Third generation' activity theory as a conceptual tool for the development of pedagogical leadership in early childhood education

Year: 2012

Author: Nuttall, Joce

Type of paper: Abstract refereed


This paper reports on a research and development project conducted with eleven Melbourne child care Directors that aimed to enhance their understanding and enactment of pedagogical leadership, in the context of policy reforms that require early childhood services to employ a designated 'educational leader' (Council of Australian Governments, 2009). The research component of the project sought to explore the utility of 'third generation' activity theory (Engeström, 1987) as a conceptual tool to support the participants' capacity to identify and resolve persistent contradictions undermining effective centre practice. 

Data were generated through a series of interviews (seven per participant across a twelve month period) and field notes of professional development workshops (six sessions from mid-2011 to mid-2012). Initial analysis employed deductive concepts embedded within the interview questions, including 'leadership', 'challenges', 'opportunities', and 'change', to identify participants' local interpretations of the reform agenda. Secondary analysis, conducted through open coding and categorisation of repeated words, phrases, and images, yielded a range of further sensitising concepts that the participants brought to their leadership role, including 'time' (Author et al, in review) and 'ambivalence'.

Three key findings are presented, based on evidence in the participants' talk of internalization (and, to a lesser extent, externalisation) of third-generation activity theory as a conceptual tool to enhance pedagogical leadership: the significance of participants' shift in their concept of professional development from an individual responsibility to a collective pursuit; the importance of surfacing tensions and contradictions in fostering consciousness-raising about practice; and the difficulty of fostering object-oriented reflection on alternative forms of practice. These findings are discussed in the light of the potential of the role of 'dual stimulation' (Engeström, 2007) as a strategy for the simultaneous development of theory and practice amongst present and future pedagogical leaders.


Council of Australian Governments [COAG], (2009). National Quality Framework for Early Childhood Education and School Aged Care. Canberra, ACT: Author.

Engeström, Y. (2007). Putting Vygotsky to work. The change laboratory as an application of double stimulation. In H. Daniels, M. Cole & J. V. Wertsch (Eds.), The Cambridge companion to Vygotsky, pp. 363-382. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Engeström, Y. (1987). Learning by expanding: An activity-theoretical approach to developmental research. Helsinki: Orienta-Konsultit.