1. Those forms of learning where learners are collaboratively developing, transforming, or creating “shared objects” (such as conceptual artefacts, practices, products) in a systematic fashion. Trialogical learning concentrates on the interaction through developing these common, concrete objects or artefacts, not just between people ("dialogical approach"), or within one’s mind ("monological" approach).

2. This use of the concept differs somewhat on Norbert Wiley’s (1994) way of defining trialogue on the basis of G. H. Mead’s and C. S. Peirce’s work: as an internal conversation of the self in which the present self (“I”) talks to the future self (“you”) about the past self (“me”).

3. Dictionaries also use the concept of ‘trialogue’ in yet another sense as: a conversation, colloquy or discussion between three people or groups (see e.g. The Free Dictionary by Farlex ).

Trialogue in trialogical learning (sense 1. above) is not about dialogues with three persons (sense 3.), or about an internal conversation (sense 2.) although there are some commonalities with these definitions. Trialogical learning means that individuals (or groups of people) are developing some shared objects within some social or cultural settings (cf. Donald Davidson’s philosophical theory of triangulation; also cf. Stetsenko 2005). It is a combination of (or about transcending) a purely individualistic approach and a purely social approach on learning on one hand, or, on the other hand, transcending an approach emphasizing one-sidedly either conceptual aspects or social practices as a basis for learning and human cognition.

It has been asked what are those three elements referred with the prefix ‘tria-‘. Etymologically the term might be a bit clumsy but it is used for refering to various mediated processes (with triadic structures) and is a catchphrase contrasted to dia-logues. In dialogues interaction happens through words and concepts and by communicating and changing ideas. In practice trialogues and dialogues complement each other. Trialogical learning has its basis on the claim that knowledge creation processes on shared objects require transcending a dualism with individualistic learning and collaborative learning. Trialogues emphasize “shared objects” (artefacts, processes or practices) developed by subjects in fertile social processes. One basic triad is with a subject or subjects (1.) developing something together with others (2.) for some subsequent use or users (3.).

Figure 1. An illustration of the trialogical approach to learning presenting its basic elements (Paavola and Hakkarainen 2009).

There are various sources and bases for trialogical approach on learning and it combines features from these sources. It has been developed (Paavola & Hakkarainen 2005, 2009; Lakkala et al 2009) on the basis of the knowledge creation metaphor of learning which covers various models of “innovative knowledge communities ” like Engeström’s model of expansive learning, Bereiters’s knowledge building, and Nonaka & Takeuchi’s theory of organizational knowledge creation. Trialogical learning can be interpreted as a specific type of knowledge creation processes. It has been investigated in the KP-Lab project where design principles of trialogical learning as well as a process model of trialogical learning has been specified.

The concept of trialogue is closely related to mediation. Mediation by tools and signs (according to L. S. Vygotsky) and semiotic mediation (especially by C. S. Peirce’s theory of signs) provides a general framework in which trialogical learning is supposed to be happening. Activity theory has emphasized, besides mediation, object-orientedness of human activity. Artefacts, and especially conceptual artefacts (see Wartofsky 1979; Bereiter 2002) and knowledge artefacts have a central role within trialogical learning. One way of defining trialogical approach on learning is to broaden dialogical models on epistemology. Dialogues require that there is a common ground which makes communication possible. In trialogues common, shared objects are taken as something which are developed collaboratively (they are targets for developmental work, and not just a basis for communication). Trialogical approach has also its basis on (socially, physically, temporally and culturally) distributed cognition.

As a representational example of trialogical activities can be mentioned the way how the Wikipedia encyclopedia is collaboratively developed. It is a long-term effort of developing something for communal use on the basis of individual agency and iniative. Individuals are important but only when orchestrated on a joint work. The interaction happens through shared objects (wikipedia articles) on the basis of other people’s efforts.

Another example is researchers developing a joint research article. If this is really a joint effort of writing something together (and not an article where one is a writer and others are involved for some other reasons, e.g. because they have participated only by collecting the data) it requires that the article is planned and circulated with various rounds among the writers. The agency of individuals is important but also shared practices of working together. The interaction happens here also by developing the shared article; everyone does not need to know everything in relation to that article if they have an important contribution which can be successfully implemented as a part of it.

Still another example along trialogical approach is a community of people developing their practices of working. For example, in a special intervention method called the “change laboratory” (Engeström, Engeström, & Kärkkäinen, 1995; Ahonen, Engeström, & Virkkunen, 2000) members of a workplace community are guided to reflect on their mutual activities with the help of researchers. The idea is to make constraints within that particular activity system visible by reflecting on the history, the present situation, and the future of that community, and by providing new models and practices for future actions. One part of these cycles is individual subjects or agents questioning the existing practices and providing material for new practices. This can be called trialogical when the aim is to develop concrete, shared objects (in this case new social practices) collaboratively by combining the role of individual agents to a joint effort that is useful for the larger community.

It seems that various degrees of “trialogicality” can be discerned on the basis of the criteria presented above. In some senses everything that human beings do, is mediated and object-oriented. Is everything then also trialogical? No, or at least some activities are more trialogical than others depending on how collaboratively shared objects are developed, or how fundamentally the shared object is modified during the process, or how novel the shared object is, or how long-term the process is, etc. If, for example, as a researcher I am only commenting on other people’s work, it is not as trialogical as when I am also modifying and writing some parts of that article myself. It is not as trialogical if the outcome (of that joint writing) is more or less familiar for us before compared to a process where we are producing something new. It seems to be more trialogical if the shared outcome or object (in this case the article) requires long-term work and many cycles of writing in comparison to a situation where we are just putting something together very quickly. On the other hand, if the time scale is very long, it seems to make the situation less trialogical. If I am, for example, developing a theory or a model which is two hundred years old, it is culturally mediated activity and also trialogical in some senses but I cannot develop that theory any more with the original writer, which makes it less trialogical. These degrees of trialogicality are not absolute but they give some idea of the nature of trialogical learning.


Ahonen, H., Engeström, Y., & Virkkunen, J. (2000). Knowledge management— the second generation: Creating competencies within and between work communities in the Competence Laboratory. In Y. Malhotra (Ed.), Knowledge management and virtual organizations. Hershey: Idea Group.

Bereiter, C. (2002). Education and mind in the knowledge age. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Engeström, Y., Engeström, R., Kärkkäinen, M. (1995). Polycontextuality and boundary crossing in expert cognition: learning and problem solving in complex work activities. Learning and Instruction 5, 319-336.

Lakkala, M., Paavola, S., Kosonen, K., Muukkonen, H., Bauters, M., & Markkanen, H. (2009). Main functionalities of the Knowledge Practices Environment (KPE) affording knowledge creation practices in education. In C. O'Malley, D. Suthers, P. Reimann, & A. Dimitracopoulou (Eds.), Computer Supported Collaborative Learning Practices: CSCL2009 Conference Proceedings (pp. 297-306). Rhodes, Creek: International Society of the Learning Sciences (ISLS) (draft available online ).

Paavola, S. & Hakkarainen, K. (2005). The Knowledge Creation Metaphor – An Emergent Epistemological Approach to Learning. Science & Education 14(6), 535-557 (draft available online ).

Paavola, S. & Hakkarainen, K. (2009). From meaning making to joint construction of knowledge practices and artefacts – A trialogical approach to CSCL. In C. O'Malley, D. Suthers, P. Reimann, & A. Dimitracopoulou (Eds.), Computer Supported Collaborative Learning Practices: CSCL2009 Conference Proceedings. (pp. 83-92). Rhodes, Creek: International Society of the Learning Sciences (ISLS) (draft available online ).

Stetsenko, A. (2005). Activity as Object-Related: Resolving the Dichotomy of Individual and Collective Planes of Activity. Mind, Culture, and Activity 12(1), 70-88.

Wartofsky, M. (1979). Models: Representation and Scientific Understanding. Dordrecht: Reidel.

Wiley, N. (1994). The Semiotic Self. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

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