Exploring Learning Processes within a Collaborative Study Circle:
Cultural-historical activity theory perspective on individual and social transformation

By Jean-Marie Lau

First presented at the Irfan Colloquia Session #111
Centre for Bahá'í Studies: Acuto, Italy
June 30 – July 3, 2012
(see list of papers from #111)

    This study explores learning processes within a collaborative study group, engaged on a path of individual and social transformation. The topic opens up a window on processes in learning communities beyond school-related education. How does learning take place in the activity? What tools do the participants use in the activity? How do they guide their learning, and how does the participants' multivoicedness influences the learning process?

    The two-fold moral purpose of any human being - to develop their latent potentialities through efforts to contribute to the advancement of civilization, - constitutes the core element of a conceptual framework that governs Bahá'í educational activity. This research explores a facet and fragment of social reality, is not a description of the world as it is, but represents one perspective on social reality, a reality that is whole.

    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.

    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; 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. Several mediating artifacts, tools and signs were used by the participants and shaped 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.

    Note: This paper is a summary of the thesis for the award of Master in Learning and Development in Multilingual and Multicultural Contexts, presented in February 2012 at the University of Luxembourg.

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