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Analysing the state of student participation in two Eco-Schools using Engeström’s Second Generation Activity Systems Model

Partners' Institution
Södertörn University
Schröder, L.-M.U., Wals, A.E.J., Koppen, C.S.A. (Kris) van, 2020. Analysing the state of student participation in two Eco-Schools using Engeström’s Second Generation Activity Systems Model. Environmental Education Research 26, 1088–1111.
Thematic Area
Environmental studies
This research investigates the state of student participation in the Eco-Schools programme in two selected secondary schools located in Spain and the Netherlands. The focus is on understanding the levers of student participation and of the factors leading to a whole-school approach. Engeström’s Second Generation Activity Systems Model is used as an analytical framework. The study also reflects on the merits and shortcomings of this framework. The analysis of the two cases revealed contradictions in the intended effect of the Eco-School programme on fostering student-led change towards sustainability and a whole-school approach. The research suggests that student participation in Eco-School programme can be fostered by using an activity-based ‘whole institution’ approach that interlinks a reflective and action-based procedure, by adapting the students’ learning environment according to their needs and capabilities, by providing for close teacher guidance in Eco-School activities and establishing good student-teacher-relationships, and, finally, by incorporating the Eco-School programme into the school’s overall educational framework.
Relevance for Complex Systems Knowledge
In soc-called Eco-schools emphasizing studies of the environment, students may show good environmental knowledge, but their attitudes and behaviour does not change. The article proposes ways to better link knowledge to environmental action. It does so by applying and testing the Engeström Activity System Model on the” Whole School approach”.

Students learning opportunities are increased by actively making practice-based improvements in their own environment, the so called “Whole School approach”.  Participation and democratic

action are considered central elements within whole-school approaches. Such  involvement in school matters may prepare  them to become responsible citizens that are able to bring about change and to cope with sustainability issues in a democratic way, also in the wider society.

Engeström’s model incorporates interacting entities, such as Subject, Object, and Community,

and mediating components of human activity, including Tools, Rules and the Division of Labour. These can be visualised in a triangle diagram The upper part depicts the interaction of an individual (Subject) with the environment (Object) through tool mediation. The lower part (Rules, Community, Division of Labour) ‘collective object-oriented activity,’ which provides a collective or societal dimension. an activity system is a many-voiced construction where different perspectives of the diverse participants are incorporated. The whole activity leads to an Outcome, which represents the changed situation of all components due to the activity. The activity systems model maps the interaction between individuals and their environment as well as their interrelationships. Thereby, all components in the activity systems model are in a direct dialectic relationship to each other, meaning each component influences the activity and the interactions between the other components. When a component changes, different structural

tensions and contradictions within the activity system, that can enable or constrain the attainment of the object, arise. Primary and secondary contradictions are contradictions that occur within each and between different

components. ertiary contradictions refer to tensions between the object/motive of the activity system’s dominating mode or the ideal mode of an activity. Contradictions can function as sources of innovative change for the system due to their capability to trigger learning processes. Tools have a particular importance in the activity since they co-construct the ways in which humans interact with reality and link the activity with its socio-cultural context.

The use of Engeström’s Second Generation Activity Systems Model as a conceptual framework for this research allowed to provide a rich and multi-facetted picture of the situation of student participation in the Eco-School programme. It enabled the analysis and understanding of student participation in Eco-School activities in each socio-cultural context.

For data collection, Mwanza (2001)’s Eight Step Framework was used, which proved to be helpful for operationalising each component of Engeström’s Second Generation Activity System and for creating categories for data collection. The data analysis combined Activity Systems Analysis (ASA) as outlined in Yamagata-Lynch (2010) with thematic content analysis (Green and Thorogood (2014)).

Five components conducive to student participation in Eco-School activities have been discovered

employing an activity-based and community co-operative approach,
simultaneously using an adapted reflective and an action-oriented approach of learning,
continuously adaptating the students’ learning environment to their needs and capacities,
providing emotional education of teachers as a component of creating a good school climate, and
utilizing the Eco-School programme as an overall educational framework of the school.


It takes huge time efforts to study and completely understand CHAT and Engeström’s Second Generation Activity Systems Model due to its complexity and specific idiom, and different interpretations. It is important to provide a

clear explanation and operationalisation of each component used in the research, and to explicitly

refer to the specific literature. There is a certain subjectivity attached to the application of the framework since the researcher has to make decisions in the operationalisation of concepts and in the selection of data.
Point of Strength
The article proposes the Activity Systems model and the Activity Systems Analysis as a framework for studying and designing learning situations that combines knowledge with change of attitudes and behaviour through participatory activities, in this case the Whole School approach. The results shows that the framework is useful for identification of barriers and opportunities in the learning environment and the learning process.