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Transformative instructional practice as transfer of agency to children in a Japanese elementary school

Nagara Elementary School and its life education

Gifii Municipal Nagara Elementary School has a long history of creating and passing down educational practices that nurture children’s independence. Yoshibec Nomura ( 1896-1986),1 a teacher who represented Japan’s Life

Education Movement, served as the school’s principal during the early postwar period of 1946 to 1953. Together with the faculty, he created and implemented the “Nagara Plan,” a curriculum based on his ideas of life education. To date, the school has operated under Nomura’s philosophy of “education that sides with the child,” which aspired to turn schools into places where, based on mutual trust, children could independently create and participate in collaborative life activities, as follows.

Our school has consistently advocated and practiced “education that sides with the child” to this date, to keep moving forward by respecting children as invaluable human beings who strive to live better, believing in their potential, always putting them at the center, and aiming to foster their independence. Regardless of how the trends for the environment and education surrounding children in Japan have changed, we have always tried to focus on the way education should be in order to foster resilient human beings who pull through life in the future society.

(Gifu Municipal Nagara Elementary School, 2015, p. 4)

Nomura believed that through the “children’s activity on their own initiative” within the “organization of collaborative self-government” (Nomura, 1933, p. 27), children themselves could create a “structure” of a collaborative life to foster a democratic way of living (Nomura, 1958, pp. 36-38). He dubbed this method of life-based education “guidance for living,” and stated the following: “I believed that guidance for living is equivalent to collaboration, so first and foremost I strived to live alongside the children” (Nomura, 1959, p. 79). Nomura, who wanted to “discard the instructional mind” and “provide guidance for living in the form of collaboration” instead, implemented classroom activities that allowed each child to “collaboratively conduct classroom learning, by participating in the classroom management” (p. 81). He believed that “guidance for learning” should be based on this type of “guidance for living.”

From the perspective of activity theory, Nagara Elementary School, which has adopted Nomura’s concept and suggestions as its guiding principles, has created educational practices through which teachers and children are jointly engaged in the creation of a collaborative activity learning system based on mutual trust and responsibility. Learning-focused collegiality has therefore evolved between the children and their teachers. Consequently, both parties share the authority to produce the activity system of learning, which leads to the children’s heightened critical and creative agency and authorship over their learning.

Richard Elmore (2005) incisively points out that a form of discrete teaching limits the knowledge available to both the teacher and student to that which the teacher can control and thus minimizes ambiguity, uncertainty, and cognitive demand in their academic relationships. He further argues that the transfer of agency from teacher to student is also minimal in discrete teaching and that learning actions around well-defined tasks situate

“knowledge with the teacher and the obligation to learn with the student— knowledge is transferred, agency over learning is not” (p. 282).

By contrast, instructional practices at Nagara Elementary School focus on the transference of authority from teacher to student. The more the children are entitled to authority to control their own learning activities in classroom lessons, the more their agency over learning is exercised. Authority and agency correlate closely with each other, so that “[i]n agentic actions, we gain authority and become authors of our lives” (Engcstrom, 2009, p. 317) and vice versa. In this way, the educational practice of Nagara Elementary School is focused on promoting children’s ability to recognize learning agency, independently respond to learning, and enhance their sense of responsibility for learning. By exercising such agency, children can appropriate their own scaffolds and engage in expansive learning.

The following subsection will examine a case of instructional practice at Nagara Elementary School, which could foster children’s expansive learning, by drawing on the activity theory framework and utilizing the intermediate theoretical concept of transfer of agency.

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