School reform is widely understood as a top-down process, requiring adoption and internalization of supposedly new pedagogic paradigms by the practitioners and aiming at a predefined outcome that is set by political and economical stakeholders. But it can also be perceived as a bottom-up development, triggered by learning processes of individual teachers or students, aiming at the transformation of their local institution. A third approach has a horizontal dimension, putting cause and effect on the same level of analysis (Greeno & Engeström, 2014, p. 136): Expansive learning (Engeström, 2015) takes a systemic approach that seeks to transcend this individual – societal dichotomy by defining object-oriented activity as the central unit of analysis. In expansive learning, contradictions that have historically built up are thoroughly analyzed on various levels, leading to a change in the practitioners’ understanding of some fundamental aspect of the activity and fostering their transformative agency (Haapasaari et al., 2014), as they collectively resolve and overcome the contradictions by modelling, testing and implementing an expanded pattern of the activity.
The study at hand is situated in the presently ongoing school reform in Austria with its almost completed transition of the hitherto general secondary schools into new secondary schools. While this reform clearly aims at providing the best possible chances for all students, suggesting an inclusive approach that seeks to maximally foster their development regardless of their social background, a first evaluative report (Eder et al., 2015) reveals significant flaws in its implementation which has often been perceived as top-down, leaving school officials and teachers with the quest for demanding more autonomy for the individual schools. On this background, the research project is carried out in a small rural secondary school, with the author being both teacher and researcher, in the course of a dissertation. Being among the last general secondary schools that still faces that transition, the aim of this study is, by fostering an expansive learning process, to collectively arrive at the best possible local solution, an expanded form of school activity, for that school.
A special focus is put on the role of needs in this process, on their different forms, and on their interplay with activity. This is achieved by utilizing the concepts of needs in Cultural-Historical Activity Theory (CHAT; Bratus & Lishin, 1983) and in Self-Determination Theory (SDT; Deci & Ryan, 2000) as different theoretical lenses and by establishing a dialogue between both approaches, especially in order to get a better understanding of raw and unobjectified needs as existential meta-necessities (D. Leontiev, 2012) that become visible in both theories and that seem to be underestimated in the former.