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Activity-theoretical case study of transformative instruction based on trust in children

Here, I will highlight data from several situations recorded during a science lesson on September 17, 2015, at Nagara Elementary School. Ms. Tsubasa Sugino, the 3rd grade homeroom teacher, and her 26 students worked together on the theme “What is the sunflower that bloomed in the 1st semester like now?” Ms. Sugino had served as a teacher at a different elementary school for three years before she was assigned to Nagara Elementary School. She had been working at Nagara Elementary School for two years; thus, she had served as an elementary school teacher for a total of five years.

Right at the beginning of the science lesson, Ms. Sugino posed the question “What is the sunflower that bloomed in the 1st semester like now?” to the children, by writing it on the upper left corner of the blackboard. The children immediately opened their notebooks to a blank page and wrote the question down at the top. At this time, they also read the question aloud to themselves. Having children write a question in their notebooks and then read it aloud by themselves is also an activity frequently used in other classes at Nagara Elementary School. Once the children have written the question in their notebooks and read it aloud, they start brainstorming their answers as well. During this particular lesson, the following were some of the predictions: “The seeds are scattered around.” “The flower is dried out and crunchy.” “The petals have fallen off.” “There are lines on the black seeds.” While the children shared their ideas aloud in this manner, the teacher silently wrote them on the blackboard. The children also wrote their predictions in their notebooks.

Afterward, Ms. Sugino expanded the children’s predictions and questioned them as follows:


TEACHER: Everyone, you all came up with many predictions as you were writing. Some of you also told me that you had seen the flower. You mentioned the flower, and I am sure you all know about flower petals as well. Some of you mentioned seeds as well, but arc the flowers and seeds the only things you observed?

CLASS: There was a stem. And the leaves...

TEACHER: That is right. You saw the stem and leaves as well. What do you think has happened to the stem and the leaves now?

(As the children share their predictions, almost all of them raise their hands.)

TEACHER: Being able to predict things is important.

Based on a comparative study of school lessons in Japan and the United States conducted by James W. Stigler and his colleagues, it is possible to reveal one of the excellent characteristics of the activity system of instructional practice in Ms. Sugino’s class. In their attempts to compare lessons in which Japanese and American teachers taught similar topics, Stigler, Clea Fernandez, and Makoto Yoshida (1996) found notable features of Japanese lessons that could be distinguished from American ones: “What is perhaps most impressive about the Japanese case is that the inquiry-based or problem-centered tradition of instruction is apparently widespread and not restricted to a few illustrative cases” (p. 149). From the viewpoint of teaching as a cultural activity, Japanese teachers could be said to hold common beliefs about what teaching is like and share a “cultural script,” which is a mental version of teaching patterns (Stigler & Hiebert, 1999, p. 85). It is a part of their beliefs and cultural script to place students’ thinking and talking at the center of the lesson. As Stigler, Fernandez, and Yoshida (1996) highlight, the following differences between Japanese and American lessons stem from them:

... Japanese lessons almost always begin with a single problem, the solution to which becomes the focus of the entire lesson. This concentration on a single problem lends coherence to the lesson, and allows a thorough explanation of the problem. Students in American lessons work many more problems than do their Japanese counterparts, and come to emphasize quantity rather than quality of solutions.

(p. 161)

From my perspective of accumulating observations of day-to-day normal classes, rather than public lessons or research lessons that have been specially prepared, the lessons for all grades and classrooms at Nagara Elementary School have such characteristics as high-quality consistency and inquiry-based or problem-centered aspects that Stigler and others point out as being distinctive to Japan. In other words, the lessons at Nagara Elementary School do not consist of repeated “low-level academic tasks” (Elmore, 2005, p. 282) such as answering questions one by one. For example, consider the learning theme selected by Ms. Sugino for the lesson, “What is the sunflower that bloomed in the 1st semester like now?” This is not a question asked with the expectation of a single correct answer. In fact, this type of question asks each child to arrive at their own independent ideas and interpretations, and in that sense it is an ambiguous question, open to a variety of answers. Further, the answers given are based on the unique personal understanding and life experiences of the children, and they can be expanded in various ways. In fact, the question draws out unique predictions among the children’s responses and drives a lively discussion, as can be seen from the lesson records below (the -san suffix is a polite term of address in Japanese):2


TEACHER: Kana-5«M.

KANA: Yes. (Goes to the back of the classroom and faces the class.) I am going to talk about the leaves. Before (while moving to the blackboard in front and drawing a picture of jagged, green leaves on it to illustrate), they had this kind of jagged shape, and this part here was green. They were jagged like this, this kind of jagged shape, but now (while drawing a withered leaf to illustrate), they’re withered, and the color is browner. I think this part will change.


NANAMI: It’s different. It’s similar.

TEACHER: The color, and withering... Nanami-i«».

NANAMI: Yes. (Comes to the front of the classroom and faces the class.) I think it is similar to what Kana-wrw said. This is about the leaves. Just like Kana-J«», I think the leaves will be brown. They were green before, but now I think the color has turned brown. I think the leaves will be sort of (gesturing) shriveled up like this.

REN: Oh, they’ve curled up, withered, and turned brown...

DAIKI: Yeah.

TEACHER: I see. You did a good job remembering what it looked like before while you were thinking. Takako-J««.

TAKAKO: Yes. (Goes to the back of the classroom and faces the class.) I am going to talk about the stem.

TEACHER: Oh, the stem.

TAKAKO: The stem, until just now, it stood up (gesturing) straight. (Goes to the blackboard in the front.) Before (drawing a straight stem on the blackboard), it was like this, but now (drawing a crooked stem on the blackboard), it’s like this. I think it has sort of fallen over a bit, and the flowers are like this (gesturing).


TEACHER: Oh, oh, oh. You thought about how the shape of the stem would change. Thank you. Good job. Okay, all of you talked about the leaves and the stem, so let us pay attention to these parts as well and carefully observe not just the flower but how they changed too.


The remarks made by the children here are vastly different from typical repeated questions and answers found in whole-class instruction. In lessons during which they are asked questions one after another, the interactions between the teacher and children consist of the teacher asking a question and the children answering, followed by an evaluation of the answer by the teacher. In other words, the standard form is the IRE interchange (Mchan, 1979). This style of teaching is an appropriate method and technique for “low-level academic tasks” such as “filling out worksheets, looking up words in the dictionary and writing out definitions, learning vocabulary words outside the context of written text, extracting historical facts from textbooks” (Elmore, 2005, p. 282). The goal of this typical whole-class mode of instruction is to transmit a specific, unequivocally correct response to the children and evaluate their understanding of it as it was defined. In such a case, there is a risk of children being evaluated negatively if they are unable to say the correct answer immediately (Kelly & Turner, 2009, p. 1684). For this reason, especially among low-achieving children, there is a tendency to avoid typical IRE interchanges in whole-class instruction. This inhibits and reduces their involvement in lessons.

In the same way, John Flolt (1964/1982) questions this type of standardized school learning. Basically, Flolt criticizes classroom learning that values only the act of answering correctly. In his view, it destroys a student’s ability to think deeply about problems and form a thinking habit that puts aside fear of failure to keep working on challenging problems. He concludes that learning based on a fear of failure shapes a self-defensive thinking habit that compels children to feign understanding and thus avoid the “insecurity of not having any answer to a problem” (p. 90).

In contrast, as previously discussed, the lesson conducted by Ms. Sugino is not focused on drawing out a single correct answer from the children in response to the teacher’s question. As shown in Excerpt 4.2 above, the lesson allows the children to freely express their unique ideas instead, based on their own observations and life experiences. Meanwhile, the teacher provides support to enable each individual to participate in the dialogue and share his or her ideas with the class. The children also take the initiative to use gestures and body language in addition to words when explaining their ideas. As an additional related point, the body language used by the students here for their explanations was connected to the 3rd grade performance at the school’s sports festival two days later: “The Life of a Cabbage Butterfly” expressed the butterfly’s birth front a small egg and its growth into a butterfly through various movements.

In this way, questions that require children’s independent thinking transfer agency for learning during lessons from teacher to children, which may, consequently, induce greater student agency. The critical point in wholeclass instruction is that this type of teacher question that supports engagement in dialogue based on the student’s own independent thoughts and interpretation can postpone evaluation of the merit of a student’s response and reduce the risk of negative evaluations. Drawing on the activity system model (Figure 2.2 in Chapter 2, Section 3) in the analysis of the classroom lesson for the 3rd graders of Nagara Elementary School, it is possible to identify an important link between object and instruments, that is, between the complex, high-level learning problem and the instructional form of asking a question to provoke and support independent thinking in the activity system of learning in the classroom.

The way Ms. Sugino’s lesson supports and encourages children’s independence to generate their own unique thoughts and expressions is the most distinctive feature. However, trusting, respecting, and supporting children’s independence is not limited to this type of individual learning process. In addition to independent thinking, the support of teachers also assists children in independently determining and implementing ways to learn and progress in the lesson as well as ways of conducting the lesson itself (for teacher support of children’s independence that collaboratively creates the lesson itself, see Stefanou, Pcrcncevich, DiCintio, & Turner, 2004). The scene in the following excerpt is an example of the above occurring during Sugino’s class (see Figures 4.1 and 4.2):


TEACHER: Okay, all of you spoke about the leaves and the stem, so let’s pay attention to these parts as well and carefully observe not just the flower but how they changed too.


TEACHER: It’s raining.

AOI: Umbrella.

TEACHER: If we all go all the way to the field in the rain, you will get soaked, so I have consulted with Mr. Tate [another 3rd grade homeroom teacher]. Maybe we will pick a few flowers...

CLASS: Noway...

HINA: I feel sorry for them.

RIKU: If we pull up the roots and then replant them, I think it will be okay.

YUTA: Really?

MIU: That’s mean to the flowers.

SHUN: We can’t do that. I feel sorry for them.

TEACHER: We can’t do that?

MITSUKI: No. I feel sorry for them.

AIRI: We’ll go.

MEI: I feel sorry for them.

TAKAKO: We’ll go outside.

RIN: If we take umbrellas with us and go, it will be okay.

YUNA: And then, we can write down what we see in the roofed walkway. TEACHER: Understood. Okay, we’ll write down what we see in the roofed walkway. Let’s all do that together. Leave your notebooks in the roofed walkway and go there to write when you have seen the flowers. Understood. Okay, since you all said you feel sorry for the flowers, let’s observe them without picking any.

HAYATO: Good...

TEACHER: Is that okay? Alright, what do you think we’ll need for observations?

EITA: Notebooks.

MAO: Rulers.

TEACHER: Rulers, right. We can measure the length.

HIYORI: Magnifying glasses.

TEACHER: Pencils, magnifying glasses. You want to see the finer details.

I can understand that.

TAICHI: I want to compare.

TEACHER: You want to compare, so you need your old notebook. Will you take a red pencil? You can change the important parts. [This probably means using the red pencil to write something in a different color.] Alright, let’s go, starting with those of you who are finished getting ready.

Astonishingly, the children challenged their teacher’s suggestion about picking sunflowers for observation in the classroom so they did not have to go out in the rain. Instead, they provided alternative suggestions such as, “If we take umbrellas with us and go, it will be okay” and “we can write down what we see in the roofed walkway.” Through these suggestions, they determined new developments in their own lesson. On the teacher’s side, the response was “Understood. Okay, since you all said you feel sorry for the flowers, let’s observe them without picking any.” The pre-determined plan for the grade was discarded, in favor of an extremely flexible approach that accommodated the desire and will of the children. The teacher also posed a question to the class: “Alright, what do you think we’ll need for observations?” Again, this encouraged the children to make observations on their own initiative.

Children with their umbrellas, observing sunflowers in the school flower bed

Figure 4.1 Children with their umbrellas, observing sunflowers in the school flower bed

Children in the roofed walkway, writing down what they have seen in the sunflower bed

Figure 4.2 Children in the roofed walkway, writing down what they have seen in the sunflower bed

In this way, with respect to both the organizational management and learning methods in the lesson, the children exhibited impressive levels of independence and initiative.

Ms. Sugino’s trust, respect, and support of this independence and initiative are strikingly obvious in the excerpts above and also frequently shown in the distinctive style of classroom discourse. In other words, the linguistic exchanges between the teacher and children in the classroom are distinctive because they consist of mutual “negotiation” and “consultation,” rather than one-sided “instructions,” “orders,” and “discipline.” This discursive mode is clearly derived from respect and trust of the children as independent personalities.

In this way, Ms. Sugino’s classroom lesson created a learning activity system through collaboration, which entrusted the children with independence, responsibility, and authority, and thus transferred agency to the children. This, in turn, gave the children the sense of being at the center of the learning activities, which strengthened their mutual solidarity and sense of responsibility. During the lesson, the children gained the authority to create their own learning activities and were able to become authors of the lesson. From the perspective of the collective activity system model (Figure 2.2 in Chapter 2, Section 3), this type of lesson involves using a responsive, sympathetic, and supportive discourse type, based on trust in the children as instruments. The collaborative conduct of lessons through negotiations between the teacher and children is the division of labor. Endowing the children with responsibility and authority for their learning, that is, transferring agency to the children and having respect for each of their independent personalities were set as rules. In this way, it can be seen that the object of this collective activity system of learning comprises children creating their personalities (independence) by building collegiality with others (solidarity).

When the children returned to the classroom after observing the school fields under their umbrellas, they turned to the topic of “What is the sunflower that bloomed in the 1st semester like now?” The discussion was agentive, and all the children were highly motivated and eager to express their ideas. It was clear when observing them that they had a strong sense of the observations they had decided on based on their own initiative as their own activity, and this increased their desire to take part. At the end of the lesson, Ms. Sugino posed an unexpected question based on the remarks of the children up until that point. “When a flower wilts, does that mean it’s dead?” The children responded in various ways: “No, that’s not right.” “Yes, it does.” “When they wilt, the seeds drop off, and then again...” “They’re born again from there.” “I don’t think that’s right. It’s a new life for them, from that point.” They continued talking over each other, sharing their ideas one after the other. Ms. Sugino ended the lesson by tying it to the next one. “Alright, let’s think some more about that in the next science class, everyone.” The question that generated the entire lesson truly approached the essence of what life means.

Creating classroom lessons that transfer agency to children and respect their independent personalities has become an essential feature of Ms. Sugi-no’s implementation of instructional practices as well as of Nagara Elementary School in general. Therefore, this form of instruction aims to realize the following collective activity system of learning (Table 4.1), whereby children are provided with the opportunity' and encouragement to become agents of the creation of their own learning activities.

It should be noted that these components are not independent of one another. They' are deeply interconnected and linked in ways that construct a coherent activity system. Moreover, the live dynamic activity system is not something that exists from the beginning but something that people working on it create together. In this sense, the instructional practices at Nagara Elementary School can be described as creating a collective daily life in which teachers and children work together to generate their own activity' systems for the creation of personality' through independent learning. The aim of these practices is to build collegiality' and solidarity' with others.

In this manner, the instructional practices at Nagara Elementary School involve creating a new learning activity system that is not yet there, through the collaboration of teachers and children. They' can therefore be regarded as expanding learning at the elementary school level. In this process, the object of learning based on the logic of exchanging value such as grades, competition, and ranking is transformed. Instead, a new use value of the object of learning, which can lead to the creation of a new way' of living, is discovered and expanded, whereby people can generate joy' in creating a free and collaborative social life themselves. Through such expansive learning, children develop expansively into collective, collaborative agents who create a whole system of learning activity. What is essential in carrying out

Table 4.1 Activity system of instructional practice at Nagara Elementary School


Children as agents of the creation of learning activities Teachers as collaborators with the children


Methods for trusting, respecting, and encouraging independent and unique thoughts and expressions Responsive, sympathetic, and supportive discourse based on trust in the children


Ambiguous questions, open to a variety of answers Creating the collective learning activity itself


Transferring agency to children and respect for their independent personalities

Building collegiality with others


Community of learners who mutually learn through a common task

Division of labor

Collaborative conduct of lessons through negotiations between the teacher and children

Fostering children’s expansive learning 95 this process is that the agency to create the entire learning activity system in collaboration—in other words, responsibility and authority as responsible agents in the overall learning activity—is transferred, entrusted, and left to the children.


  • 1 For more on Nomura’s experimental, life-based educational practices from the 1920s through the 1930s, see Inoue and Muller, 2013, pp. 111-113.
  • 2 All names of children in the excerpts in this chapter are pseudonyms.
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