Feeling Backwards About Backwards Design

Until recently (like, last week) backwards design felt right. I always tried to have the end in sight and figure out with the students what learning engagements they could encounter to get to that end. “Best practice,” right?

On my path for more agency with my students I am beginning to question this. Our new unit is really what is making me think more about it. Here is some background information about the unit, if you are interested.

How We Organise Ourselves
CI: Technology is an integral element of our lives
LOI1: Responsible consumption of technology (Responsibility)
LOI2: The positive and negative aspects of current technology (Reflection)
LOI3: The advances that technology has enabled (Function)

We keep trying to think of a summative assessment for this unit… where are we going with this? What do we want them to accomplish or know? How can they show this?

We have had multiple thoughts from “how to” videos showing online safety, to blogs with comments and questions from students safely and positively interacting with each other, to a “show what you know” type thing where they can just tell us (in any form) what they know about the central idea and lines of inquiry. We are also toying with the idea of bringing in the Sustainable Development Goals and having the central idea and lines of inquiry be the driver/lens for it.

Of course formative assessment is key. I don’t want to ignore that fact. We need to be monitoring student actions and knowledge of all lines of inquiry as we go. But if students with agency are choosing their own paths for their learning, should we be contriving a summative assessment for them based on what we think is best? Is this fitting student needs or ours?

I suppose the “backwards design” is starting with the why. Why is this unit important… For us this means why do we need students to know about how technology is an integral element of our lives? Why do we need students to know how to consume technology responsibly? Why do we need students to know the positive and negative aspects of technology? Why do we need students to know the advances technology has enabled? It is a hard one because really it is for their current and future use of technology in their own lives inside and outside of school. The real summative assessment is if they are actually using technology safely and positively as they get older, after they leave our classrooms.

Maybe the “show what you know” is the best option for now? Maybe a mini portfolio of examples of their positive tech use and knowledge in the unit? Aren’t the central idea and lines of inquiry what we want them to accomplish or know? Should we use that for our backwards design thinking instead of a summative? I’m not sure where we are headed, but if students reflections along the way show their knowledge, I am not sure we need to contrive a fake summative for them. Do we?

Original post here

#InnovationInEducation: Challenge the Status Quo*

My student stood agog: “Wow, you type so fast! How do you do that?” I looked down at my keyboard and then back at my student. Do I even bother to explain the QWERTY keyboard set up and how I learned to type to my 1st grader? I mean, will the keyboard even exist in the future? Will touch-typing even be a relevant skill?

It’s odd to think that the QWERTY keyboard is an excellent example of why we need to look at common things with uncommon sight. Why innovation is so vital in our educational systems. Have you ever heard of the Fable of the Keys? Do you know why we have that layout of letters of the home keys? Perhaps you think it was created to improve our speed and efficiency when typing? NO–quite the opposite. It was to slow us down so that those old fashion typewriter keys didn’t get jammed up. Its crazy to think that in an era of such technological impact, that such a simple feature of our computers cannot be revamped to improve our productivity. It’s a bit foolish really that we haven’t adopted another style of the keyboard when you think of it. And it makes me wonder what else we are doing in our world that is relies on 200-year-old technology.

Again, I wonder if the layout of the keyboard of our laptops and devices should be reconfigured to produce faster typing speeds? That’s the most sensible approach, right? ABSOLUTELY NOT! I think about this provocative quote about innovation:Anytime teachers think differently about (3)

And it makes sense, right? Why would we spend all that time and effort when we could be reimagining how we might capture thoughts and ideas? Most of us submit that talk to text will be the way of the future-it’s already a classroom staple for my 1st graders. But I wonder how often in education we just repackage these same sorts of “old” ideas which have gotten standardized into our systems. When you look at the quote by Seymour Papert, a man who brought technology to education, can you think of anything that you are using or doing in your classroom that just recapitulates antiquated practices?

The phrase “technology and education” usually means inventing new gadgets to teach the same old stuff in a thinly disguised version of the same old way. Moreover, if the gadgets are computers, the same old teaching becomes incredibly more expensive and biased towards its dullest parts, namely the kind of rote learning in which measurable results can be obtained by treating the children like pigeons in a Skinner box.   –Seymour Papert, father of Constructionism

During Season 4, Episode 3 of IMMOOC, John Spencer described his journey with technology and how his thinking has evolved around its use. As I listened to him speaking about using Scotch tape to mend microfiche, my head just kept unconsciously nodding. Oh, how I could relate! And I wholeheartedly agree with his lesson from this experience.

What is transferable, what is powerful and what stayed forever has been getting to think critically, getting to be creative, getting to problem solve-all of that. To me, when people get focused on the technology, they are going to end up inevitably doing is getting obsessed with the novelty.

I think this is an important lesson for all of us educators to consider. How can we focus on transferable skills vs. technology skills? Is knowing how to touch-type going to be a game changer for my 1st grader’s future OR is understanding how we organize and create systems to improve our capacity to do more and communicate more of our best selves and solve problems the answer?

Obviously, my question is rhetorical. And maybe you are wondering what “QUERTYs” you have in your school culture and classrooms–what old fashion practices and tools are you perpetuating, with or without the use of technology? Let’s start to make genuine progress by challenging and “breaking” them. Because by accepting the “status quo” in education, like un-imagining “the keyboard”, just makes us look slow and stupid.


*This blog post originally was posted on my personal blog: #IMMOOC: WHY THE STATUS QUO MAKES US SLOW AND STUPID

My reason for reposting is that, as rebels, I believe that we should be challenging those aspects of things that are institutional and trying to delve deeper into why they exist and what purpose they serve.

Student Led Conferences…are they?

Originally posted in my blog https://empower2b.wordpress.com

Wow…so last week I was in a spin! Student led conferences are NEXT WEEK! As usual (as I am sure many of you can relate to) this made me shudder a little. You see student led conferences have always been a fine tuned production. The full week leading up to them is filled with whole class discussions in which I LEAD the students to remembering all the different tasks they have done, places they have seen and units they have studied. Once we have remembered everything it is time to make sure we have reflected…portfolios…are they done? Have the students been using their time wisely when they have had time to work on them? Then we finish the week with rehearsing. What are the students going to do and when are they going to do it? How will they explain it all to their parents? Will they show growth?  Will the parents be happy?

When I stopped and thought about all this I realised one very important point…none of this is about the students! None of it allows for me to find out what they think…what they are proud of….what they want to reflect on…what they want their parents to know. Isn’t the purpose of Student Led Conferences to allow the students to take their parents on a journey that helps them understand just a little of what their school year has been? How does this happen if I am the one telling them what the journey needs to be?

How can I possibly guide the students through a process that will do justice to what they have been working on this year? Phrases and words like “student agency”, “student directed learning”, “reflection”, “self-awareness”, “goals”, “scheduling”, “ownership”, “responsibility”, “accountability” and “growth mindset” are not just words anymore! They are part of the classroom vocabulary. The students use them to describe their school day and what they are doing well and what is a challenge for them. So if we have worked so hard on these things all year how can I change how I have approached “student led conferences” in recent years to reflect who we are as a class now?

IMG_3705Helping each other come up with ideas on what to share and how to share it? These two boys ended up coming up with a task that they would do together for their parents as they are scheduled at the same time.

Then a blog post is published about exactly this! On the Making Good Humans blog I read a post about “Upping the Agency is SLC’s”!!!  Woo hoo!!!!  Just what I needed! Once again Taryn is guiding me to the light that will allow my students to be in the drivers seat. I loved when she said “Instead of giving students our why for SLCs we supported them to come up with their own personalized why.” And she shared a template that they used. I had a starting point!

To cut the process down so I am blog friendly….The students have spent time discussing what Student Led Conferences are and why we have them. Why do they need to be the ones to take their parents? Why are they important? Then I asked them….if you could do them anyway you liked how would you do them?

Once again it surprised me how hard some students found this question to answer…what did I mean, how would they like them to be? Didn’t they have to do them all the same? In the end the students each wrote their program for their 40 minutes in the classroom. They had work out from the start of the year and were comparing it to now, they were preparing reading workshops that they had led their peers through so they could repeat it with their parents as the students, they were writing equations so they could do a number talk with their adults…the ideas they were coming up with were endless! And the buzz in the air was exciting! And one thing was clear…they were nothing alike! Every students plan was different to the others, both in what they were sharing and reason why they were sharing it. 

IMG_0152We are ready to go Ms Mel!

One student said he wanted to share a mistake he made…what this ok? The other students were surprised! Why would he want to? Isn’t he embarrassed? You see, we tell our students all the time that it is good to make mistakes but when do we give them the chance to celebrate them? Now was their chance! It became a challenge for some of them and pushed many of them out of their comfort zone but all of a sudden mistakes were being written into the program!

Snip20180417_7 An example of the Student Led Conference program for my beginner EAL student.

As they finished they started talking amongst themselves about the differences between this years Student Led Conferences and those they had done in the past. Observations about the lack of “sameness” and the fact that there weren’t any “stations” set up were made. When we discussed this as a class my resident wise reflector said “You know Ms Mel I just feel like this is my conference, not just me doing what you want me to do. It is like our year has been!” Some asked if they could blog what we had done…all of a sudden they all were!  So, I asked them…convince me! “Convince me on the way that I should do Student Led Conferences next year with my class.” It was when I read these that I noticed how powerful the changes had been…

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It is currently Tuesday afternoon and Student Led conferences are tomorrow. I am not worried about my students. I am not scared they won’t impress their parents or that their parents will be concerned about what they have learned. But more importantly I am not worried for individual students who are nervous and scared to show their parents. You see at the end of the school day today my students have left feeling PUMPED! They have smiles from ear to ear. When we had our closing circle time this afternoon we talked of being proud of our work, of what we have learned about ourselves as learners. Students who were a little concerned were convinced by their peers that they are good and ready…that they have got this! Will there be blunders and mishaps tomorrow? Most probably but I am confident the students will roll with it.

 

Student Led Conferences should NOT panic the teacher! They should EMPOWER the student! They should be a time the classroom teacher is in awe of their incredible class of students. A time where classroom teachers are amazed at the learning that has happened…and some that hasn’t but that has led to a self awareness of what needs to come next! Student Led Conferences should be a HIGHLIGHT for the school year where teachers and students are so proud of the year that has been so far and students are celebrated and praised for their ENTIRE journey! Fingers crossed that tomorrow is the day of celebrations that my inspiring group of learners deserve!

IMG_3710 The class telling me how stressed they feel about the impending Student Led Conferences – 1 = NO stress just excitement –> 5 = huge stress won’t sleep tonight

The Shift: A Journey in Mindset and Discomfort with the Comfortable

Shifts have been a big part of my career as an educator. International educators, and many of our students, experience this much more than our national counterparts: shifts in school culture, shifts in curriculum, shifts in colleagues, and shifts in education trends. One shift I’ve wanted to make completely but have really just been dipping my toes in is student agency.

You see, while I wouldn’t call myself an early adopter, I’m enthusiastic to break the traditional mold and try things that might reach more of my students. As someone who loves to learn but struggled with my traditional education, I’m eager to find as many ways as I can to coax the love of learning out of my students. When I first experimented with student agency, Gary Stager, author of Invent to Learn, paid our school a visit and encouraged coding in the classroom. But it wasn’t the coding or use of Microworlds that stood out to me, it was one thing he said, almost off-the-cuff, “Why not let kids make their own schedules?” This got me thinking, ya why not? I was teaching Grade 2 at the time and was quite new to the PYP and international education but was being encouraged by my leadership to take risks like this. So, I experimented, saw the merits and challenges and put it in my toolbox. I then continued on with my learning of the PYP, getting ready for accreditation, and giving students ownership where I felt I could – working within the system.

At the time, I was not aware of the term “student agency,” yet, the concept always seemed to come up during professional discussions. Especially for teachers new to the PYP, letting go of control was scary and the concept of student agency was being grappled with in questions like,

“What about the curriculum?”

“How do I meet the standards and have student-driven inquiry?”

“But those concepts are so broad, what do I teach?

“How do I know what to teach?”

“How should I schedule inquiry time?”

“How do I plan for that?”

You get the picture.

Shifting to MYP was a considerable change; more so than I expected or realized at the time. Unfortunately, it meant that in the first year, I wasn’t dipping my toe into the pool of student agency as much or taking it out of my toolbox very often. Sure, I was still having my students set their own learning goals and encouraging student inquiries. However, it seemed to fall flat as I was doing what I was told was the way to deliver English Language Acquisition units and assessments. But the curriculum and assessments seemed to be getting in the way of learning instead of enhancing or encouraging. When I found myself feeling kind of bored, I got concerned. If I was bored, my students definitely were too. This can’t be right! Then the work began: rewrite units, have students write units, change assessment practices, and put the learning in the students’ hands more often. Thanks to Taryn Bond-Clegg’s posts, I was reminded of my toolbox and a colleague and I instituted a workshop structure during a unit in which students were exploring creativity through poetry, spoken word, and songs. It was a real success and gave the students and teachers many great learning experiences.

During this shift back toward the students and away from the institution, I have been reminded of a blog post by Jonathan Field about school leadership and I think it applies just as well to teaching. He says, “start with a YES and see where it takes you.” Recently I’ve found the word “Yes” becoming a bigger part of my daily vocabulary and it feels great. How often do you say “yes” to your students?

Dear Sir, I am.

“Dear Sir,

I am.

Yours Sincerely,

GK Chesterton”

This was a letter that Gilbert Keith Chesterton, a British journalist, sent in response to a question posed in his newspaper column.

“What is wrong with the world?”

Chesterton’s response counters the belief that evil and corruption in our world stem from the environment.

He admits that the root cause of all that is wrong and corrupt in our hearts is well… us.

Around us, within us. Us.

Selfishness. Lack of care for those around us. Greedy intentions.

Interfering with our humanity, development, cooperation, purpose…. goodness.

As an educator, I wonder….

“What is wrong with education?”

“Dear Sir,

I am.

Yours Sincerely,

School”

… but it won’t always be so!

Agency PD – A First Attempt

A few weeks ago I shared my thinking about how best to structure professional development focused around student agency, and this past weekend I had a chance to test it out! I spent the day with an amazing group of passionate and dedicated educators all committed to upping the amount of voice, choice and ownership in the work they do to support their learners in their specific role.

Here is how it went…

The Before:

The first thing I knew I needed to do was get to know them as learners. So I sent out a quick Google Form that helped me begin to understand who they are and what they are hoping for from our time together.

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The results were very informative and helped me put together a day of professional learning about agency tailored to their needs.

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From there I focused on building a workshop where they were able to not only learn about learner agency, but learn through experiencing their own agency as learners. All of my planning and decisions were guided by the question, “How can I help them learn about student agency” instead of focusing on “How can I teach them about student agency”.

Before the day of the workshop I also spent some time putting together a virtual learning space, our own Google Classroom, to help distribute documents and resources.

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I knew that not all participants were comfortable on Google Classroom, so I insured that there were plenty of other options and avenues for accessing resources and using some of the templates.

For example, sending out links via email:

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And having shorty links visible when they arrived the day of the workshop:

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The During:

When participants arrived the day of, I made sure they all had access to the presentation slides – which were editable – as there were a few activities where everyone would need to contribute thoughts and ideas.

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First we started with a simple activity to help them connect with each other, the topic of the workshop and their own experience as a student.

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Then I was transparent about the structure of the workshop – Choose, Act, Reflect – and my thinking behind it.

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The “Choose” Portion of the day…

To help them self-assess where they are in their own journey of understanding and supporting student agency, I used a Gradual Increase of Independence (adapted from the original design by @orenjibuta)

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Next I guided them in using the data from their own self-assessment to create their own personalized success criteria for the day

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Then, we co-constructed a menu about documenting learning – starting with the “why”, and moving to possible “hows” and “whats”

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Everyone took a turn to share how they were planning to document their learning throughout the day, and it was so great to see so many different approaches!

After that, it was time for them to plan their day! I took some time to give them an overview of all the different possible options that could support their learning throughout the day.

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I briefly explained what my optional workshops were about and how the conferences would work:

Who the Skype experts were:

I helped them centralize the things they might want to discuss with one another:

I previewed the resource document that I built for them.

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And then… they were off planning!!! (using their success criteria and self-assessment to inform the choices they made about their learning)

The “Act” Portion of the day…

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Optional Workshops:

1. The “Why” Behind Student Agency

First we started with an opportunity for them to tune into their own understanding of what they think student agency is.

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Next we moved into a “Tug of War” to help them debate and discuss a variety of underlying beliefs, assumptions and philosophies connected to agency.

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Finally, we did Chalk Talk to help them engage with some provocative stimuli to poke and provoke their thinking and emotions further. (Warning – some stimuli are quite extreme!)

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2. Transferring Decision into the Hands of Learners

First, I had everyone brainstorm all the decisions they make in their role as an educator

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Then, I had them use a quote from the Empower book to challenge them to think about which of those decisions learners “should” or “could” be making themselves.

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Then I invited them to visit other groups and leave some feedback to push each other’s thinking a little further.

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Finally, I had them reflect on any shifts in their thinking as a result of the activity.

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3. Self-Reflection and Planning for Action

First I introduced a few self-reflection tools, to help them see where they are already respecting and supporting student agency and also where there might be some space to make some changes in their practice to work towards even more respect and support for student agency.

I used a sketchnote from @terSonya

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and a questionnaire that I developed

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Once they had some time to engage with the tools, I supported them in using their self-reflection to develop a personal action plan

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Optional Guided Groups or Conferences:

I only had one conference slot filled about agency vs. the curriculum. We sat and chatted for 15 minutes about questions, challenges, ideas and resources.

Skypes with experts:

I was so fortunate to have 4 amazing educators donate some of their weekend to support the learning of people in the workshop.

@bondclegg chatted with MYP and DP educators about how to up the agency within and around program restrictions

@hktans chatted with leaders and administrators about how to support the development of teachers when it comes to understanding agency and also how to bend and break rules in order to re-imagine what school could be

@ms_AmandaRomano shared her own personal journey as an experienced educator unlearning, learning and relearning how to support student agency as a classroom teacher

Stephen Flett chatted with educators about how learning support can function within a system that supports more student agency

Collaborative Conversations:

There was LOTS of connecting, chatting, dialoguing, brainstorming and challenging

Independant Inquiry:

There was also lots of personal inquiry into the resource document

The “Reflect” Portion of the day…

When we all came back together at the end of the day, I guided them through a formative self-assessment where they were able to choose how best to assess their personalized success criteria to know where they currently are and where they need to go next

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Then we spent some time collectively brainstorming the “why”, “how” and “what” of reflection

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and everyone chose the style and content of reflection that was most useful and comfortable for them. It was great to see such a wide range of approaches to reflection! Everything from painting, writing, sketching, talking, sleeping… to even graphing!

Then we spent a few minutes talking about how the learning doesn’t have to end…

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How fears are normal…

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And how leaving your comfort zone often leads to something amazing!

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Finally, before they left, I asked if they could share their honest feedback with me about the day. I wanted to make sure I was honouring their voice as learners!

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The After:

When I got home, I read through the feedback:

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Reading through their feedback was so helpful. It helped me reflect on what parts of the workshop worked really well, and also some parts of the workshop I need to revise for next time.

As I was reading through the “wishes” I noticed that there were many people who felt that two things were missing from the workshop:

At first I started to go down the path of regret and all the shulda, coulda, wouldas…. but then I realized that  just because the workshop was over, didn’t mean that my support for their learning had to end! So I decided to take action and respond to what their feedback was telling me.

I made two Google Slide presentations (linked above) – one to address each area that seemed to be missing from the workshop. And I sent those presentations to the workshop participants via our Google Classroom and email.

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Now I can feel a little bit better that I honoured their voice as learners, and took action to respond to their needs… even if it was technically “after the workshop”.

My reflections….

  • overall, it was a really great day
  • learning through agency is essential in order to understand agency
  • empowering educators to understand themselves as learners and where they are on their own journey helps the learning extend beyond the hours of a workshop
  • investing time in the “before” and “after” really helped me honour their voice as learners
  • this structure created a really relaxed, comfortable vibe for the day
  • the medium IS the message

How do you support educators in developing their understanding of student agency?

What feedback do you have for me as a workshop planner/facilitator in order to better meet the needs of my learners?

APPENDIX (added to the original post)

The Monday after this workshop I received the following email from one of the participants:

workshop action for twitter

workshop action photo

What a great feeling to see that learning from the workshop lead to action that resulted in happy, successful teachers and students!!!

SLCs and parent communication

My inquiry into student agency began about a year ago, after coming back from my first international conference, where I was inspired by some workshops run by experienced educators who had been experimenting with these ideas.  I have learnt so much about teaching and learning this past year, I barely recognise the teacher I was 3 years ago, when I first began my PYP teaching journey.  I have also never felt more challenged, conflicted or confused.

For our latest student-led conference, I abandoned my usual ‘I choose the activities and students lead them’ in favour of asking my students to plan their own conferences. We had experimented for the past few months with planning our own days, so it couldn’t be too much harder, right? I was wrong…

I used a similar set up to our daily planning, with  ‘must do’, ‘should do’ and ‘want to do’ sections.  I tried my best to step back during the process and have students make the decision of how they would structure their conference time (unfortunately, our SLC timetable meant that there were time constraints). After a lot longer than I had anticipated, discussions, questioning and justifying the ‘why’, each student ended up with their own little piece of organised chaos.

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After practising and preparing their things, an email to the parents explaining our different approach, both the students and I left feeling pretty good about the day ahead.

Then came the reality.

Now, some parents are completely on board with innovative educational practises, or are at least coming around. I even did a bit of team teaching with a father of a student who works at a local university, as part of our unit on Innovation. But then there are the ‘more traditional’ parents, the ones who are still asking their children questions like, “..but where is your maths textbook?” The ones who believe memorising spelling words and timetable facts is the best way to learn. The ones who are more focused on the product or answer, rather than the process.

I thought I was being transparent about what and how we were learning in class; using Seesaw as a platform to share photos and videos with student reflections, sending emails about our experiments with student agency, choice and voice. However, observing some conversations between students and parents that day, I couldn’t help but feel that parents were expecting something a little more ‘academic’, for lack of a better word.

And that’s when the self-doubt started to set in….

This student didn’t choose to show any math, I should have advised them better on this.

The parents were expecting more ‘products’ of learning…

The parents aren’t getting a true picture of what students know and understand.

Oh no, I didn’t give the students enough scaffolding for this.

Did I do the right thing by students or did I throw them in the deep end too early?

Am I even going about this ‘agency thing’ the right way?

Then came my last student of the day. I watched him confidently lead his parents through a short meditation, a thinking routine based on an image he selected and an explanation of a math concept he had recently mastered. He had total conviction in the choices HE had made to show HIS learning. His conference went way over time and at the end, both the student and his parents were exhausted but beaming with pride. Observing all this brought me to the realisation that, while I may not be there… yet with student agency, we are at least taking steps in the right direction.

Student agency = empowered learners.

I wouldn’t call these conferences a glowing success. I definitely need to provide more scaffolding for students and improve my questioning techniques to guide them through the conference planning process, like this great example: https://makinggoodhumans.wordpress.com/2018/04/11/upping-the-agency-in-slcs/

This experience also made me reflect upon some important questions related to my communication with parents about our steps towards more student agency:

  • How to approach student agency, voice and choice with parents, when I’m still working it out for myself?
  • How to show parents the true value of this approach and the benefits for their children?
  • How to involve parents more in this journey?

Perhaps this requires a more individualised approach, reaching out to parents separately to have discussions in person. After all, we strive to individualise learning for students, why not do the same for their parents?

Would be great to hear your feedback or experiences of agency in student-led conferences and how you got parents on board.