Methodology of formative intervention in school reform

Intervention in the area of school reform, just like in other areas of social practice, depends fundamentally on the agency and capacity of the practitioners involved. This is the source of the striking mistakes being made in the policy of the current top-down implementation of educational reform. The most basic way of educational reform that has become dominant internationally over the past twenty years or so is the performance-based accountability system. This system establishes criteria to measure the effectiveness of schools and teachers mainly based on students’ academic grades measured by tests. Such criteria are then used as the achievement criteria (standards) for schools and teachers. In line with this policy, schools and teachers with lower success rates are subject to supervision and sanctions (in contrast, high performing schools and teachers are rewarded), with students enrolled in these schools and their guardians offered other options. However, through this accountability system, intervention in school reform faces decisive pitfalls. As Richard Elmore (2008) states regarding educational policy, there is a complete lack of “substantial investment in human capital aimed at developing the practice of school improvement in a diverse population of school leaders” (p. 39).

The design of the accountability system devised by policymakers will not improve the levels of achievement of schools and teachers unless it takes appropriate measures regarding the capacity-building of practitioners. Elmore (2002a) argues that, for an educational policy based on an accountability system to improve schools, the following principle of “reciprocity of accountability” is essential.

Accountability must be a reciprocal process. For every increment of performance I demand from you, I have an equal responsibility to provide

Collaborative intervention in expansive learning 57 you with the capacity to meet that expectation. Likewise, for every investment you make in my skill and knowledge, I have a reciprocal responsibility to demonstrate some new increment in performance.

(p. 5)

Bert van Ocrs (2015) notes that in the Netherlands as well, due to educational reform being seen as an important factor in driving economic growth, the school curriculum has increasingly become a mandatory fixed structure with predefined targets. This type of reform, based on a linear intervention method where all that is demanded of the teacher is the application of a prescribed program in accordance with a fixed procedure, threatens teachers’ agency. As a different approach, van Ocrs looks at “Developmental Education” based on activity theory, which has been applied by primary school teachers in the Netherlands since the mid-1980s. In the “Developmental Education” approach, a type of curriculum reform exists in which teachers, supervisors, and researchers collaborate to design and implement a curriculum of play-based learning. The essential feature of this endeavor was that it had as its aim forming the agency of all participants and not the simple transplantation and implementation of “a specific previously decided plan into classrooms” (p. 23). Through a collaborative endeavor that gave rise to the practice of “Developmental Education,” the agency of such teachers has been fostered, consistent with them independently forming a new concept of play as a specific mode of activities and developing educational philosophy and pedagogy. In other words, through the design and implementation of a play-based curriculum, teachers were able to solve the actual problems that they currently faced while being offered “another series of stimuli” as “auxiliary means” (both material and conceptual) that “they can employ willfully and according to their personal system of pedagogical beliefs” (p. 19). Thus, the case of Dutch primary schools and the implementation of the “Developmental Education” approach is an example oí formative intervention that has lasted for more than two decades.

This formative intervention research puts an end to the image of intervention as “fixed packages of strategies with readily measurable outcomes,” transforming it to one of the “more open-ended social or socially embedded experiments,” as Kris Gutiérrez and William Penucl (2014, p. 20) describe. It can also be described as “[studying ‘side by side’ with research partners jointly engaged in work to transform systems” (p. 20). This is the reason formative intervention research can give rise to “more sensitive and robust measurement and ecologically valid accounts of cultural production and institutional change” (p. 20).

Gutierrez and Penucl (2014) state that regardless of the instructional program, when a new program is being introduced, it is a mistake to “minimize variation in implementation” (p. 22). The “productive adaption” that implementing teachers make with learners from a variety of backgrounds is what is important. As intervention research is involved in the introduction of a new instructional program, the key is in developing and testing support to

“broaden capacity of teachers to make such productive adaptations themselves” (p. 22). Gutierrez and Penuel assert the following: “We see the aim of intervention research as facilitating participants in activity to deal with the historically accumulated tensions and contradictions of the systems within which they work in order to transform the activity of teaching and learning” (p. 22).

Penuel (2014), looking at the problem of the methodology of intervention in practice, compares activity theory with intervention research as a form of “design-based research” or a “design experiment” that occurs within the interdisciplinary field of “learning sciences,” and subsequendy examines the emphasis and uniqueness of activity theory. According to his comparison, in the case of the learning of children in schools, design-based research aims to “develop theory related to how children learn disciplinary core ideas by engaging with innovative curricular tasks, often supported by technology” (p. 98). However, activity theory, in contrast, focuses on the dual aims of “transforming activity and expanding the agency of participants” (p. 98).

Even if an intervention in design-based research is removed from laboratory settings as a design experiment in tandem with teachers working with actual classroom situations, owing to the nature of its foundational methodology, it will be reduced to linear causality. This type of methodology is part of a dominant trend that has long been observed throughout the history of school reform. In contrast, what Penuel (2014) sees in intervention research based on activity theory is a methodology that focuses on actual learning at the site. In other words, in comparison with design research, the core of intervention research based on activity theory lies in the promotion and support of the practitioners’ own collaborative learning at the site.

In the following sections, a new learning theory in relation to such practitioners’ own collaborative learning, that is, expansive learning theory, based on activity theory will be taken up, and its theoretical and methodological possibilities for formative intervention research will be discussed.

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