Creative Education
2013. Vol.4, No.7A2, 11-16
Published Online July 2013 in SciRes (
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 11
Theoretical Appropriation in Pre-School Teachers’ Expressions
after In-Service Training
Mona Holmqvist Olander1*, Agneta Ljung-Djärf2
1Department of Pedagogic al , Curricular and Pro fessional Studies, University of Gothenburg,
Gothenburg, Sweden
2Kristianstad University, Kristianstad, Sweden
Email: *
Received May 30th, 2013; revised June 30th, 2013; accepted July 7th, 2013
Copyright © 2013 Mona Holmqvist Olander, Agneta Ljung-Djärf. This is an open access article distributed un-
der the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in
any medium, provided the or i gi na l w ork is properly cited.
Purpose: The aim of this article is to describe pre-school teachers’ learning of a theoretical framework,
introduced in an in-service training by describing the ways they implicitly and explicitly appropriate the
theoretical framework. Methods: This paper is the second analysis from a course evaluation that aimed to
develop a group of 24 pre-school teachers’ knowledge and use of learning study. The empirical material
was collected after a course funded by the Swedish National Agency of Education. The participants (n =
24) were all highly experienced pre-school teachers selected by their municipal employers. The course
consisted of literature studies, theoretical discussions and practical work in the form of a learning study
project focusing on the teachers’ own practices. They were divided into seven groups. Each group con-
ducted one learning study. After the course, the pre-school teachers answered an evaluation and one of the
questions analyzed here was: “Has your understanding of childrens learning developed during the
course and, if so, in what way?” The answers were analyzed to show whether and how the theoretical
framework was appropriated and expressed in their practice. Results: The result shows that all teachers
understood the meaning of the concept of “variation” in the theoretical framework to mean variation of
aspects of the content instead of variation of methods. Half of the teachers (n = 12) also used the concepts
of variation theory properly, even if the question did not require them to do so. In total, 12 out of 24 par-
ticipants used the concepts from the theoretical framework, namely: object of learning, critical aspects,
variation, simultaneity and discernment.
Keywords: In-Service Training; Pre-School; Variation Theory; Learning Study; Appropriation; Course
Variation theory is a theory on learning, defining learning as
a changed perspective or understanding of the phenomenon to
be learned, called the object of learning (Marton & Booth, 1997;
Lo, 2012). The cornerstones of variation theory are: discern-
ment, simultaneity and variation. They are intertwined in a
learning situation and require each other to develop learning.
To be able to learn you have to discern what is meant to be
learned at the same time as you discern a variety of aspects
related to the object of learning. For example, to learn what a
dog is, you have to discern that a dog differs from a cat and a
horse. The theoretical framework is used by teachers to design
powerful instruction, and one way to learn about the theory is
through the process of learning study (LS), a model for school
development and a method to collect data in research projects.
The worldwide spread LS (Holmqvist, 2006; Holmqvist, Gus-
tavsson, & Wernberg, 2008; Lo, 2012; Lo & Marton, 2012;
Marton & Tsui, 2004; Runesson, 1999) in the school sector is
grounded in the Asian model of lesson study (see e.g., Lewis,
2002; Yoshida & Fernandez, 2004) combined with variation
theory (see, e.g., Lo, 2012; Lo & Marton, 2012; Marton &
Booth, 1997). In an LS project, researchers and teachers work
together as a team to generate, share, develop and implement
knowledge about learning with the aid of concepts and notions
from variation theory. It is a process built on a joint theory-
based reflection on research classroom practice through re-
search ventures.
Several studies on this topic have been conducted around the
world, especially in Asian counties, but also in other countries
such as the US, the UK and Sweden (Lo & Marton, 2012). In
Sweden, it has been used in different primary and compulsory
school settings (see e.g., Gustavsson, 2008; Runesson, 1999,
2006; Wernberg, 2009), early childhood education (see e.g.,
Holmqvist, Tullgren, & Brante, 2010; Holmqvist, Tullgren, &
Brante, 2011; Ljung-Djärf & Magnusson, 2010; Holmqvist
Olander & Ljung-Djärf, 2012; Ljung-Djärf & Holmqvist Olander ,
2013; Ljung-Djärf, 2013), leisure centers (Arenhill Beckman &
Tullgren, 2012), and special needs education (Eriksson, 2012;
Olofsson & Midnäs, 2012). Overall, the LS model has been
shown to improve learning, reduce the gap between high and
low achievers, and improve teacher and researcher knowledge
of teaching and learning (Lo, 2012; Lo & Marton, 2012).
*Corresponding author.
The focus of this paper is on whether and how a group of
pre-school teachers (n = 24), during a learning study in an
in-service training, appropriated the theoretical framework’s
concepts and used them when talking about their practice w ithout
being asked to. Results show the teachers’ learning about the
theory during the learning study as an important factor in the
development of the students’ learning (Holmqvist, 2011). How-
ever, in another study we found how difficult it is to make stu-
dent teachers understand variation theory during their pre-ser-
vice training without participating in LS (Brante, Holmqvist,
Holmquist, & Palla, manuscript). In Holmqvist’s study (2011)
the teachers’ expressed appropriation of the theory was not
analyzed as it is in this study, in which the teachers participated
for one semester in a half-time in-service training and worked
as usual for the other half in their pre-schools.
Aim and Context
The aim of this article is to describe pre-school teachers’
learning of a theoretical framework, introduced in an in-service
training using LS, through their implicit and explicit ways of
appropriating the theoretical framework, shown by their ex-
pressions in answers to the question: “Has your understanding
of childrens learning developed during the course, and, if so,
in what way?” In order to understand the context, it might be
appropriate to provide a short briefing on Swedish pre-school
practice. The Swedish school system offers a curriculum-based
early childhood education for children aged one to five, and a
pre-school class for children aged six. This model has been
described nationally and internationally as an exemplary model
example its approach to children and children’s rights and its
emphasis on play as an important and valuable part of learning
This approach has also, however, lately been criticized for
not stimulating children’s learning systematically. The pre-school
activity has been described as part of a pre-school doing culture,
focused more on activity than on learning. In response to such
criticism, the educational mission, including new discernible
learning objectives, was clarified in the revised curriculum of
2010. Implementation has been challenging, due to the strong
Swedish tradition of play and to a lack of theoretical tools to
support such new requirements.
Variation Theory
In this article we give only a brief description of the core
concepts and notions of variation theory. For further elabora-
tion, see Lo (2012), Lo and Marton (2012) and Marton and
Booth (1997). Variation theory is a theory of learning that ex-
plains what it takes to learn. From a variation theory perspec-
tive, learning is always learning about something, and that
something is the content. In LS, teaching plans focus on the
content that is the intended object of learning. An object of
learning consists of many aspects. Such aspects have to be
discerned by the learner if the phenomenon is to be understood.
An aspect is defined as critical when it is not yet discerned.
Whether an aspect is critical or not is determined by the relation
between the phenomenon and the learner. When an aspect is
discerned by the learner it is no longer a critical aspect but an
aspect defining the specific phenomenon.
Contrast can be used to discern an aspect (Lo, 2012) by
demonstrating the difference between what it is and what it is
not. Contrasts allow learners to separate the aspect and its fea-
tures (Lo & Marton, 2011) from the object it belongs to and to
focus on that aspect. For example, the blade is a critical aspect
in the discernment of what a knife is. Identifying and isolating
the blade as an important aspect allows recognition of knives in
future situations based on the knowledge of blades even if the
handles are different. All aspects cannot be in focal awareness
at the same time. Variation within one aspect against a back-
ground of sameness in the rest enables discernment of the criti-
cal aspect from the phenomenon as a whole; the aspect thus
stands out (Runesson & Mok, 2003) from the background and
can become focal in the learner’s awareness. According to
variation theory, introducing variations in a phenomenon by
which its critical aspects (e.g. color) and their features (e.g. red,
green or blue) are made discernible.
Let us give a concrete pre-school example (Landgren &
Svärd, 2013). Let us pretend that, as in a project the participants
of this study participated in, the object of learning is geometri-
cal shapes. This object of learning has many aspects, so to de-
limit the example we will specifically deal with the under-
standing of the shape of a cube, i.e., what makes a cube a cube?
First we have to design the learning situation in a way that
makes shape stand out. We can, for example, choose to illus-
trate the shape of a cube as in the first example (Table 1) by
using blue cubes of different sizes, or as in the second example
by using both red and blue cubes of the same size, or as in the
third example, use blue cubes and blue cylinders of the same
size. Different patterns of variation can be designed to place a
specific aspect in the foreground and differentiate it from the
background. Table 1 summarizes how presenting different as-
pects as variant or invariant makes those aspects appear as
foreground or background.
To design a learning situation focused on the appearance of
the shape of a cube we have to present variations that make this
aspect, and no other, stand out. In the third example, we varied
only the shape, while keeping size and color invariant, thus
encouraging discernment of shape against a background of same-
But, what features can we use to define the critical aspect
Table 1.
Examples of patterns of variation that make different aspects of an object of learning stand out (Ljung-Djärf, Holm-
qvist Olander, & Wennås Brante, manuscript).
Size stands out Color stands out Shape stands out
Shape Only cubes; invariant Only cubes; invariant Cubes and cylinders; variant
Color Only blue;
invariant Blue and red;
variant Only blue;
Size Different sizes;
variant Only one size;
invariant Only one size;
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
(e.g., shape) when it is expressed differently (e.g., cube versus
cylinder)? One shape is angular and the other is round; one
shape is stable, while the other rolls smoothly. These are fea-
tures that we have to vary against a background of sameness to
make them discernible, and in that way allow students to ex-
perience and form a new understanding of the object of learning
(i.e., in this case the shape of a cube). Variation theory holds
that learning takes place when critical aspects are discerned,
and this is made possible when a dimension of variation is
shown in one critical aspect (e.g., shape) by contrasting the
features of one type (e.g., cube) with another (e.g., cylinder).
It is not possible to design these contrasts effectively without
knowing who the learners are. Lo (2012) highlights how inter-
twined critical aspects and features are; it is impossible for a
person to discern a critical feature without knowing which criti-
cal aspect it relates to. The critical aspect for children who do
not yet seeing differences between how shapes move is that
round things such as cylinders roll smoothly and angular things
such as cubes do not. Children have to focus on roundness and
angularity simultaneously to decide whether the shape will roll
smoothly or not. To summarize, learning takes place when criti-
cal aspects are discerned. This is made possible when a dimen-
sion of variation is opened around that critical aspect by simul-
taneous contrast with other features.
The Design of the Learning Study Model
The aim of LS is to reflect systematically on practice in order
to facilitate learning and development. Practice in this article
refers to teaching practice in pre-school situations that aim to
teach children defined content. The focus is on how to handle
an object of learning and establish how practice, as an envi-
ronment for learning, can be improved for teaching children the
defined content. In this study, all teachers were divided into
seven groups and each group conducted one learning study with
three lesson designs, following a cyclical process. They studied
the children’s initial knowledge, designed a learning situation
and implemented it in the first group of children, studied those
children’s knowledge after the lesson and analyzed the video-
recorded lesson and finally, based on this and the theoretical
framework, revised the intervention. This was repeated twice
for a total of three lessons in each LS over one semester.
The process of LS is systematic, structured and predeter-
mined (see e.g., Holmqvist, 2006; Häggström, Bergqvist, Hans-
son, Kullberg, & Magnusson, 2012). First, the intended object
of learning (Lo, 2012; Lo & Marton, 2012) is identified. The
object of learning is what the teachers are supposed to teach
and the children are supposed to learn during the research les-
son(s). This is followed by a process of screening for possible
stumbling blocks in how pupils in a specific age group discern
this specific object of learning. The screening reveals potential
critical aspects (Olteanu & Olteanu, 2010) of the object of
learning, i.e., features of the intended object of learning that
seem to be difficult to discern. This information is used first
when designing a test, and later to identify qualitative changes
in how the children discern the intended object of learning be-
fore and after an intervention. The subsequent LS commonly
comprises three cycles, each containing four specific steps. This
cyclic process has similarities to the action research spiral, in
which evaluation of and reflection on the first action directs
further development. Another similarity is the intention of de-
veloping practice, which means practitioners need to define the
necessary or desired development. An LS cycle is organized as
a pre-test, an intervention, a post-test and an analysis and plan-
ning meeting to reflect on practice with the aim of further de-
veloping the outcome in the next cycle. The goal of such a
process is to use initial assumptions and existing values as basis
to be challenged and reconsidered through evidence-based re-
flection. The model is about invention and re-invention of knowl-
edge in teaching and learning. An important difference between
LS and learning from ordinary teaching is that because the re-
search lessons are conducted in three different groups of chil-
dren, the outcome of improved learning is measured in teachers
and their practice, rather than in the children. This allows ob-
jective evaluation of which learning situation leads to the high-
est gain in learning. In this way the teachers can study how and
why teaching the same content differently affects children’s
learning outcomes in different ways.
The empirical material was collected after participants com-
pleted a half-time one-semester university course combined w ith
ordinary pre-school work. The course was funded by the Swed-
ish National Agency of Education and aimed to develop pre-
school teachers’ knowledge and use of the LS model and theo-
retical knowledge about learning.
The participants (n = 24) were all highly experienced (mean
17 years) pre-school teachers selected by their municipal em-
ployers. The course consisted of lectures and seminars at the
university one day each week, literature studies and the practi-
cal implementation of a LS project with supervision from uni-
versity staff during the training, including three lessons as de-
scribed above. The participants were divided into seven groups.
Each group conducted one LS project during the course with
different objects of learning in focus (Table 2).
After the course, the pre-school teachers were asked to re-
flect on the contribution(s) of the LS model in the pre-school
context by answering a survey. Three questions were posed:
How do you think LS can contribute in preschool?
Did your understanding of children’s learning develop dur-
ing the course, and if so, how?
What do you think might be problems with using LS in pre-
school, and how can these obstacles be overcome?
Table 2.
A brief description of the objects of learning and participating children
in the LS projects (Holmqvist Olander & Ljung-Djärf, 2012).
Object of learning Children (n = 162)
Number/months of age
1) Geometrical shapes 23/28 - 39
2) Every a nd second 30/44 - 59
3) Half and double 27/52 - 61
4) Longest 16/45 - 70
5) Fewer 24/46 - 70
6) Volume 24/42 - 60
7) Weight and balance 28/54 - 74
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 13
The teachers gave rich descriptions and examples related to
the course and to their pre-school teaching practice. The pre-
school teachers’ responses to the first question have previously
been analyzed and published (Holmqvist & Ljung-Djärf, 2012).
The results showed that the teachers found the LS model to
promote the development of preschool teachers’ u nder stan d-
ing of children’s learning,
enhance teacher professionalism,
promote teachers’ collaborative learning,
transfer learning objectives from the curriculum to teaching
promote knowledge about how to assess children’s learn-
facilitate the evaluation of teachers’ work.
The focus of this article is on analyzing the teachers’ ways of
express themselves in their answers to the second question on
the form. This question did not explicitly ask the teachers to
express their new understanding in terms of the theoretical
The research questions were:
Did the teachers in the course appropriate the concepts of
the theoretical framework?
If so, how was this expressed in their answers to a question
not explicitly about the theory?
Twelve of the teachers used words from the theoretical frame-
work to explain how their understanding of children’s learning
changed. The answers were written down and varied between
20 (Teacher N) and 418 words (Teacher E), with an average of
124 words.
Excerpt 1:
Developed, change d, yeah, li sten, observe more cons cio u s l y
to see if I can see if any seeds have been sown by the
learning study (Teacher N).
Participants not explicitly using the terms from the theory (n
= 12) still used explanations in line with the theory. One such
example is Excerpt 2, in which the teacher refers to the theo-
retical framework, but does not explain learning in terms of the
Excerpt 2:
I see the learning study as a professional development
model for pre-school educators. I am sure that using the
learning study method raises the quality of pre-sc hool pr a c -
tice. Consciously focusing as a team on children’s learn-
ing improves our understanding of what is important in
pre-school activities. Why, we might ask, is this case?
What are we teaching? And what are our methods? The
talks and discussions that take place within and around a
learning study develop our joint approach to educational
activities as well as to children’s learning. They also pro-
mote a common professional language, which, I believe,
may be one of the keys to raising the status of what we do
and of our profession (Teacher F).
The first research-question: Did the teachers in the course
appropriate the concepts of the theoretical framework? Can
thus be answered “yes”; the teachers seem to have appropriated
the theory. In answer to the second question (how this was ex-
pressed in their responses), the concepts from variation theory
used in the answers were variation (n = 8), aspects (n = 2)/
critical aspects (n = 6), discernment (n = 6), simultaneity (n = 5)
and object of learning (n = 4).
Variation was the word from the theory the teachers used
most often (n = 8). As variation is a word used frequently in
different contexts, the analysis only counted its use when
clearly connected to the concept in variation theory, as in Ex-
cerpt 3:
Excerpt 3:
When a child lear ns , he discerns something and an important
task for me as a teacher is to give children opportunities to
discern what they are expected to learn from what they are
not. This can be done by the teacher varying a critical
aspect while letting the other things the kids discern be
invariant (Teacher C).
Aspect was another frequently used word (n = 8). This is also
a common word with a particular meaning in the theoretical
framework, as pointed out by the teachers.
Excerpt 4:
As teachers we are the ones who can provide the conditions
in which critical aspects can be discerned by the children.
Even if it took me some time as a teacher to understand
the real meaning of critical aspects, I think I am slowly
developing my understanding as I try to describe what it
is (Teacher K).
The importance of working with LS to develop an under-
standing of variation theory (Holmqvist, 2011) seems to be
supported by the teachers’ experiences from this course, as they
described that it takes time to develop such understanding. It
was also clear that variation was seen not as variation of meth-
ods, but as variation of aspects of the object of learning, requir-
ing the children to discern which aspects are critical.
Excerpt 5:
It is not the method itself that is the most important thing.
It is essential to establish the critical aspects for each child
in order that he or she can learn what we have set out to
teach. Establish where divergences take place: by showi n g
what something is not, it becomes possible for children to
understand what the object or phenomenon is (Teacher
Discernment is another important concept in the framework;
it is essential to make the aspects critical for further learning
discernible to the children if they are to develop learning. “Dis-
cernment” was found in the statements of six participants, often
intertwined with other concepts prescribed in the theory, as in
Excerpts 3 and 4 above. Discernment, simultaneity and varia-
tion were all seen as required to develop learning. Simultaneity
was used by five respondents.
Excerpt 6:
Demonstrating simultaneity in such a way that what is
being discerned is clear to all is a challenge that makes
work fun. It is important to ascertain the children’s level
of understanding before designing any activity that aims
to teach a particular object of learning. We too often take
things for granted or think that we know what we are do-
ing but do not have the facts (Teacher B).
Object of learning is another central term that describes the
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
focused content or ability which the children are supposed to
learn. The definition of the object of learning is an important
part of an LS cycle, but it is a concept that explains what is to
be learned, rather than what is necessary to learning in general.
Four participants used “objects of learning” in their written
Excerpt 7:
Yes, the focus has shifted from methods to what children
actually learn. What do I want the children to learn, and
how should I visualize this object of learning? (Teacher
The shift from thinking of variation as the use of different
methods to the presentation of varying aspects of the content
was explained by one respondent (Excerpt 7) through the use of
the term object of learning.
Excerpt 8:
In pre-school we are not used to focusing specifically on
objects of learning because our practice is based on the
children’s interests. We usually try to develop the chil-
dren’s own thoughts and reflections (Teacher F).
Focusing more on the content and the object of learning was
seen as one way to provide higher quality in their practice. One
of the participants expressed a strong focus on feelings in the
work-culture, which might have come from a discussion of how
the teachers had often made decisions based on their own be-
liefs, rather than on facts.
Excerpt 9:
To become more able to discuss the “right” things in
pre-school and focus less on how we feel; to actually dis-
cuss objects of learning and children’s knowledge would
greatly stimulate discussion in many pre-schools; and to
discuss and analyze ourselves and our colleagues, our ap-
proaches and ways of performing the activities—all these
things would raise the quality of what we do (Teacher H).
Finally, one of the participants saw the theoretical framework
as a way to develop a common professional language that could
raise the status of pre-school education and teachers:
Excerpt 10:
New words for me, such as “objects of learning”, “varia-
tion”, “contrast” and “intentional-experienced-generative
learning” can raise the status of children’s learning if they
become a regular part of everyday practice (Teacher G).
Two questions were to be answered in this article, whether
and how teachers appropriate and express the concepts of varia-
tion theory when talking about learning without being asked
directly about the theory. Previous results have shown how
difficult it is for students in pre-service training to understand
variation theory not as variation of method, but as variation of
discernible aspects of the object of learning (Brante et al.,
manuscript). Learning the framework of variation theory during
an active LS cycle seemed to facilitate this distinction (Holm-
qvist, 2011) as shown by the relationship between the more
developed teaching designs and improved student learning out-
In this study, written answers from teachers who were asked,
“Has your understanding of children’s learning developed dur-
ing the course and, if so, in what way?” were analyzed, and 12
of 24 used concepts and terms in the framework to explain what
they mean by learning. More than this, their explanations were
in line with the conjectures of the theory. The other half of the
teachers (n = 12) used the conjectures of variation theory in
their answers, but without using the specific terms or concepts
of the theory.
A limitation of this study is that we cannot tell whether the
teachers would have developed the same kind of knowledge
without doing the learning study; the only study we can use for
comparison is from their in-service training (Brante et al.,
manuscript). The conclusion that understanding variation the-
ory requires participation in LS might be a little misleading as
experienced teachers and student teachers have different kinds
of previous knowledge. Teachers with experience might find it
easier to understand the theory without doing an actual LS than
student teachers would. Further studies are required to see what
is significant to developing deep theoretical knowledge by the
use of different treatments in the same kinds of groups instead
of different treatments in different groups.
We would like to thank the anonymous reviewer, the partici-
pating students at the in-service training at University of Goth-
enburg and the research team of Learning Design at Kristian-
stad University, Sweden.
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