Activity Theory holds its roots in the work of the Russian psychologist Lev Vygostky. A core element of the theory is that learning “has always had a strong notion of the individual, while at the same time understanding and emphasizing the importance of a socio-cultural matrix within which individuals develop. (Kaptelinin and Nardi, 2006, p.11) This idea implies that we learn from both (in duality) our natural functions and our cultural functions. Natural functions are our primal needs and instincts. Cultural functions such as the influences of our communities through culture, socioeconomic status, and rules and mediating artifacts such as language or research (tools).

Activity Theory establishes a structural framework or learning activity system by building the relationships of each function.

  • Activity = A purposeful interaction of the subject with the world. (Leont’ev in Kapetelinin & Nardi, 31).
  • Subject (s) = The person or member of the group. The learner.
  • Mediating Artefacts (m) = these are the tools or technology involved with cultural learning. Engeström refers to the use of language as a tool used by communities. (1993)
  • Object (o) = The solution after time has passed. It is the goal or task that is achieved to produce a specific outcome.
  • Rules = The norms and sanctions that specify and regulate the expected correct procedures and acceptable interactions among the participants (Engeström, 1993, p.7)
  • Community = All others that may be affected by or have influence within the activity system.
  • Division of Labor = The continuously negotiated distribution of tasks, powers, and responsibilities among the participants of the activity system. (Engeström, 1993, p.7)

Definitions courtesy of Dr. Lani Fraizer, Pepperdine University (2018).

It is important to establish that there is another dimension in the picture – time – during which the system is constantly synthesized. (Engeström, 1993, p.6)

Brain-Based Learning (BBL) theory is an educational framework that focuses on the “engagement of strategies based on principles derived from an understanding of the brain” (Jensen, 2008). Utilizing Activity theory, a framework can be developed to establish the relationship of BBL, the student, and the desired outcome or learning. Activity Theory also establishes the complexities of the greater community such as federal and state laws, the educational community, divisions of students within the system, and additional tools.

The following is an infographic depicting BBL within an activity system.

BBL Activity Theory

Cole, M., Engeström, Y. (1993) A cultural-historical approach to distributed cognition, in: G. Salomon (Ed.), Distributed cognitions: Psychological and educational considerations (New York, Cambridge University Press), 1-46.
Fraizer, L. (2018) Sway Presentation Feb 14, 2018, Pepperdine University GESP, Los Angeles CA, Retrieved 16, February 2018 from
Jensen, E. (2008). “A Fresh Look at Brain-Based Education.” Phi Delta Kappan. 89(6) 408-417.
Kaptelinin, V., & Nardi, B. (2006). Acting with Technology: Activity Theory and Interaction Design. The MIT Press, Cambridge Mass.

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