The Case for Expansive Learning with Bilingual Education

“Hao Hao, what did you create?”

“He didn’t create a landscape. He made a hand,” a friend says.

“That is the giant’s hand,” says Hao Hao.

“Why did you think of a giant’s hand as the landscape?”

“It’s Buddha’s magic palm,” Hao Hao says as he gestures to the teacher candidate.

“What’s Buddha’s magic palm?” asks the friend.

“It is the giant’s hand!” Hao Hao says.

“Ooh, I see. You have created a five-fingered mountain from the book, Journey to the West. Buddha turned his five fingers into a huge mountain to lock Monkey King up,” says the teacher candidate in recognition.

“Yes! Five fingered mountain!” Hao Hao says.

On a chilly November morning, students and faculty settled into Russell Hall 306 to await the findings and hear the experiences, of eight faculty members entering their third and final year of research in New York City bilingual schools.

Common misconceptions in the classroom, such as the one with Hao Hao, have many implications for how cultural differences can affect a student’s learning and personal identification. Associate Professor Carmen Martinéz-Roldán, Ph.D., is the co-principal investigator of Pedagogy of Social Imagination in Language Learning and Teaching (PSILLT).

Every year, there are more teacher candidates admitted to the Bilingual Bicultural Program who lack language fluency in a second language or cultural fluency in Western school practices. PSILLT had two main goals: to train teachers lacking fluency to teach comfortably in a foreign culture and to offer quality learning experiences for bilingual children.

Dr. Patricia Martínez-Álvarez presenting “Children’s Multimodal Creations as Mediators for Expanding What Counts as Knowledge through an Interdisciplinary Curriculum Partnership.”

Dr. Patricia Martínez-Álvarez presenting “Children’s Multimodal Creations as Mediators for Expanding What Counts as Knowledge through an Interdisciplinary Curriculum Partnership.”

Dr. Martinéz-Roldán recounted the story between fourth grade student Hao Hao and a teacher candidate,a PSILLT fellow, at this year’s symposium, “A Focus on Mobilization of Knowledge and Boundary Crossing.” Her presentation went into further detail about the encounter.

The teacher candidate worked in a Chinese-English bilingual school partnered with PSILLT and explained in a reflection to Dr. Martinez-Roldan, “Journey to the West is one of the four great novels in ancient China. Five fingered mountain, therefore, is a very culturally specific landscape.”

“I can somehow infer from this data that Hao Hao’s peers may not understand his cultural context. Consequently, he did not even mention this amazing cultural thesis in his writing. He may assume that he cannot be understood,” she wrote.

For this after school project, the teacher candidate fortunately identified culturally with Hao Hao. “Otherwise,” she reflected, “his five fingered mountain would be considered an irrelevant giant’s hand.”

Dr. Martinez-Roldan further acknowledged that the teacher candidate interviewed Hao Hao’s mother. She explained he is fascinated by the Monkey King story and every time a relative visits the house, she asks him to tell the story. “It’s part of the connection I see between the home literacy practices and what is being learned in the classroom,” Dr. Martinéz-Roldán explained.

“Basically, this is how I conceptualized the network of the relationships across the three activity systems starting from this artifact which enabled the talk, the making, the doing of the child, the expression of his knowledge, the teacher candidate’s observations, her cultural backgrounds and the kid’s family and home literacy practices.”

The symposium, the second to be held over the course of three years included commentary from visiting professor, Dr. Anu Kajamaa of the University of Helsinki.

After extensive email correspondence with Dr. Kajamaa, PSILLT researchers were able to hold a presentation entitled, “Introduction to Activity Theory and Research-Assisted Intervention.” The presentation gave a preliminary background on cultural activity theory, originally built on framework posited by Lev Vygotsky. Cultural Activity Theory has evolved now into a third generation of understanding called, expansive learning, theorized by Professor Yrjö Engeström, director of the Center for Activity Theory at the University of Helsinki. Researchers focused on expansive learning are concerned with how learning occurs across several different contexts.

In an interview with Dr. Martinéz-Roldán before the symposium, she explained that the researchers involved with PSILLT are using cultural activity theory for the theoretical foundation of their work with teacher candidates and bilingual students.

Stacks of children’s science projects layered the cabinets and tables in the Bilingual Bicultural Education office where I met with Dr. Martinéz-Roldán. We discussed the genesis of the PSILLT grant. “Our main concern is teaching bilingual learners, but in order to do that, we need to train teachers to teach them. That’s why we needed this grant,” said Dr. Martinéz-Roldán.

In 2012, Maria Torres-Guzman, Ph.D., gathered the Bilingual Bicultural Education Program together to acquire the PSILLT grant before she retired. While not in attendance at the symposium, she continues to participate throughout the research process as a principal researcher.

The past year has been of particular importance for PSILLT because it has matured into an interdisciplinary effort. “Every other week we have a meeting which is interdisciplinary,” Dr. Martinez-Roldan said. “The grant purposefully invited professors from the Art Education program, Prof. Olga Hubert, Prof. Maria Paula Ghisa from the Literacy Education program, Prof. Waring from Applied Linguistics, and Prof. Guadalupe Ruiz-Fajardo from the Latin American and Iberian Cultures at Columbia University.”

“We — myself, Professor Martinez-Alvarez, and Professor Chang — wanted to have an interdisciplinary group to serve bilingual learners and offer a curriculum that builds on science, on children’s languages, on children’s cultures — an equity kind of curriculum.”

“Another aspect of the project was to teach monolingual teachers. The teacher candidate is bilingual but they work with teachers in the schools who are monolingual. The Chinese and Spanish teacher candidates offered workshops in Chinese and Spanish,” explained Dr. Martinéz-Roldán.

Sharon Chang, lecturer in Bilingual and Bicultural Education, and Dr. Hansun Zhang Waring, Associate Professor of TESOL/AL, presented their ongoing research in a second presentation for the symposium that morning. They searched for evidence of expansive learning in bilingual teachers’ conceptualization of teaching.

They found after reviewing their teacher training sessions in Chinese bilingual schools that the teacher practitioners’ questioned the purpose of having language awareness workshops. To Professor Chang and Professor Waring, this form of questioning signalled the first phase of expansive learning. They also found teacher practitioners’ perception of the purpose of teaching changes over time.

Despite the absence of co-investigators Professor Hubard and Professor Ghiso, Professor Martínez-Álvarez presented her research findings entitled, “Children’s Multimodal Creations as Mediators for Expanding What Counts as Knowledge through an Interdisciplinary Curriculum Partnership”. Their work began with examining the tensions between the art education, bilingual science, and literacy program aspects of the after school program where students created clay landscapes to demonstrate their knowledge of geomorphology. Each of the co-investigators taught each other in their respective disciplines to address the tensions and amend these contradictions as they enter their third year of research.

Dr. Carmen Martinéz-Roldán presenting information about expansive learning in Chinese bilingual schools.

Dr. Carmen Martinéz-Roldán presenting information about expansive learning in Chinese bilingual schools.

The Office of English Acquisition, under the U.S. Department of Education, funded PSILLT research under a National Professional Development Grant. Part of the framework of this grant required the content of working with children to focus on STEM curriculum.

Professor Martínez-Álvarez noted that the professors found they all had shared values despite their different disciplines, yet by making the after school program interdisciplinary, the boundaries between art and science became muddled. For example, one girl drew a picture of her father painting, and wrote beneath it, “My dad is a scientist because he is an artist.”

The faculty felt the students were very engaged as they produced their clay models, but were concerned whether students were truly learning science through the different modalities of art and literature.

Before opening the symposium to discussion, Dr. Kajamaa gave her initial reaction to the presentations, bringing the research back to the theoretical framework of cultural activity theory. “The question that I’ve been thinking about … is that our construction of knowledge as teachers really needs reflection and I think that this is what is a very important task that you’ve been doing in the PSILLT project,” she said.

“We really need to learn how to turn these kinds of students, that we as teachers commonly pursue as problematic, we really need to turn them into diamonds. And I think this kind of understanding of possibility knowledge gives us this opportunity.”

“Because isn’t it our perception of let’s say ‘difficult students’ … or students entering the very monocultural society of Finland, for instance — immigrant students — we quite often pursue these students as something very difficult. But if we looked at them as carriers of possibility knowledge, I think this would open up wonderful opportunities for us to learn from them.”

“We as teachers we really should destabilize our understanding and categorical knowledge about these students,” she said.

As 2015 approaches, PSILLT researchers have their work cut out for them. In April, they will be presenting their findings at the American Educational Research Association, the largest conference for scholars in the field of education research.

For the eight faculty members involved, their work ends where it began — putting their fingers on the most effective practices to benefit bilingual students in school.

More information and previous reports on PSILLT can be found on their website.