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II: Children and teachers’ agency in Japanese school contexts

: Fostering children’s expansive learning in a Japanese elementary school

Activity-theoretical approach to instruction and learning in schools

An activity-theoretical approach to researching instructional practice in schools considers a specific activity system as the cultural-historical social context for children’s learning and participation. This approach goes beyond the boundaries of individual cognition and behavior as units of analysis and attempts to examine how children learn in embedded activity systems. From this perspective, transformative instruction as a collaborative intervention in children’s school learning consists of efforts to encourage them to be productively engaged in a whole system of learning activity, rather than in disconnected and fragmentary learning actions. In other words, such transformative instruction can be characterized as collaborative intervention'm fostering children’s expansive learning. Mediated by transformative instruction, children’s expansive learning can be realized, whereby they independently create collective learning activities on the level of an activity system in which each child’s learning actions are embodied.

Children’s expansive learning is defined as a type of learning that goes beyond the “encapsulation of school learning from experience and cognition outside of the school” (Engestrom, 2008, p. 90). Based on this idea, this chapter will examine how traditional, standard learning that occurs in formal schooling can be transformed and innovated upon. In so doing, it aims to focus on the transformation and creation of culture in learning and inquire into how teachers can collaboratively intervene in bringing about learning of “what is not yet there” (Engestrom, 2016b, p. 9) for children in schools: that is, how the generation and development of expansive learning in children can be facilitated and supported.

Activity theory is a framework that addresses changes and innovations in the practice of learning at the level of collective activity systems. Accordingly, activity theory in the field of schooling focuses on the questions “ What are the collective activities children participate in?’ and “How do they participate in those activities?’ The distinctiveness of the activity-theoretical approach to school learning is that it attempts to capture children’s learning generated at a higher activity-system level, rather than at an individual level. Therefore, the framework of activity theory aims to dynamically explain children’s learning in schools: it is not a process that is completed within a subject separated from the objective world on an individual’s cognitive-emotional level but one generated at an activity-system level associated with various structural factors such as object, instruments (such as tools and symbols), rules, community, and division of labor (sec Figure 2.2 in Chapter 2, Section 3). Based on this perspective, it can be said that a given instructional practice is concretely created by the organic, reciprocal, and internal coherence among the various components making up the activity system. Conversely, the practice of instruction refers to teachers and children working together to create a system for learning.

Based on this activity-theoretical approach to school learning, the essential mechanism of a collaborative intervention in fostering children’s expansive learning involves delegating and transferring to children the responsibility and authority to create a collaborative learning activity system. Through such an intervention process, children can gain and create new agency to transform existing practices and learn something that is not yet there. Consequently, this transfer of agency is a key concept used to analyze and understand transformative instruction for fostering children’s expansive learning, based on the principle of agency of collaborative and participatory intervention.

By applying the intermediate theoretical concept of transfer of agency, the discussion presented here is based on an activity-theoretical analysis of findings from longitudinal empirical research on pedagogical practices conducted in Gifu Municipal Nagara Elementary School in Gifu City, Japan.

Nagara Elementary School is a municipality-run elementary school that follows the guidelines of Japan’s public school system, which is intended to advocate for the right to education of all school-aged children living within a certain school district. Nagara Elementary School is an ordinary Japanese elementary school; therefore, it would be feasible to apply the form of its educational practice described in this chapter to other municipality-run elementary schools with the same institutional conditions. On the other hand, as described in Section 4 of this chapter, Nagara Elementary School has a particular strength in that it has a long history of proposing original educational practices, as well as a distinctive system of organizational learning and development that enables teachers to exercise their own collaborative and transformative expertise across the school.

The data used in this chapter was obtained through ethnographic research on the pedagogical practices of Nagara Elementary School’s carefully designed learning activities. The focus was on certain scenes that occurred in a teacher’s classroom on a particular day and were considered typical expressions of the specific character of educational practice at the elementary school. Based on an analysis of these scenes, this chapter discusses transformative instructional practices for fostering children’s expansive learning observed at this specific site. Stated differently, this chapter addresses the following question highlighting a key issue that is relevant to expanding children’s agency to independently and collaboratively shape their own collective learningactivities: What types of participatory learning activity provide children with opportunities to expand their agency over the creation of a collective learning activity system? Therefore, this chapter aims to theoretically elucidate the fostering of children’s agency and expansive learning in schools.

The following section begins by examining the feasibility of expansive learning for elementary school children.

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