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Smuggling Authentic Learning Into the School Context: Transitioning From an Innovative Elementary to a Conventional High School


by Renée DePalma, Eugene Matusov & Mark Smith — 2009

Context: What Varenne and McDermott described as “conventional schooling” is characterized by underlying values of competition and credentialism implicit in an unconscious, cultural framework for U.S. institutional schooling. Schools that define themselves in opposition to this cultural heritage consider themselves innovative schools and tend to explicitly reject conventional practice in favor of a collaborative “free-choice learning environment.”

Focus of Study: We analyze the institution of conventional U.S. schooling through the interpretive lens of students who were experiencing it for the first time in their first year of high school. We were interested in how students who had attended an innovative collaborative elementary school interpreted their former innovative and current conventional schools and how they used these interpretations to form coping strategies for success in the new environment.

Setting: The study was based at the Newark Center for Creative Learning (NCCL). Founded in 1971, the school terminates after the eighth grade.

Participants: We followed a cohort of 13 ninth-grade NCCL “graduates” through their first year of conventional high school. We also solicited views from their parents and former (NCCL) teachers.

Research Design: We employed a qualitative case study approach designed in collaboration with teachers.

Data Collection and Analysis: We conducted four focus-group interviews with NCCL alumni and analyzed their postings to a private asynchronous Web discussion set up exclusively for them to discuss their experiences. We also surveyed their parents, invited parents, staff, and students to a videotaped discussion of our emerging results, and invited personal e-mail feedback on our emerging interpretations.

Findings: The students in our study were generally academically successful in their new high schools yet clearly expressed a distinction between what they considered authentic learning and what they considered strategies for academic success in their new conventional schooling environments. Analysis of their discourse revealed distinct response patterns characterizing concurrent (sometimes complementary, sometimes contradictory) projects of self-actualization and institutional achievement.

Recommendations: Our analysis suggests that a certain critical ambivalence toward credentialism and competition can be part of a healthy strategy for school success and that efforts to improve minority school performance should be modified to take into account the effect of the institution of conventional schooling itself, an aspect that has, to date, been underanalyzed.



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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 111 Number 4, 2009, p. 934-972
http://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15227, Date Accessed: 10/23/2017 3:04:57 PM

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About the Author
  • Renée DePalma
    University of Sunderland
    RENÉE DEPALMA is currently a research fellow on the Economic and Social Research Council-funded project “No Outsiders: Researching Approaches to Sexualities Equality in Primary Schools” at the University of Sunderland. Her research has focused on equalities and social justice in terms of race, ethnicity, language, and sexuality. Recent publications include, with E. Atkinson, “Strategic Embodiment in Virtual Spaces: Exploring an On-Line Discussion About Sexualities Equality in Schools” in Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education (2007), and “When Success Makes Me Fail: (De)Constructing Failure and Success in a Conventional American Classroom” in Mind, Culture, and Activity (2008).
  • Eugene Matusov
    University of Delaware
    E-mail Author
    EUGENE MATUSOV is a professor of education at the University of Delaware. He was born in the Soviet Union. He studied developmental psychology with Soviet researchers working in the Vygotskian paradigm and worked as a schoolteacher before emigrating to the United States. He uses sociocultural and Bakhtinian dialogic approaches to learning, which he views as transformation of participation in a sociocultural practice. Recent publications include “In Search of the Appropriate Unit of Analysis” in Culture and Psychology (2007), and, with M. P. Smith, “Teaching Imaginary Children: University Students’ Narratives About Their Latino Practicum Children” in Teaching and Teacher Education (2007).
  • Mark Smith
    University of Delaware
    MARK SMITH is a doctoral candidate in education at the University of Delaware. He is interested in dialogic education and collaborative settings for learning, both in school and in out-of-school contexts. His dissertation research explores the relationship between teacher authority and dialogue, and the degree to which teacher authority helps, hinders, or destroys possibilities for dialogue in education. Recent publications include, with E. Matusov, “Teaching Imaginary Children: University Students’ Narratives About Their Latino Practicum Children” in Teaching and Teacher Education. (2007), and, with E. Matusov, M. A. Candela, and K. Lilu, “‘Culture Has No Internal Territory’: Culture as Dialogue” in J. Valsiner & A. Rosa (Eds.), The Cambridge Handbook of Socio-Cultural Psychology (Cambridge University Press, 2007).
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