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: Teachers as collaborative change agents in redesigning schools

Toward a new methodology for intervention research in school innovation

Traditional, standard intervention studies in the field of school reform are based on linear causality, where teachers arc regarded from the top-down view as entirely passive agents without the agency of policies. However, such intervention studies fail to explain the phases and processes involved in teachers capturing and embodying new educational policies in their schools. As David K. Cohen and Deborah Ball (1990) uncover in their ethnographic research on the implementation of California’s new math curriculum framework by teachers in their everyday classroom practices in the late 1980s, “any teacher, in any system of schooling, interprets and enacts new instructional policies in light of his or her own experience, beliefs, and knowledge” (p. 335).

When an educational reform design is based on the linear view of intervention as centralized control determining a top-down educational policy, which teachers in schools merely implement as is, it deprives teachers of their agency; moreover, it has a minimal impact on the core of schooling, the concrete action of teaching and learning in classrooms. In other words, it is not effective. Requests related to educational reform only come from the school when teachers themselves wish to improve their practices and discover possibilities that make a difference. Therefore, with respect to the problem of reconciling educational reform and its scaling up, the key is not the method of structural reform, which changes schooling on a large scale, but, rather, incremental improvements in the schools themselves, through the introduction of “tinkering” (Cuban, 2013, p. 3) by teachers who gradually alter their educational practices. Additionally, for this contrivance to take concrete shape, teachers must share their professional knowledge and skills with one another, thereby propelling the development of their expertise.

According to Larry Cuban (2013, p. 52), the official or intended curriculum is the first layer of the curriculum infrastructure and is therefore “only the initial link in the structural policy-to-practice chain of intended-taught-learncd-tested curricula.” Since such an intended curriculum is the outer layer of multiple internal layers, it is certain to be differentiated from that

Teachers as collaborative change agents in redesigning schools 97 which is taught by teachers, learned by students, and tested. Therefore, the problem of this intended reform is to adapt and respond to the challenge, in Richard Elmore’s (2002b, p. 8) words, that schools know “how to change” but do not “know what to do at the level of practice.” He continues, “[w]hat schools do not know how to do is to improve, to engage in sustained and continuous progress toward a performance goal over time” (p. 8). This is the essential reason the top-down reforms for new curricula are fated to repeated failure and “hardly alter fundamentally how schools have operated for decades” (Cuban, 2013, p. 49).

Accordingly, instead of employing macro-level policies and grand designs to control top-down school reform from the government and administration side, teachers who are actually working in the trenches should be in control, and a grassroots approach should be used to implement small-scale moderate innovation, which, in turn, will accumulate and spread. This concept of intervention research as an alternative proposal is certain to be fundamentally important.

This is a methodological turn toward Yrjö Engeström’s (2013, p. xv) “experimentation” concept of the ideal form of innovation. This concept is defined as throwing away the notion of controlling this world. It is a change in attitude that involves accepting that all our designs and plans will bring about “unintended consequences and drift in unexpected ways” (p. xv). Additionally, rather than forcing through a grand design at all costs, this approach begins with localized “experimentation.” Then, when a tentative solution is found, it gradually becomes generalized and spreads through dialogue. This progressive experimentation method cultivates tentative solutions by testing working solutions. At this point, Engeström suggests that the success of the Finnish school system in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) seems to be largely based on this type of “gradual shift” (p. xv). In other words, Finland did not achieve success through the implementation of very deliberate and conscious school reform. In fact, the opposite occurred. The act of giving up central absolutist control and shifting toward local experimentation and dialogue was the factor that made it possible.

As Annalisa Sannino and Honorinc Nocon (2008, pp. 325-326) elucidate, educational change can occur in different ways through top-down reforms and bottom-up innovations. In contrast to educational reforms initiated by authorities focusing on an overall change in the school system, educational innovations are typically concerned with small-scale changes in localized practices initiated by local teachers, practitioners, and researchers. Additionally, while the evaluation of educational reforms is most often based on “specific student outcomes,” the evaluation of educational innovations generally focuses on “detailed descriptions and analyses of learning processes” (p. 326). In discriminating these two approaches, one point becomes vitally clear: activity-theoretical intervention research implementing educational change attempts to facilitate stakeholders’ own

98 Children and teachers’ agency in Japanese school contexts learning about innovation and its generation, especially the collective creation of a qualitatively new system of school practice (see Lee, 2011). From the viewpoint of activity theory, practitioners’ design and implementation of a new way of practice is a process of learning by collectively reflecting on existing practices and engaging in the exploration of future transformative possibilities. Such a learning process is related to (longterm) rediscovery and development of the expanded, shared object in the new forms of activity.

There is a growing demand for a new methodology of intervention research that can critically overcome linear views that merely implement educational policies entrusted by the central authority to schools and teachers. Here, attention is diverted from conventional frameworks that portray teachers as utterly passive agents of new policies pertaining to instruction in schools. However, teachers’ agency, which seeks to embody reforms in their own practices based on their experiences, beliefs, and knowledge, has itself come to be highlighted as an important key to change.

As discussed in detail in Chapter 3, to transform the dominant methodology of traditional designer-led educational research into a user-driven democratic view, activity-theoretical formative intervention studies adopt the basic principle that teachers will themselves “gain agency and take charge of the process” (Engestrom, 2016b, p. 219). In this way, they become change agents. Here, the focus is on “provoking and sustaining an expansive transformation process led and owned by the practitioners” (p. 220).

Drawing on activity theory and its methodological framework of formative intervention, this chapter examines how teachers themselves learn and develop practical expertise. Based on this, we present a new theoretical, methodological, and empirical approach to the question of how teachers themselves can gradually change and improve school activities and organizations and create experimentation and innovations. In this chapter, considering the principle of agency (as well as Chapter 4) of collaborative and participatory interventions in teachers’ expansive learning, the intermediate theoretical concept of a teacher as a collaborative change agent is applied to analyze and promote the collective redesigning and transformation of schools by the teachers themselves. In this activity-theoretical formative intervention study of teachers’ expansive learning and agency, the following research questions are connected on three levels:

  • 1. How can we transform and reconstruct the concept of the teacher as a passive agent of educational reform to view the teacher, instead, as a leading agent in creating change?
  • 2. How do we design, conduct, and develop empirical formative intervention research based on the activity-theoretical interventionist methodology to exercise teachers’ agency and empower them to act as change agents? In other words, how does formative intervention research create a place for teachers’ expansive learning at the school site where they can enhance their power as change agents?

3. What new perspectives and strategies can be derived for teachers’ professional development by combining theoretical, methodological, and empirical studies?

In the following sections, this chapter first examines the transformation of the concept of the teacher into the view of the teacher as a change agent (Question 1). In connection with this expansion of the concept of teacher expertise, second activity-theoretical formative interventions in teachers’ expansive learning and agency arc characterized as going beyond traditional, standard interventions that have limited orientation with respect to how the teaching methods and techniques are intended to achieve predefined discrete objectives and fragmentary contents of classroom lessons (Question 2). Activity-theoretical formative interventions in expansive learning and agency, conversely, attempt to engage teachers in collaborative interventions to expand the object of their learning to encompass changes to the broader structure of an entire school as an activity system. This represents the transformation of teachers’ learning and expertise in schools into a shared inquiry into desired objects, forms, and patterns of practice, thus redesigning schools. The theoretical and methodological framework of formative intervention discussed here is based on findings from sessions in the “Change Laboratory” case (a well-defined formative intervention method) with teachers at the Tcnnoji National Elementary School attached to Osaka University of Education in Osaka City, Japan. By combining these theoretical, methodological, and empirical studies, this chapter aims to elucidate the development process of the expertise of a teacher who can collaborate and create change, which is a pertinent requirement for today’s teachers (Question 3).

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