A Propagation Model of Learning and Acting

This post is to clarify some thoughts on a model of knowledge and development (adapted from Vygotsky’s model of an activity) that underly this previous post.  There are three inter-related components to this model: a subject, a mediator and an object/output all of which always operate within specific contexts and culture considerations.  They all orient toward activity, that serves as the unit of analysis.  This model comes from observing people.  All people are constantly active and involved in socially relevant activities.  In order to compete these activities they depend on many higher mental functions, much of which we often refer to as knowledge.  They are doing things like memorizing facts in preparation for a test, organizing projects for work, planning a family outing or doing the myriad types of activities we do everyday.  If you look at the surface structure of the knowledge involved, much of it may be similar.  But this is not the case if you observe how the knowledge is functioning in the activity.  Consider first each part of the model.

The Subject

The subject is a person with a history.  When you look at their development and participation in any activity system, you see what mediators they are able to use, what outputs they are capable of producing, and how all 3 parts of the model are related to the contextual factors at play.  When I think of the development of the subject, I’m thinking of the subject gaining abilities in using mediators, in producing outputs, and in working in different contexts.


I think of knowledge in activity for its mediational properties, that is, how it allows subjects to actively produce outputs.  I think it is more constructive to think of knowledge as enabling you to do something, as opposed to simply knowing something.  What exactly does it mean to know something.  Outside of the ability to act,  the meaning is nebulous.  Wittgenstein spoke of how language has more of a use than a stable meaning as expressed in this quote from John Shotter.

To state now explicitly the well-known Wittgensteinian slogan: in everyday life, words do not in themselves have a meaning, but a use, and furthermore, a use only in a context; they are best thought of not as having already determined meanings, but as means, as tools, or as instruments for use in the making of meanings . . .  (p.78-79).

Knowledge operates in a similar fashion in that it does not have an internal stability like a calculus, but has a use in enabling context specific activity.  Said in another way,  Katerina Clark and Michael Holquist give a similar account of the psychological implications of this dialogic way of looking at things when they quote M.M. Bakhtin saying:

(T)here is no reason for saying that meaning belongs to the word as such.  In essence, meaning belongs to a word in it’s position between speakers . . . meaning is realized only in the process of active, responsive understanding. . .” (p.232)

Similarly, there is no reason to say that knowledge is embodied within specific content or concepts that would allow you to know something, but knowledge finds its meaning in its functional purpose within activity; knowledge is for acting.  When you demonstrate knowledge on an assessment, you are using knowledge to engage in an assessment activity, but that knowledge, though it may apear similar on the surface or from an abstract point of view, it is different and  differently formatted than it would be in different context and for different functional purposes.  What I am attempting is to flesh out Edgar Morin’s perspective when he says:

The need for contextualization is extremely important.  I would even say that it is a principle of knowledge (p.15).


Output is the primary focus guiding activity.  When assessing activity, looking at output is how we judge success.  We can only assess the developmental level of a subject or their ability to use knowledge by watching them in activity.  But, output is often found in the form of an artifact.  When we want to improve something, it is often the output that we want to improve.  This is usually done by furthering the development of the subject or the knowledge (mediation) available to the subject, but the improvement is usually seen in the object.

(Note – Outcomes are often the final product we are trying to achieve.  The output should lead to the outcome desired, but this is not always the case.  Science exist in some ways to help us judge whether the output of activity are in fact achieving the outcomes we desire.)

Inter-relationship within the Model

The inter-relationship in this model are also critical.  In example, knowledge must be molded to match the capabilities of the subject to appropriately use the knowledge and both must be joined in a way to meet the output requirements.  Also, the subject must be sensitive to and must make all aspects of the activity conform to contextual and cultural needs present.  This is a complex model of activity and its complexity is one of the reasons that I have generally abandoned transfer as the primary metaphor in learning.  Instead I often think of a propagation metaphor.  What we transfer are seedlings or cuttings, but these are not useful in activity until they can be grown into mature plants within the garden that is the mature subject in the cultural context of this activity system.

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