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Expansive learning approach to school change

Expansive learning in schools (Engestrom, 1991b, p. 255) creates a new, expanded object of learning by connecting the following learning contexts: the context of criticism (the powers of resisting, questioning, contradicting, and debating); the context of discovery (the powers of experimenting, modeling, symbolizing, and generalizing); and the context of practical social application (the powers of social relevance and embeddedness of knowledge, community involvement, and guided practice). Such expansion of the object proceeds to break the “encapsulation of school learning” out of the confines of school texts and, thus, implies a qualitative transformation in the entire school learning activity system.

This expansive transition toward a new school learning activity system is “a long, distributed process, not a once and for all transformation dictated from above” (Engestrom, 1991b, p. 256) that involves learning through collective and reflective self-organization from below. It is of crucial importance that collaborative self-organization manifest itself in the “creation of networks of learning that transcend the institutional boundaries of the school,” turning the school into a “collective instrument” (p. 257). In other

100 Children and teachers’ agency in Japanese school contexts words, expansive learning for school innovation offers learning as a collaborative, self-organizing process for transforming the activity of school learning from within, for teachers, children, and participants.

This type of learning that transforms the school activity system motivates the school community to engage in the following expansive development of school learning: (1) the expansion of the object of school learning to encompass the creation of multiple contexts of learning, (2) the breaking-up of the encapsulation of school learning, and (3) eventually, the formation and creation of collaborative self-organization and advanced networks of learning that transcend the institutional boundaries of the school. In this way, those who involve teachers in the school community should be regarded as a collective of expansive learners who are willing to make school innovations together and become collaborative change agents by turning their school into a collective instrument. The expansive learning approach opens up qualitatively new possibilities for a new form of school innovation called school as change agent. It involves collaborative self-organization and learning networks for transforming traditional school learning and pedagogical practices.

The essential concern with expansive learning in and for the creation of new forms of pedagogical practices in schools is that people involved in schooling can “design and implement their own futures as their prevalent practices show symptoms of crisis” (Engestrom, 1991b, p. 256). In the area of school reform, the expansive learning approach is not based on the idea of “benevolent reform from above,” as Engestrom states:

The expansive learning approach exploits the actually existing conflicts and dissatisfactions among teachers, students, parents, and others involved in or affected by schooling, inviting them to join in a concrete transformation of the current practice. In other words, this approach is not built on benevolent reform from above. It is built on facing the current contradictions and draws strength from their joint analysis.


Therefore, the methodological principle of the expansive learning approach established by Engestrom is the argument that the act of practitioners engaging in “joint analysis” and directly addressing current contradictions in their own activities has the power to create and effect change. In other words, formative intervention that occurs with an expansive learning approach is the exact opposite of linear intervention based on “benevolent reform from above.” Those involved in the activity system gain ability and will through their own agency, becoming collaborative change agents and taking charge of the intervention process. Formative intervention based on activity theory and expansive learning theory transforms traditional designer-led dominant methodologies in educational and developmental research, giving them a user-driven democratic aspect. This form of democratic intervention research is embodied by collaboration, dialogue, and mutual negotiation arising from practitioners on the ground. As Yew-Jin Lee (2011)

Teachers as collaborative change agents in redesigning schools 101 points out, “[c]ompared to the linear models that try to describe and explain school change, CHAT [cultural-historical activity theory] offers a principled, though by no means simplistic, heuristic and a set of broad meta-principles for transformation” (p. 419).

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