Thematic Lessons and Cultural-Historical Activity Theory: Comparison
Please note this is a comparison between Version 2 by Fanny Huang and Version 1 by Shengqing He.

Thematic learning features sustain exploratory activities focused on a selected theme, which contributes to developing students’ core competencies, including problem solving, collaboration, and communication skills, supporting sustainable development in learning. For teachers and students, this emerging pedagogical approach may encounter various contradictions in the classroom activity system. 

  • cultural-historical activity theory
  • thematic lesson
  • lesson study

1. Introduction

To develop students’ core competencies for sustainable development, including problem-solving, collaborative and communicative skills, etc., various countries are exploring innovative approaches to teaching and learning [1[1][2],2], with China being no exception [3,4,5][3][4][5]. Thematic learning (TL) is an innovation that seeks to provide students with an atmosphere of sustained, meaningful, and engaging exploration centered upon a theme to realize knowledge learning and competence development [6]. As evidenced by China’s burgeoning iterations of education policy and curriculum standards, TL is being recognized as a promising innovative approach in teaching and learning. For example, the Mathematics Curriculum Standards for Compulsory Education (2022 Edition, hereafter the Curriculum Standard-2022), promulgated in April 2022, officially introduced this concept, and teachers in primary and secondary schools are encouraged to adopt TL to support students in engaging in meaningful and sustained exploration around a certain theme and accumulating experience through observation, conjecture, experiment, reasoning, collaboration, and communication, thus realizing their sustainable development in mathematics learning [7].
Lesson study (LS) has been noticed by educators in different cultures when designing and implementing innovative or emerging pedagogical approaches due to its working mode being cyclical, progressive, constantly refined, and iterative, and the advantage of collaborative participation of multiple groups, including researchers and teachers, as well as assembling collective intelligence (e.g., [8,9,10,11][8][9][10][11]). Notably, existing LSs seem to have concentrated more on teachers’ sustainable development during such collaborative research activities (e.g., [12,13,14,15][12][13][14][15]), with less attention paid to student learning in the implemented lessons [16].

2. Thematic Lessons and Cultural-Historical Activity Theory

2.1. Thematic Learning

TL describes a teaching and learning approach in which students independently and collaboratively engage in sustained, meaningful exploration around a specific theme to acquire knowledge [6]. TL is usually considered to be situated within the realm of contextual learning, as the learned contents are embedded in themes that serve as the learning environment, thus advocating that learning is realized in a meaningful environment in which students are engaged in activities [18,19][17][18]. TL has a clear relationship with lessons in the regular classroom as it concerns extended learning building on the fundamental knowledge students already possess, that is, engaging in meaningful explorations based on this acquired knowledge as a starting point [20][19], which is in line with the educational ideas promoted in China’s recently promulgated the Curriculum Standard-2022 [7]. It is encouraging that TL is considered an effective teaching and learning approach as it promotes interaction, communication, and collaboration between teachers and students in the classroom, provides opportunities for students to make connections between subjects and life, and facilitates students to develop experiences of exploration in studying a particular theme [18,21][17][20]. Empirical research also confirmed that students were able to make meaningful connections between knowledge and life and experienced increased enjoyment of learning in a TL classroom environment [20][19].
However, according to previous studies, frontline teachers encounter various difficulties in implementing TL. For instance, teachers tend to favor traditional teaching approaches due to the absence of positive changes in their perception of students’ roles [18][17]. Again, the TL plans designed by teachers are less innovative, lack attention to students’ involvement, and the teaching process is not adapted to students’ learning requirements [6]. It is also worth noting that the available research on TL seems to focus less on themes from the field of mathematics, with most of the literature concerning other subjects [18][17].

2.2. Lesson Study

LS is usually considered a vehicle for teachers’ sustainable professional development, first popularized in Asia [22][21], which is characterized by its embeddedness in regular teaching, commitment to promoting teacher development and improving student learning, and emphasis on multiple collaborations [8,23][8][22]. In terms of working mode, LS consists of four stages: (a) study, where learning objects are set for students based on their learning status; (b) plan, where the community collaborates to design a research lesson to achieve the learning objects; (c) teach, where community members teach this lesson in the classroom as well as record the lesson; and (d) reflect, where the research lesson is reflected on and improved based on the classroom records [8]. Although some researchers nuanced these stages, a consensus has been reached concerning the critical characteristics of LS, including the emphasis on collaboration among groups [15] and evidence-based lesson analysis [24][23]. Empirical studies have shown that LS can enhance teachers’ understanding of teaching and learning, improve their ability to design teaching, and facilitate their practice of curriculum ideas [9,25,26[9][24][25][26][27],27,28], as evidenced by the fact that its significance in promoting teachers’ sustainable professional development has been extensively recognized at the international level.
Along with rapidly iterating curriculum standards and emerging pedagogical ideas, coupled with closer interactions, discussions, and seminars between university researchers and frontline teachers, various LSs are taking place in regular teaching in Chinese elementary and secondary schools (e.g., [15,29][15][28]. Chinese pedagogical research activities are dedicated to producing high-quality, exquisite lessons (jingpin lessons, in Chinese), and thus LS often involves an iterative cycle of study, design, formulation, reflection, and refinement [11,29][11][28] and usually requires intellectual support from academic and practical experts to build such exquisite lessons [13]. This LS paradigm, dedicated to promoting teachers’ sustainable professional development, has been proven to build teachers’ willingness and capacity to continuously improve their teaching design, refine their teaching practices [26][25], and positively impact the enhancement of K-12 school instruction [15,30][15][29]. However, to our knowledge, fewer LSs seem to have paid attention to student learning in the lessons implemented [8[8][16],16], and even fewer studies have focused on student learning in a TL classroom environment.

2.3. Cultural-Historical Activity Theoryand Its Revealed Contradictions

LS requires an environment of collaborative research, wherein community members participate in research activities together and contribute their respective intelligence; thus, activity theory has been adopted to analyze these activities in LS (e.g., [31][30]). Developed into the third generation, cultural-historical activity theory (CHAT) has evolved into a methodology that depicts the activity system and structural relationships among its elements [17][31]. Specifically, CHAT describes an activity system with six core elements, namely: (a) Subject(s), referring to the people in the activity system who pursue a common goal, such as students and prospective teachers in this study. (b) Objects refer to the ‘problem space’ to which the activities are addressed and which, through the impact of tools, can be transformed into outcomes [32]. In the context of this study, the outcome can be considered as the learning outcomes of the students and the enhancement of pedagogical ideas, skills, and experiences acquired by the prospective teachers. (c) Tools refer to the mediators that the subjects need to rely on in the process of reaching the outcome, in this study they can be considered as the teaching measures (including the didactical sequence and involved activities), the resources to support student learning, etc., for a TL. (d) Rules, in the context of this study, refer to the classroom and teaching rules, etc., agreed upon and shared by the subjects. (e) Community refers to a larger context in which the activity takes place, and in this study is the larger group that includes the researcher and schoolteacher. (f) Division of labor, which refers to the distribution of the subject’s role in the activity, and in this study the respective efforts of the students and prospective teachers in the learning and teaching process.
The relationships between these elements are sometimes contradictory [17][31], and “contradictions can be viewed as an opportunity for development or learning” [33] (p. 132), so the process of dissolving these contradictions is also the one that facilitates the adjustment and development of an activity system, thus allowing it to function smoothly [12,31][12][30]. Recently, CHAT has been adopted to analyze contradictions in the classroom environment, thus allowing those different aspects of contradictions to be explicitly depicted [34]. Particularly, existing studies in mathematics education have also preliminarily analyzed the contradictions as well as their solutions, based on CHAT, in a partnership system that involves both mathematics education researchers and practitioners [12,35][12][35]. Engeström [36] divides these contradictions into four levels, as follows: (a) Primary contradictions, which refer to contradictions between the subjects, which for this study are those between the students and prospective teachers (i.e., the PC in the figure). (b) Secondary contradictions, which refer to the contradictions between different elements of an activity system, such as the contradictions between subjects and objects, and between subject and tool (e.g., SC-1 in the figure). (c) Tertiary contradictions, which refer to the contradictions between old and new systems, such as the contradictions between the TL-based activity system and the classroom’s existing conventional teaching activity system (i.e., TC in the figure). (d) Quaternary contradictions refer to the contradictions between the central activity system and extended activity system, which for this study could be the contradictions between the activity system featuring TL and the examination pressure and educational atmosphere of the school (i.e., QC in the figure).


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