Creating a hybrid learning activity at school
A Suita municipal elementary school that collaborated on the NS project has conducted a suita ¿«wi-themed unit in the “Period for Integrated Study” since 2008. The 5th grade homeroom teacher involved in the lesson plan spoke about the possibilities for diverse developments in learning activities at the meeting for planning the unit:
From the homeroom teacher’s perspective, the key to integrated study is encounters by the children themselves. Integrated study should allow the children to discover their own issues through various such encounters. This was what the teachers had in mind when they began integrated learning based on the theme of suita kuwai.
Integrated learning at the school based on the theme of suita kuwai included a lesson by an agricultural expert from the Osaka Prefectural Government’s North Division Office for Agriculture-Forestry Promotion and Nature Conservation. Since he was an expert on the subject, his presentation on the growth mechanisms of kuwai was inspired yet easy to understand. He received many challenging questions from the children such as, “Why did suita kuwai disappear?”, and, conversely, “Why did it come back?” This plant affected these 5th graders strongly since it is a species unique to the Suita region, where the children lived, and it is a part of the traditional food in that area of Japan. They were undoubtedly surprised to discover that such a famous traditional vegetable, which represented an important part of the region’s culture and history, even existed in the area where they lived, which seemed to be far removed from the world of agriculture. This is why they thought it so strange that suita kuwai was on the brink of extinction. They also expressed sincere interest in the background and regeneration of suita kuwai-. Who had brought these disappearing flowers back to life, and how? These compelling questions were on the minds of the children.
The realistic and practical experience of suita kuwai and traditional Osaka vegetables in a garden is not the unidirectional, forcefully taught method of teaching from textbooks and other printed materials; it originates with observations of an object’s true value and uses that as a starting point for a longcr-rangc curriculum and educational method. This method encourages an ecological approach to a variety of things based on the background context, as well as interrelationships and interconnections. The principal of the municipal elementary school spoke to me of his belief that the children’s encounter with Mr. Hirano—a community-oriented farmer who produces kuwai and other traditional Osaka-area vegetables using only organic cultivation and natural agricultural methods—could bring about a change in the way they live.
PRINCIPAL: The reason that I think rice and kuwai arc interesting is related to the background of the present era. At that time, what Mr. Hirano was trying to emphasize to the children was the image that capitalism has already moved into the next era. Also, he wanted to communicate the joy of creating things, and of knowing that their work would come alive in the food that people eat. [It is] the dream and the attraction of a primary industry, which goes back to people’s roots. Children and adults as well have been living in an era where all we do is consume things. It’s possible that now, the thing that will lead the world is not only consumption, but primary industry: that is, creating things.
(June 10, 2008)
Returning to production from consumption: As demonstrated by the principal’s deep insights, integrated learning based on the theme of suita kuwai could provide a deeply meaningfill opportunity to think together about how we can initiate a change in the value of the way we live in the “next era”—that is, our way of sustainable living in the future. Hybrid and expansive forms of project-based learning will bind diverse individuals in different organizations and groups when boundaries are transcended by different people sharing a common object.
We can also see such collective creation and sharing of a common vision in an exchange between the local farmer Mr. Hirano and children in a suita kuwai-themed hybrid learning activity at another Suita municipal elementary school. On January 13, 2012, Mr. Hirano, who had helped the children cultivate the kuwai seedlings in the schoolyard, came to the school to join them in harvesting the vegetables. At that time, he had a conversation with the 3rd graders about their harvest. The following is an excerpt:
CHILD: Mr. Hirano said that he couldn’t grow many vegetables in his garden this year, but we grew a lot at our school, so I was very happy.
MR. HIRANO: That’s because the teachers and the children at your school all worked so hard. This year was a really poor harvest year for suita kuwai in all parts of the Suita region. The harvest volumes were low for all of the farmers. ... The kuwai that you grew here at the school were big, though, and round; they were the picture of health for a kuwai. ... When I plant them, I always thought that I should leave about 35 cm between the plants. This was a poor harvest year, and the plants didn’t grow very well at all. So, this year, it really would have been better to plant them closer together, maybe about 10 or 20 cm apart. At this school, all of the children wanted so much to plant one more, and then one more, that we ended up using those shorter distances. I think that’s one of the reasons why you had such a great harvest. I ended up learning a lot. For me, as a farmer, I realized that it’s much better to plant the kuwai plants at about half of the interval that I have used in the past. You gave me a lot to think about. So, this time, you kids arc the ones who taught me. It was a very valuable lesson, so I’ll have to pass this on to all of the farmers in Suita City planting kuwai next spring. ... This year, your school is the champion for growing suita kuwai.
ALL: Yay! (Everyone applauds.)
Mr. Hirano said that as a farmer, he learned a lot from this experience with the children, to the extent that he realized there was a much better way to plant suita kuwai in his own operations. For the farmer, the irrigated fields in the schoolyards might become a type of laboratory, helping give rise to better agricultural methods for the future. In this kind of partnership, teachers and children also get the opportunity to address authentic—and interesting—themes and problems, and conduct investigations to seek realistic solutions. Thus, the reciprocal links between schools and communities arc the site of the collective creation and sharing of the knowledge and practices acquired by all parties through their commitment to acting together.
Creativity or creation was, in this case, not limited to the production of subjectively new experiences and knowledge in the children; objectively, culturally new knowledge was produced through the work of the children. From the activity-theoretical perspectives, creativity in the children here is understood as involvement in collective and externalized creation of new tools and forms of activity. As such, the children’s engagement in a deeper collective life and social environment provided them the “best stimulus of creativity,” which leads to the need and ability to create, as Lev Vygotsky (2004, pp. 66-67) elucidated with the example of “widespread form of the children’s magazine or newspaper” in schools.
Toward school as a societal change agent
As described above, in various investigative and collaborative learning activities surrounding suita kuwai, different providers of learning and educational services outside the classroom have helped children and teachers embark upon expansive and powerful learning trajectories. In such a pedagogical transformation, learning at school is largely conducted in various networks of learning and hybrid forms of activities in which representatives of local productive work are also involved. This new type of school can be called a societal change agent based on the notion of expansive learning as a new form of pedagogy.
The expansion of the school as a societal change agent is investigated in new creative collaborative practices between schools, communities, and various organizations outside schools. For example, Wolff-Michael Roth and his colleagues (2005) described 7th graders’ learning of science by making the environmental health of the watershed and the creek in British Columbia, Canada, the object of their activities with various partners outside the school. These partners included an environmentalist group, the members of the Water Advisory Task Force, environmental stewards, farmers, and other people in the community. In their collaborative learning activities, the students decided on different projects and had opportunities to work collectively with different individuals from their community. The environmentalists organized an open-house event where the 7th grade students featured their contributions to the collective project of revitalizing the watershed. From this case, Roth and his colleagues pointed out the possibilities to transform students’ experiences of science learning in schools as follows:
The students, too, reintroduced to the community the representations that they had produced as part of their work. In contrast to much of schooling, where students complete tasks for the teacher to be graded and forgotten, the students here produced | reproduced representations that were subsequently exchanged and “consumed” in the village.
In this kind of expansion, as well as in the Suita municipal elementary schools discussed in this chapter, innovative schools can act as agents of societal change by undertaking collaborative efforts such as community revitalization, cultural production, economic innovation, and citizenship activation. These involve hybridizing with other actors through networking, interaction, dialogue, and the transcending of boundaries. Linking school learning with the expansion of objects and hybrid activity could transform schools into a platform of learning and societal change agents for the transformation of surrounding activities. The rules and patterns of expansive learning should differ from those of classroom learning. Therefore, such expansive learning enables students and teachers to transform their own school activity from below.