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Emergence of teachers’ expansive learning actions in a collaborative formative intervention in a school

Our research group carried out Change Laboratory sessions, beginning in July 2019, at the Tennoji National Elementary School attached to Osaka University of Education. As Engestrom (2016b, p. 139) explains, a Change Laboratory is “typically conducted in an activity system that is facing a major transformation.” The Tennoji National Elementary School attached to Osaka University of Education, serves as a national teacher training elementary school. At the school, teachers engaged in a shared analysis of the transformation of the school, which is facing new stipulations from the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT), and is urgently required to provide fundamental reasons for the existence of national teacher training in elementary, junior high, and senior high schools.

Change Laboratory sessions were attended by the vice-principal, head of the instruction department, four homeroom teachers who belonged to the school’s Research Department, and three researchers from our research group who also participated as intervention researchers. This Change Laboratory intervention study at the school focused on the role of teachers, who hold the key to sustainable school reform. By intervening in the teachers’ own expansive learning as they attempted to overcome actual problems at their school, we sought new concepts for them as leading agents in collective change creation in the school organization.

The problems faced by teachers in the Change Laboratory were as follows:

  • 1. Asa Ministry of Education-designated research and development school, how can the elementary school create collaborative research and disseminate it through a public research presentation?
  • 2. How can the school improve the abilities of young teachers who represent an increasing ratio in recent years?
  • 3. Can expansive learning be created for children in lessons, and how can it be embodied?

Engestrom (2016b) states that a Change Laboratory is often conducted in a “relatively independent pilot unit in a large organization” (p. 139). Typically, practitioners and managers working in pilot units open a series of five to ten Change Laboratory sessions with a small group of intervention researchers, and, in many cases, a follow-up session is conducted. Seven Change Laboratory sessions were held in this elementary school from July to November 2019: July 14, July 28, August 19, August 20, August 25, October 19, and November 10.

In Change Laboratories, ethnographic data related to dilemmas, troubles, and gaps found in the work done at the site of implementation arc considered “mirror material” and presented to participants. Thus, this “mirror material” is used to “stimulate involvement, analysis, and collaborative design efforts among the participants” (Engestrom, 2016b, p. 227). In our Change Laboratory, video recordings of teaching practices of participating teachers were brought in to serve as “mirror material” that would advance collaborative engagement and analysis. Contradictions found in real activity systems through the engagement and analysis of such collaborations, i.e., structural tensions that evolve historically within and between involved activity systems, are driving forces behind transformation. Such contradictions might therefore be a resource for designing and implementing new pedagogical practices (Yamazumi, 2008). Expansive learning resulting from such contradictions in activity systems enables actors to become aware of “new kinds of actions” (Engestrom, 2016b, p. 70).

Therefore, the mechanism of transition from one learning action to the next in expansive learning is viewed not as “instructional guidance” but as the “stepwise evolution of contradictions inherent in the object of learning— that is, in the activity that is being transformed” (Engestrom, 2016b, p. 27). The theory of expansive learning proposes an ideal-typical sequence of the seven learning actions in an expansive learning cycle, understood as the “articulation and resolution of successively evolving contradictions” (p. 48). The seven learning actions in an expansive cycle arc as follows (pp. 47-48):

  • 1. Questioning
  • 2. Analysis
  • 3. Modeling the new solution
  • 4. Examining and testing the new model
  • 5. Implementing the new model
  • 6. Refleeting on the process
  • 7. Consolidating and generalizing the new practice

Engcstrom notes that the cycle of expansive learning is not a universal formula consisting of phases and stages: there is no neatly organized concrete process of collective learning according to ideal and typical models. In other words, the actual sequence of actions of expansive learning is different from the ideal and typical cycles of the action system, appearing as combinations and repetitions. Additionally, within largcr-scale expansive cycles, there are smaller cycles, meaning that the beginnings of learning actions can be seen. The model of expansive learning cycles therefore states that a full-scale series of expansive learning actions typically takes the form of a relatively predictable cycle and proposes that it is not arbitrary.

The Change Laboratory of this elementary school sought to analyze and resolve contradictions regarding the methods of creation of collaborative research at the school, focusing on lessons to create expansive learning for children. The objective was to drive the creation of expansive learning among teachers at the school and disseminate the new model through a public research presentation. The contradictions occurred as double binds, conflicts, and dilemmas in participants.


HEAD OF THE INSTRUCTION DEPARTMENT: I think it’s always on my mind, but I’m always thinking about how to communicate to them [teachers at the elementary school] not to formalize again.

By the cycle [of expansive learning]. I’ve been wondering how to communicate that [to all the teachers in the school] since last week. Ultimately, 1 think I want to avoid the seemingly positive nuance o f adopting it again next time, and in terms of the feeling at the site, it might turn out [that] I just don’t want to adopt it formally.

VICE-PRINCIPAL: So, at the outset, it is said [by the Intervention Researcher 1] that we need a different model image, and it [the model] is not an example.

  • (5th Change Laboratory, August 25, 2019) 6TH GRADE TEACHER: Is it meaningless if we reach the point in lessons where we wonder, “Is that really necessary?” The children are active and happy, doing something new and immensely enjoying thinking about questions, which can be done in daily lessons', but, otherwise, there’s absolutely a voice still saying, “Huh? Is doing that really necessary?”
  • (5th Change Laboratory, August 25, 2019)

HEAD OF THE INSTRUCTION DEPARTMENT: Looking at it as a teacher, everyone wants to have good lessons, so I understand one [important] aspect [for teachers] to start with is not the contents of the lesson but the quality of the teacher’s behavior. That is why discussions tend to turn toward [statements such as] “That question to the children wasn’t good,” or, “I couldn’t understand what the question was intended to mean.” Even though [the lesson] could not be understood, I did not really care about it. I think that’s fine at the training level, but I think it’s good for teacher training, which is one thing I have been able to recognize. I have not cared about such matters related to teacher training.

INTERVENTION RESEARCHER 1: That is why it is no longer the teacher’s behavior. It matters if we hold training, but we are not carrying out training here; we are conducting research....

HEAD OF THE INSTRUCTION DEPARTMENT: I said it a little more strongly at the meeting [of the whole school]. I am clearly saying that I care about research, but, to be honest, I don’t know how to react, from everyone’s point of view— maybe they care about the teacher’s behavior at the training level.

INTERVENTION RESEARCHER 2: It certainly goes back and forth. However, what we want to see is the expansion and how the children’s learning expands.

VICE-PRINCIPAL: The truth is, we must look at the children. The way children learn changes— for example, their language will change.

(6th Change Laboratory, October 19, 2019)

The head of the instruction department, who is responsible for promoting research in the school, expresses strong disagreement with being returned to the “training” level, i.e., being disposed toward bringing a formulaic solution related to teachers’ “behavior” in lessons such as “adopting” the way the research has been formalized into practice. However, these conflicts—caused by inner contradictions in the object of research activity at the school—become driving forces for recognizing “new kinds of actions” as contradictions are found, articulated, and resolved. In utterances from the 5th Change Laboratory in Excerpt 5.1 above, the 6th grade teacher stated, “The children are active and happy, doing something new and immensely enjoying thinking about questions, which can be done in daily lessons.” This is a new attempt at a solution that proposes changing the form of children’s learning in “daily lessons.” In the 6th Change Laboratory, in response to the following statement by Intervention Researcher 2—“However, what we want to see is the expansion and how the children’s learning expands”—the vice-principal says, “The truth is, we must look at the children.” This series

Teachers as collaborative change agents in redesigning schools 107 of utterances can be said to express the beginning of modeling a new solution for resolving contradictions in promoting school research.

Therefore, the teacher’s expansive learning process in the Change Laboratory, driven by articulation and analysis of the contradictions, creates learning actions that model new solutions.


VICE-PRINCIPAL: When I think of the lesson as a teacher conducting the lesson, the springboard is quite attractive. Perhaps the teachers themselves can create a springboard in the lesson? It would become a device; when it goes well, the children will use it, and when it does not, they will ignore it, but I think being aware of using a springboard is a crucial matter.

Also, it was called microcosm, was it not? In other words, looking back at my lessons and thinking about how I was committed to the children’s relationships, I cherished the children's own reactions.

  • 5TH GRADE TEACHER: Perhaps it’s quite—in short—mine, my own..., I will do whatever might direct the children. There may be situations in which my utterances will direct the children to where I want them to be at the end or, maybe, if I include the explanation so that it becomes a direct matter. That is probably why, it is somehow indirect there, the springboard is probably the best way for me to tackle it; I think this is something to think about.
  • 5TH GRADE TEACHER: Ultimately, learning does not happen on its own but as a reflection. I want to change the way in which I handle the whole thing. I want the children to elevate each other. I want to turn lessons into a form whereby I can o ffer help and support. But I do not know exactly what to do, and yet ... it’s kind of frustrating that I do not have it.

INTERVENTION RESEARCHER 1: I see. Listening to Teacher K [Sth Grade Teacher]’s story, I think Teacher K has their own contradictions or conflicts about that.

  • 5TH GRADE TEACHER: That’s right.
  • 5TH GRADE TEACHER: Yes. I think it is interesting only if you notice it, which is to say, it becomes interesting once you notice it, and since you want to notice it— I go too far in saying unconsciously.... I want the children to advance and go to a place where they can see something different. Rather than sca ffolding, I end up pushing the children from behind.

HEAD OF THE INSTRUCTION DEPARTMENT: I can do something. For Math, I thought the springboard was the first teacher’s point of emphasis, as it were, which could be used to make something amazing for the children. I have always thought that we would like children to be able to organize and specialize among themselves, perhaps modeling on a springboard. Now, perhaps, regular teachers are mainly teaching, but I wonder if I can propose to take care of the springboard as one model.... Then, the lessons will probably change. Finally, I think if you do not actually do Math and create the springboard, you will not be able to solve the problems by yourself Where you pay attention, how you think, how you do it ... the child needs to learn how to organize their thoughts. A child who can solve problems by themselves ... is that not so?

6TH GRADE TEACHER: That is probably why it looks like our role is to talk about springboards—the real, concrete thing called a springboard. The aim is for children to learn to put out a springboard.


  • 6TH GRADE TEACHER: Create it. Then, we can perhaps adjust that springboard for jumping, and the experience of that jump— they realize that now if they jump, if they arc self-aware enough, they can share with everyone.
  • (Sth Change Laboratory, August 25, 2019)

Here, a new solution emerges, creating a “springboard” as a mediating instrument for children’s expansive learning during lessons. Engestrom (1987/2015) defines a “springboard” as an instrument of expansive transition as follows: “The springboard is a facilitative image, technique, orsociocon-versational constellation (or a combination of these) misplaced or transplanted from some previous context into a new, expansively transitional activity context during an acute conflict of a double bind character” (p. 225).

To facilitate the analysis and resolution of problems, the intervention researchers introduced Engestrom’s model of the collective activity system (Figure 2.2 in Chapter 2, Section 3) and the cycle of expansive learning as the “second auxiliary means” in Lev Vygotsky’s method of double stimulation (see Chapter 3, Section 2) to this Change Laboratory, as in other activity-theoretical formative interventions. With the aid of such conceptual tools to analyze and resolve problems, the teachers gradually developed models for concrete lessons through the intermediate concept of a springboard, devised based on both their own theoretical learning and practical experiences.

Against this backdrop, as the vice-principal stated directly in his remarks in the 6th Change Laboratory (October 19, 2019), “we are aiming to nurture each child’s agency” and reconceptualizing “children” as objects of teachers’ activities. The previous statements from the Sth grade teacher during the

5th Change Laboratory, in Excerpt 5.2, express a strong double bind situation concerning the transfer of agency to children in his lessons, which drove him to reconceptualize “children” as objects of activity.

The expansive learning of teachers seeking to redesign the collective activity system in the Change Laboratory is thought to be motivated and developed by tensions between the teachers’ contradictory relationship with “children” as objects of the activity system in the school education system— as a problem space. The following utterances show teachers learning to renegotiate the concept of “children” as objects of activity.


HEAD OF THE INSTRUCTION DEPARTMENT: ... I think I will put it this way: A child is brought up using such devices daily and who will win by a great margin. The other thing is that I emphasized the reaction of Teacher M [the Vice-Principal]; there was a time I got very involved in the “subject,” about three years ago. I have always wondered what to do with the “subject.” I often write from the children’s perspective, but for teaching plans. Roughly speaking, it concerns the perspective of the collective of children, but when I create a lesson with Math, if a “subject” says something, I understand that I become fixated on the “personalized subject.” In other words, I think because I want personalized answers, I facilitate this when giving an assignment or creating teaching material, and I anticipate, to some extent, that a child will give a certain type of answer, but it’s interesting when they deviate from it, and it’s interesting even when it goes as planned. This is why, in the initial stages, for teachers, perhaps in creating lessons, an initial hint should be to pay attention to the “subject”....

INTERVENTION RESEARCHER 1: Which “subject” is the “subject” compared to? Now, you say, it is the “personalized subject.”


(1st Change Laboratory, July 14, 2019)

In this way, the Change Laboratory at this elementary school articulates contradictions of work objects at the activity level, rather than skill acquisition at the action and operation levels. The aim is to improve the technical aspects of lessons and bring about expansive learning for teachers, with the goal of redesigning the activity system to overcome structural tensions, or contradictions in schooling.

Engcstrom (1987/2015) argues that “taking over” is a crucial feature of an activity-theoretical formative intervention: “In Change Laboratories, the practitioners, sometimes also including students or patients, take over the leading role in designing their future” (p. xxxiii). As Michael Young (1998, p. 155) points out, an expansive learning approach is not another top-down strategy for educational reform in a learning society. If reforms such as “improving all students’ achievement” with good intentions is dictated from above, it is still an open question whether schools will be motivated to engage in such reforms. Instead, the expansive learning approach can only start from existing conflicts and dissatisfaction among participants involved in schooling. Such rejection and deviation from standardized procedures and scripted norms in schooling arc indications that the involved participants’ agency—in other words, participants as collaborative change agents—is at work there. The strength of this model is the extent to which it is built on facing current contradictions, rather than on “some utopian ideal; its weakness is that it still remains abstract in conception, despite its claim to be located in real contradictions” (p. 155).

An expansive learning approach in schools is a promising scenario that would evoke and generate the involved participants’ critical and creative agency in school reform as collaborative self-organization from below, creating learning networks transcending a school’s institutional boundaries (Yamazumi, 2005, 2006a). This approach is based on bottom-up reflective communication initiated among teachers, children, parents, and people involved in schooling.

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