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Manchester Institute of Education


2017-18 programme leaders

Social Theories of Learning in Research and Practice is an innovative programme that functions as a collaborative group of participants and tutors/leaders who have an interest in applying social theories of learning to research problems in practice. We have built a strong network of people that join us each year to continue learning in this dynamic and productive group. The programme is suitable students at Masters and PhD level, and provides expert support in theoretically focussed research training. Although situated in the Manchester Institute of Education in the School of Education, Environment and Development at the University of Manchester, we welcome and professionals from other disciplines and institutions.


  • To develop an understanding of Social Theories of Learning for application in research and practice
  • To engage in sustained and focused study of different theoretical frameworks. In 2014-2015 academic year we will be focused on Communities of Practice, Cultural-Historical Activity Theory, Figured Worlds and Foucauldian Discourse Analysis
  • To gain experience in cross-disciplinary collaboration for the purpose of advancing our understanding of theory, research and practice
  • To develop a sufficient understanding of foundational texts, applications and critiques in order to critically interpret, evaluate and apply ONE social theory of learning to a research project in practice.


On completion of this programme, successful participants will submit a paper for review that:

  • demonstrates an awareness of various theoretical perspectives on learning
  • evaluates theoretical frameworks with regards to their applicability to a particular research project and/or professional practice
  • demonstrates critical understanding of at least one social theoretical framework
  • develops a theoretical framework for an action or research plan
  • justifies their application of a social theory to a particular practice or research project, and
  • shows due concern for possible limitations of social theory with regards to research and practice

Transferable Skills

On completion of this programme, successful participants should have developed:

  • enhanced skills in reading theoretical texts critically and analytically
  • adeptness at identifying dimensions along which similarities and differences between theoretical frameworks can be detected
  • enhanced skills in working with other researchers (including form other disciplines) , presenting their work orally and building networks with colleagues
  • an appreciation of the value of engaging with diverse perspectives in order to advance understanding of research, theory and practice


Participants will be expected to prepare short written/oral reports of reflections on the readings at various times during the unit. The final paper will be on a topic to be determined in negotiation with the programme leaders/tutors on an individual basis, for example:

  • Masters and doctoral beginner students - equivalent to c.3000 words: A social framework for practice in learning and teaching or a theoretical framework for a research proposal
  • Doctoral students – equivalent to c.10,000 words: A theoretical framework chapter for a thesis
  • Doctoral, post-doctoral scholars and academics – a draft paper for publication or research proposal


This programme aims to engage Masters or Doctoral level scholars in social theoretical research. It serves to support research projects for MPhil, Professional Doctoral or PhD dissertation and prepares academics and professionals with theoretical perspectives on advancing their practice.


There are no specific prerequisites for this programme.


The programme will explore the question: What does social theory have to say about learning?

Learning is understood in the context of social practice and activity that does not only take place in formal educational institutions but also informally, e.g. in workplaces and in everyday life. The five main trends covered in this unit during 2014-2015 will be Communities of Practice, Cultural-Historical Activity Theory, Foucauldian Discourse Analysis, Figured Worlds and Forms of capital (Bourdieu). The content of the programme will be structured to provide:

  • an awareness of social theoretical perspectives on learning
  • theoretical grounding through sustained engagement with foundational texts within each strand of social theory
  • evaluation of theory by contrasting theoretical frameworks
  • application of social theory in research and practice (based on participants interest and project goals)

Programme timetable

The programme is organized in cycles of small group work that start and end with big group meetings. This format allows different interest groups to be formed and organized independently, bringing together the big group in FOUR different weeks during the year. During these weeks, participants are expected to engage in all of the meetings that usually occur during 2 days of these weeks.

Week 1: Introductory week (end of September)

The programme starts with a public seminar led by one of the STL tutors and an introduction of the programme (27th September, Ellen Wilkinson B4.3, 12-2pm).

After the introductory week participants are expected to read “foundational” texts from different strands. To help participants to engage in this reading, peer led sessions are organized (not compulsory but highly recommended). The aim of these sessions is to discuss the texts and to come up with questions /comments/reactions for discussion in week 2. Usually these sessions are organized one per week, engaging with one strand per session.

  • Communities of Practice:
    Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice: Learning, meaning, and identity. New York: Cambridge University Press. (Prologue, pp. 3-41).
  • Figured Worlds:
    Holland, D., Lachicotte Jr., W., Skinner, D., & Cain, C. (2001). Identity and agency in cultural worlds. Boston, MA: Harvard University Press (Chapter 2, pp. 19 - 46)
  • Cultural Historical Activity Theory:
    Engeström, Y. (2009) Expansive learning: Toward an activity-theoretical reconceptualization. In: Illeris, K. (Ed) (2009) Contemporary Theories of Learning, London: Routledge, pp. 53-73.
  • Foucaldian Discourse Analysis:
    Parker, I. (1994). Discourse Analysis. In P. Banister, E. Burman, I. Parker, M. Taylor and C. Tindall, Qualitative Methods in Psychology: a research guide. Buckingham: Open University Press, pp. 92-107.
    Ezzamel, M., & Willmott, H. (2008). Strategy as discourse in a global retailer: A supplement to rationalist and interpretive accounts. Organization Studies, 29(2), 191-217.

Portfolio document: After engaging with these introductory texts, participants are required to write a 500 word online reflection of these texts and how they may help them with their own research or practice problem. This assignment will also help other participants and tutors to suggest individual readings for working groups.

Week 2: Tutors reactions to participants’ questions and small groups formation (7 and 9 November)

In week 2 each theoretical strand is the focus of discussion via presentations from the tutors. Study groups are formed around the different strands. The session ends with new groups meeting to review the reading list for the strand and arrange their next meetings. Approximately four readings assigned to address foundations, theoretical concepts, applications and critiques in each strand, specific readings to be negotiated as a group within each strand.

After week 2 each study group should work on a reading agenda with a view to leading the whole class at the February meeting on their study area. The options for strands and working groups here are usually (i) Vygotsky/Leontiev OR Engestrom and newer ChAT; (ii) STL/CoP OR newer versions; (iii) Figured Worlds; (iv) Discursive Practice or Foucauldian Discourse Analysis. Groups are expected to meet at least twice (preferably more) as arranged for discussion and preparation of presentations.

Week 3: Strands presentations (6 and 8 March)

During week 3, groups share with the whole class what they have learned about each strand from readings (foundations, applications and critiques of theory). NB: The aim is to develop critical understanding of the theory/strand. Critiques do not need to come from a perspective offered by the programme, but can be general and/or grounded in your expertise in other areas.

At the end of the week participants are expected to form critical-friendship working groups in which the focus is on making theory work for them and their own project. Participants with shared interests support each other. Readings selected depending on student’s individual projects in preparation for final assignment.

March – April: groups meet at least once as arranged

Week 4: Students individual presentations (17 and 19 April)

Participants present on their individual research projects for focussed feedback from tutors and other participants. The main objective is to help participants in writing up their final piece of work for the programme. This critical process is of great value to all the programme participants however, not only those presenting and receiving feedback on their work.

Timetable summary 2017-2018 sessions

  • 27 Sep: Introductory session (EW B4.3, 12-2)
  • 4, 11, 18, 25 Oct (all EW A1.13), 1Nov (EW C3.30) 10-11:30am: Introductory reading sessions
  • 7 and 9 Nov (2.00-6.00pm, B4.3): Week 2 Intro readings/ Intro to strands/ Student contexts
  • Nov-Feb: Working groups on theoretical strands
  • 6 and 8 Mar (2.00-6.00pm, B4.3): Week 3 Working group feedback sessions
  • Mar-April: Interest groups + Individual work
  • 17 and 19 Apr (B4.3): Week 4 Student presentations

Teaching methods

The programme is open to scholars across disciplines and encourages participation from other Schools, Faculties and Institutions in order to strengthen discussion regarding similarities and differences across contexts for the theoretical frameworks addressed. As such, participation is crucial and we have structured the activities of the programme to provide maximum opportunity for discussion through small groups or learning sets, in which groups of participants discuss readings and explore connections with their own research projects.

Through workshop-style sessions, learning sets will meet together as a group to discuss readings across their theoretical strands. Learning sets will rotate in order to provide participants with the opportunity to engage critically in another theoretical strand. Readings, small group meetings, seminars and workshops are seen as preparation for an individual final presentation and writing assignment, in which each scholar considers ways social theories of learning can advance their research or practice goals. Participants will be able to access an online learning environment to share and discuss relevant readings and resources.

Participant scholars will be expected to:

  • work in action learning sets, regularly meeting with their group to support each other in the on-going tasks during the programme, as well as in lecture/seminar contexts
  • present informally and formally on the readings and on their research and practice in writing (to be included in a portfolio) and to the group as a whole at various times
  • actively engage in the online learning environment
  • read regularly and attend School/Faculty research seminars where appropriate between sessions.