking hold of top r corner J looks at C, G: smoothing her hair; R Permission she pulls book back + and makes downward Qualif. + movement of l hand D: Agree on 'make' and C simult. lets it go. J moves extended G: arms up and down Permission slightly . J makes permission I D: Action dependent on C's taking precaution. I R [N-V Act] G: Permission J puts paper in book to mark the page and closes it. C then takes the book. J turns her attention to writing. J and L are both quiet for 13 secs while they write Small circling beats with pencil. C takes and passes J a piece of scra p paper from box on table.


or \blowed





<x you making?>



Yeah, we're just going to decide to *make something \/ok?


52 53 54 55 C

but just- you can *\/look at it just make sure you don't lose this \/page .. um x x x xxx

J<b> C

? D

56 57

\Yeah ... (to C) You can \use it (?to C or L) and we're all <putting> \junk materials x x x \OK (to self)

58 59 60 61 62 L

So are we- have we- we're *\lookingare we *\/looking still or have we




D: Opinion

*`decided to make that \boat? 63 64 65 66 J L J L I think we should *\make that \OK . it should be\OK . so forbecause we can use the *\cloth that L<J ?Go we have there \Yeah \OK ... So should we *put now . that we're- we areJ L Yeah - looking at \what to make? L<w L>J Gc 14 N J<w D E E/ J<>L Gz L<J


G: Opinion Ack Ack G: Justif

Head nod on 'make'.

J starts to make a proposal. Small movements of extended thumb and 2 fingers of both hands

67 68 69


Ack (?G: Agree) F Ack D: I Opinion

Leans over and with l index makeswhat look like written signs.

70 71

G: R Opinion/ Agree J and L write for 11 secs.

The collaborative nature of this action is not immediately apparent, as the two girls are initially working independently on their journal entries. However, at line 1, Linda initiates joint action by soliciting Janets views on what should become their joint intention. Janet responds, somewhat indirectly, by reading aloud what she has written. In effect, although stating that a decision has not yet been made, her text functions as a proposal both as to the sort of artifact that they should make and as to how they should proceed. The meaning Janet has already constructed and now proffers for consideration is a rather abstract specification of the final object (1), rendered more substantial by the fact that it is simultaneously a written text, which has apparent material as well as symbolic existence. However, this written artifact, the outcome of Janets solo composing, immediately becomes, in its role as a proposed specification, one of the mediational means used to move towards the object-to-be-constructed (3), namely the decision as to what to make. It is at this point that the book, An Early Start to Technology, enters the action as a further mediational means. The role it plays is that of suggesting first one and then a second candidate object for the activity as a whole. Once the second candidate is accepted, it is a relatively simple

21 matter to agree that object (3), the decision, has been co-constructed and to move on to object (2), the development of a specification of (1) in terms of the materials to be used and the means for making the model function. Creating written entries in their log books about (2) and (3) serves to give their decisions more objective status and to make it easier for them to function as additional artifacts to mediate the next phase, that of material construction. In this action, as well as in the final one, oral discourse is a further, indispensable mediational means, both coordinating the joint activity as a whole, as well as its constituent actions, and enabling the two girls to manage their interpersonal relationship in such a way that both feel that they are participating on personally satisfying, if not entirely equal, terms. Although there is not space to explore it further here, it is also interesting to note in this respect how the non-verbal dimensions of the discourse contribute to both these achievements. Sequence 10 provides a particularly clear example, as Janet taps with her pencil on the illustration of the land yacht to indicate the referent that is the object/outcome of their decision, and uses a combination of pausing, intonation and gesture to make it (unspokenly) clear that, although the suggestion came from Linda, it is her endorsement that is necessary for the suggestion to advance to the status of intended object (1) of their joint activity. Representing Dialogic Interaction and Activity By now it is abundantly clear that it is no easy matter to represent diagrammatically the multidimensional complexity of this - or any other - activity. In the first place, the temporal sequence of the different types of constitutive action requires more than one diagram, if only to show how artifacts created as the outcome of one action become mediators in subsequent phases. As Engestrm (webpage) has also shown, each diagram needs to include many activity systems in order to show the antecedent activities in which the key features of the focal diagram achieved their current status. In the present case, for example, the rules that the models should be constructed from junk materials and that progress should be individually recorded in the students logbooks were established in a previous episode, in which the division of labor between teacher and other community members was clearly apparent. Similarly, the compilation of the reference book and its availability in the classroom were outcomes of activities prior to and

22 independent of the use that Janet and Linda made of it to mediate the various phases of their joint activity. Even more difficult is to show the shifting relationships among the various mediational means that the girls employed to achieve the goals of the different phases of the activity. All phases included material artifacts, visuographic representations of meaning (written texts and illustrations) as well as the multi-dimensional exchange of meanings that we refer to as spoken discourse. In their different ways, sometimes reinforcing each other and at other times relatively independently, all these means contributed to the progressively increasing dialogic understanding which was itself both mediator and outcome of the activity. Figure 5. Representation of Dialogue in Joint Activity
Outcomes: Material & Semiotic Artifacts

Artifacts Tools

Artifacts Tools



Rules and Conventions


Division Of Labor


One thing seems to be clear, however, and that is that to represent each phase of action as either object-oriented, mediated by tools, or subject-oriented, mediated by signs, does not do justice to the nature of collaborative joint activity. In figure 5, therefore, I have tried to find a way of representing the simultaneous and complementary contribution of both modes of action to an outcome which is both material and ideal'. For the sake of simplicity of representation, this version of the diagram represents a dyad engaged in joint activity. However, there is no limit, in principle, to the number of participants who may be jointly involved. Each participant is represented by an expanded triangle of the kind created by Engestrm (1987). All the participant triangles (both in this version) share a common base, indicating that the co-participants are members of the same community and subject to the same rules and division of labor. Most importantly, they are acting on the same object, which is represented in the center of the diagram - though, of course, this does not mean that they construe it in exactly the same way. Each also brings to the activity his/her personal kit of resources, drawn from the pool available within the community as a whole. These include both material and semiotic artifacts, as well as the semiotic practices involved in dialogic interaction. The major change is in the way in which the relationship between subject(s), object, and outcome is represented. This is shown, first, as a separate triangle for each participant and, second, as a triangle that subsumes the individual triangles, representing the participants joint action in transforming the object into the outcome. The outcome itself is multi-faceted, being both material and ideal. In phase one of the construction of the land yacht, the outcome is largely ideal: the decision to construct a boat on wheels and the initial specification of this artifact. But it also has a material aspect in the utterances that make up the text of the dialogue and the entries that have been made in the girls learning logs. In the final phase, the outcome is primarily material: the working model of a land yacht. But this phase also has an ideal aspect in the meanings that have been co-constructed in the accompanying discourse.

24 A further implication of this representation is the potential two-way relationship between outcome and mediational means. Clearly, the mediational means contribute to the achievement of the outcome. But outcomes may also contribute as mediational means. Frequently, over the course of an activity, the material artifacts created as outcomes of one phase serve as mediational means in a subsequent phase, as Engestrm (webpage) makes clear. In the example discussed here, the written and drawn specification of the artifact-to-be-constructed in phase one play a mediating role in the final phase. However, on the ideal plane, the meanings co-constructed in the dialogue may enrich the individual participants understanding in the situation and thus amplify their personal resources both at the time and in future situations (Wells, 1999). Joint Activity and Interaction in the ZPD Perhaps the greatest advantage of this way of representing collaborative action within an activity system is that it highlights the interaction between the participants who are engaged in joint activity. Some form of dialogue, whether in speech, gesture, or demonstrative action is almost always necessary for the participants to achieve the degree of intersubjectivity with respect to the action to be performed that is necessary for the coordination of their individual contributions. This is particularly the case when one of the participants requires assistance in order to contribute effectively to the joint activity. Providing this support is what Vygotsky (1987) described as 'working in the zone of proximal development,' when, in the division of labor, one participant is more expert in performing the action in question. As various researchers have shown (e.g. Rogoff, 1990; Wells, 1999, chap. 9; Wertsch, Minick, & Arns, 1984), dialogic assistance can be provided in any or all of the modalities mentioned above as the action proceeds and the object is transformed into the intended outcome. In such situations, the interaction is ancillary to the focal action and is contingently responsive to the need for assistance displayed by the novice and construed by the more expert participant. On other occasions, the dialogue may become the focal action in one phase of the activity, as the more expert participant interrupts the material action in order to explain or demonstrate some feature in order that the novice may be able to participate more effectively in a subsequent phase. Nevertheless, the object of the joint activity still remains the focus of attention.


As I have argued above, however, the object of the action may also be a semiotic artifact - a text or diagram already produced, a plan of action, or a theory under development - referred to as tertiary artifacts by Wartofsky (1979). In such case, the dialogue is constitutive (Halliday, 1993; Martin, 1992); although it is still an operation deployed to achieve the goal of the action, and hence is oriented to the object of the action, it is the dialogue itself that constitutes the primary action, with material action (other than the discourse) playing an ancillary, supporting role. In educational institutions, working in the zpd frequently takes this latter form, as the teacher attempts to inform students through an exposition of a new topic or procedure, or leads them in a discussion of an issue that is assumed to be of interest or concern. But, as a considerable body of recent research has shown (e.g. Forman, in press; Swain & Lapkin, in press; Wegerif & Scrimshaw, 1997), it is not necessary for there to be a clear difference in expertise for participants to assist each other in their zones of proximal development. Whenever the dialogue that occurs in joint activity leads to an increase in individual as well as collective understanding, there is opportunity for each participant to appropriate new ways of doing, speaking and thinking, and thus to augment the mediational resources that they can draw on, both in the present and in future activities. Figure 6 represents the situation of relative inequality in expertise with respect to the action in progress. This is apparent from the greater toolkit of resources available to the more expert for participating in the ongoing action. However, as already suggested, by participating in an action undertaken jointly, in which the deployment of the resources by the more expert is made overt, there is an opportunity for the less expert to appropriate (some of) these resources and thereby to become more able to participate effectively. From another perspective, such situations provide an occasion for the shaping of the novice's identity - by the novice if the participation of the more expert is willingly accepted, or by the 'teacher' if co-participation is imposed.

26 Figure 6. Appropriation of New Resources in the ZPD

However, as I have suggested elsewhere, the zpd may apply in any situation in which, while participating in an activity, individuals are in the process of developing mastery of a practice or understanding of a topic (Wells, 1999, p.). In other words, there does not have to be a general inequality in expertise for participants to learn from and with one another. This was certainly the case for Janet and Linda, as they carried out the sequence of actions that transformed their idea into a functioning model land yacht and, in the process, came to a fuller understanding of the principles involved in 'sailing' and of the material practices necessary to transform bits and pieces of junk into a boat on wheels. Furthermore, the learning opportunity provided by the activity as a whole was, I believe, considerably enhanced because of the interpenetration of tool-mediated and sign-mediated actions.


Notes 1. Bereiter characterizes discourse as progressive when it results in progress, in the sense that the sharing, questioning and revising of opinions leads to "a new understanding that everyone involved agrees is superior to their own previous understanding" (Bereiter, 1994 a, p.6). 2. Think, for example, of the brief commands and facial gestures that enable two or more removal experts to coordinate their actions in getting a large and unwieldy piece of furniture up a spiral staircase; or the exaggerated bow movements and head nods of the leader of a small musical ensemble, as they perform a piece of chamber music.

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