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Is expansive learning feasible for elementary school children?

As seen in Chapter 3, Section 5, expansive learning theory holds that “learning gets out of the hands of the instructors and takes a direction of its own” (Engestrom, 2016b, p. 9); therefore, there is “no wise teacher” who has the correct answer (Engestrom, 2001, p. 139). Rather, this theory conceptualizes learning that does not merely construct “novel ideas in the minds of the learners” but also generates “novel material forms of collective life,” that is, “what is not yet there” (Engestrom, 2016b, p. 9). Therefore, can the school learning created by teachers and children really be such expansive learning? Here, I focus on the development of learning at the elementary school level and, especially, Yrjo Engestrom’s (1987/2015) discussions on the potential for expansive learning in school. Engestrom refers to the feasibility of expansive learning for elementary school-aged children as follows:

[T]hc primary object of learning activity in that age is the development of learning activity itself. In other words, the primary school pupils’ task is to expand the discrete, internally contradictory learning actions occurring within the activity of school going into the objectively new system of learning activity. The motive of this activity is to learn how to acquire skills and knowledge and solve problems by expanding the tasks into objectively novel activity systems, resulting eventually not just in acquiring and solving the given, but in creating tasks and problems out of the larger activity context.

(p. 107)

As mentioned in the previous section, activity theory is a framework that captures changes and innovations in the practice of learning at the activity-system level. It states that an important mechanism for changing practices at this level is the fact that the subject expands the understanding of the object in the activity system. In other words, practices may change when practitioners create learning that expands the object of the activity. This form of learning that transforms practice is expansive learning, or learning to design and realize a new activity system for the expanded object. Based on this activity theory perspective, Engestrom states that expansive learning at the elementary school age can be found, above all, in inserting the “learning activity itself' in the learning activity object and expanding the object.

Expressed in more concrete terms, elementary school children’s expansive learning involves them learning, with the help and collaboration of teachers, how to “acquire skills and knowledge and solve problems” by themselves. This can be thought of as moving toward the generation of an “objectively new system of learning activity,” whereby elementary school children newly create “tasks and problems out of the larger activity context.” Here, the “objectively new system of learning activity” is a social and collective learning system in which structural factors of the activity system are interconnected, as shown in the general model of the activity system (Figure 2.2 in Chapter 2, Section 3). Engestrom’s use of the term “learning activity” is synonymous with expansive learning. Therefore, expansive learning, in and of itself is learning how to create expansive learning.

The dominant form of “learning within school” that children experience daily is nothing more than a “series of more or less disconnected though systematically repeated learning actions” (Engestrom, 1987/2015, p. 83). Remarkably, these discrete, internally contradictory learning actions have persisted in schools. Expansive learning for elementary school students involves expanding traditional, standard, fragmented, and repetitive learning tasks and actions in schooling; it can be thought of as students creating their own objective new system of learning activity by themselves. In this sense, elementary school students’ expansive learning involves the generation of “novel material forms of collective life” and not merely the constriction of “novel ideas in the minds of the learners.”

Therefore, Engestrom’s view of elementary school students’ expansive learning is that it involves the acquisition and development of the learning activity system itself. However, is the sole object of elementary school children’s expansive learning really just a new system of learning activity? When considering the subject learning of elementary school students, isn’t the content of the subject the object of expansive learning? Engestrom (1987/2015) explained that elementary school students who learn to create a system of learning activity themselves must have another object of learning besides the learning activity.

But learning activity cannot be acquired and developed “in general.” Even if it is its own primary object, it simultaneously requires an object activity (or several activities) outside itself. In primary school, such object activities are reading, writing, and communicating with language; mathematics; rudiments of natural and social sciences; music; and so forth. Can pupils of that age really enter these varied and complex societal activity systems and take them to a historically new developmental stage? Hardly. What they perhaps can do is develop human learning into an objectively new qualitative stage—the stage of learning activity.

(p. 107)

As is clearly stated here, expansive learning in elementary school is oriented toward dual objects. The first object is creating the learning activity itself, that is, the expansive learning itself. The second object is the content of subjects that elementary school students attempt to acquire and develop. It is

Fostering children’s expansive learning 79 next to impossible for elementary school students to elevate the content of such subjects such as natural and social sciences to a historically new stage of development. For example, in the “workings of electricity” that the Japanese 4th grader learns about in science, attention is paid to the current flowing in the circuit, and through experimentation the student discovers regularity with a numerical basis. However, in this case, historically and objectively, this learning leads to few new discoveries and therefore to unknown regularities regarding the “workings of electricity” as an objective world to which the learning is oriented.

On the other hand, Engestrom perceived that it was possible for elementary school students to create a new form of human learning, namely expansive learning. It is impossible for elementary school students who are learners to discover or develop the content of the subject as an object of learning. Instead, if they create and develop their own learning tasks and methods, that is, if they create and develop a new form of learning activity, what type of idiosyncrasies that differ from the real object will result for the content of the subject that is the object of learning on this occasion? Engestrom (1987/2015) points out the following:

Thus, the object systems of language, mathematics, and so on, function here as secondary, derived objects, as “demonstration samples” for the methodology of learning activity. To take them as such requires a well-developed instrumentarium of play, enabling the pupils to see through this “demonstration sample” character of the school subjects and vet tackle them with hill vigor.

(p. 107)

In other words, the content of the subject that is the object of elementary school students’ learning is in a unique form that is, by its very nature, largely distinguishable from the object of actual activities. This means that it has been transformed according to the primary purpose of learning the methodology of the learning activity. The object of the students’ learning is intended to serve as a “demonstration sample” for learning the methodology of the learning activity. In addition, if learning is a kind of “play,” an “instrumentarium” for this “play” is needed so that the “demonstration sample,” which is the object of learning, can function properly.

Therefore, Engestrom proposes that elementary school students can learn the methodologies and forms of expansive learning while learning about creating expansive learning itself. Engestrom (1987/2015) considers that the generation of expansive learning oriented to actual objects in real activities occurs during the period following elementary school, as shown by the following comment:

In conclusion, I suggest that the ontogenetic emergence of learning activity, at least in present-day capitalist societies, may with the highest probability take place in adulthood or adolescence, when the subjectfaces historically and individually pressing inner contradictions within his or her leading activity—be it work, school going, science, or art.

(p. 108)

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