Activity theory to understand educational reforms in Singapore

Year: 2012

Author: Lee, Yew-Jin

Type of paper: Abstract refereed


In this presentation, I exemplify and expand on the merits of CHAT based research in educational change with data from a secondary school in Singapore that had devised a new inquiry-based science curriculum (PlusScience). In this two-year-long research, we used teacher and student interviews, documentary analysis and a large corpus of classroom videos as evidence for the claims made. I show how CHAT is analytically robust in those very five areas as argued in Lee (2011) (see below) where educational change research is subject to weakness and thus it furnishes added insights into change processes. In addition, CHAT is profoundly dialectical and it forces us to be perpetually open to ambiguity and surprise, to realize that reality is multi-voiced and contingent. Compared to the abundance of linear models that exist which try to describe and explain school change, activity theory instead offers a flexible, principled though by no means simplistic heuristic and broad meta-principles for transformation. 

Predicaments in educational change research

Salient CHAT concepts

New insights for educational change research  from CHAT

Supporting case study data from PlusScience


Close attention to culture and history

Necessity of cultural-historical analysis during educational change

Origins and development of PlusScience in the context of schooling and policy-making in Singapore


Often the object of activity is not unitary but is multiple or overlaps with other activity systems

Educational change is complex and contingent, an ongoing dynamic between agents and structure

Various motives among stakeholders, that is, PlusScience was different things to different subjects. They generally supported it but for a range of reasons/interests

Power and politics

Contradictions, if overcome, are the catalysts for learning and change

A politics of hope arising from dialectical thinking, critical analyses, and reflexivity

PlusScience experienced a number of contradictions e.g. conformity versus experimentation in a high-stakes assessment regime

Emotions and identity

Emotions and identity help us better understand motives for activity

Deeper appreciation of change processes; it is not purely technical-rational

Responses from stakeholders that indicate their commitment and identification (through emotional valences) with PlusScience

Rapidity of change

Nested levels of analysis inherent in CHAT

Available interactional (short-term) levels of analyses are valuable and can complement macro-level analyses

Examination of small and incremental changes (ie. enactment) in PlusScience