Agency…Empowering students to direct their own learning

Originally posted on my personal blog empower2b.

In a world that is constantly changing, how is the education system going to evolve? Senge et al. (2012) suggest it is time to move away from the traditional schooling system that originated from the industrial era. This is an opinion is evident in the movement seen in education recently. According to Holland (2015), “…2016 may be the year of student agency — the ability to act independently within a given environment and assume an amount of control and empowerment” (Holland, 2015, para. 1). In the second half of 2018, this self-directed learning movement is gaining momentum as schools and organisations, such as the International Baccalaureate (IB), make student agency the main focus. Pushing outside comfort zones as educators and looking at how to elevate the learning environment for each individual learner is the first step to innovative teaching. (Couros, 2015)

In order to enhance opportunities for students to develop a skill set to enable them to be successful in employment that may not currently exist, educators need to be risk-takers and push past boundaries of the familiar. It is no longer possible to offer the “same” experience that has always been provided and be satisfied and successful professionally. Classroom diversity is also a realistic norm in today’s schools with class populations offering a range in academic level, cultures, beliefs and the life experiences children have had. This is particularly the case in the international school setting and educators need to cater to class populations that do not fit the one-size-fits-all mould. So how? How do schools encourage their educators to create a learning environment that provides individualised programs to ALL students, no matter their needs? When preparing for lessons, how can students be guided to take more responsibility for their learning journey? The answer is agency!

“Students have a sense of “agency” when they feel in control of things that happen around them; when they feel that they can influence events. This an important sense for learners to develop. They need to be active participants in their learning.” (NZ Ministry of Education, 2016)
Couros (2015) states that students “…must learn to collaborate with others from around the world to develop solutions for problems. Even more importantly, our students must learn how to ask the right questions – questions that will challenge old systems and inspire growth.” (Couros, 2015.) The concept of ‘agency’ is not a new educational term; many may argue that teachers have always been looking for ways to individualise learning for their students. John Dewey talked about the importance of student-directed learning in 1938 when he highlighted “that students should assume an active role in their learning process so as to develop the skills for becoming successful members of their communities.” (Holland, 2016, para. 6)  Agency enables all of this to happen!

The IB is currently releasing a series of enhancements to their Primary Years Programme (PYP), and one of the major changes for the programme is the inclusion, and indeed focus, on student agency. The PYP defines agency as being  “… the power to take meaningful and intentional action, and acknowledges the rights and responsibilities of the individual, supporting voice, choice and ownership for everyone in the learning community.” (IBO, 2017) Stevens (2016) believes that creating opportunities for students to have a voice and choice towards their own learning journey enables them to “…feel that that their opinions and ideas are heard and valued by their peers and teachers, they’re much more likely to be engaged with their education.” (Stevens, 2016, para. 1)

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Figure 1. IB PYP enhanced organizing structure. This figure illustrates the structure the PYP will take beginning in 2019.

Through voice and choice students are empowered to have a say in what their learning journey should look like, resulting in them believing that they are in control of their growth. It is difficult to see how you can have agency without empowering the students; in fact, Kearns (2017) suggests that “empowerment is synonymous with agency.” (Kearns, 2017, para. 9)

Levinson (2016) suggests the students of today are using the knowledge and skills that they are developing outside of the classroom to move them forward and often beyond what their teachers are aware of. Enabling a self-directed approach in the classroom allows students to have the agency to use skills to further develop inside the classroom and possibly assisting those they are with.  One goal of agency is student action. Action is an essential element of all IB programmes and can take various forms, such as: social justice lifestyle choices, participation, social entrepreneurship, and advocacy. (IBO, 2017)
Agency can take many different forms and like its purpose with students, enables educators to create an individualised environment in their classrooms. However, in ALL cases where agency is the goal, student-directed learning should always remain the focus. Students will have increased choice and voice throughout their day or in the way they organize their learning. These may include, but are not limited to:

  • Personalising learning through individual schedules
  • Teacher- and student-led workshops that students can sign up for
  • Creating physical learning environments to support the social, physical and emotional well-being
  • Creating a culture of respect in the classrooms in which students feel supported to take risks and be accountable, even when they make mistakes.
  • Collaborating and co-constructing learning and learning goals.
  • Genius Hour / iTime / 20% Time / Passion Projects

Opportunities to create agency in the classroom

When changing the climate of the classroom into one that is focused on being student directed, a fun and empowering place to start is the physical environment. Merrill (2018) states, “Flexible spaces, educators agree, alter the fundamental dynamics of teaching and learning, giving students more control and responsibility, improving academic engagement, and undermining the typical face-forward orientation of the traditional learning environment.” (para.15) When establishing a class climate at the beginning of the year, task the students in the class to “create” their classroom environment (Refer to figure 4 for an example of the classroom environment one class created during a mathematics geometry unit.).

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Figure 2. Taylor (2017) Flexible learning space.  This figure illustrates the results of a student-designed classroom during a transdisciplinary mathematics unit.

 

When teachers create a flexible learning environment the students will be empowered with the agency to develop their weekly goals and to sign up for focused teaching groups with the teachers or with students who believe their enhanced level of understanding will enable them to teach their peers. This will assist them in gaining a greater awareness of their strengths and weaknesses academically and also encourage them to be proactive in deepening their understanding. To assist students in gaining a more accurate self-awareness, they reflect on their learning of the literacy and numeracy achievement standards. They explain their decisions of where to place each standard by providing of their evidence of learning.

 

In his presentation at the Learning 2 conference Sam Sherratt (2018) discussed the importance of moving students away from being compliant and, instead, empowering them to take the lead. Stephen Downes (2010) states, “We need to move beyond the idea that an education is something that is provided for us and toward the idea that an education is something that we create for ourselves.” (Couros, 2015, p. 31) In an upper elementary school classroom, students are taught how to create their own weekly schedule.  Using their weekly goals the students decide upon the focused workshops and tasks that they will undertake throughout the week. With guidance from their teacher students focus on ensuring they have a balance of curriculum areas, a range of independent versus group work opportunities, and also meeting their individual needs with focused instruction.

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Figure 3. Empowered to create. This figure illustrates the student’s taking responsibility to schedule their weekly lessons and sign up for workshops.
Senge (2012) highlights the importance of students learning by being “alive”, and not compartmentalized into subjects that are looked at in isolation. In the IB PYP the focus is on providing the students with a transdisciplinary curriculum where different subjects are taught and connected simultaneously.  “Understanding a world of interdependency and change rather than memorizing facts and striving for right answers” (Senge et al., 2012, p. 65) is the goal. Through the units of inquiry undertaken throughout the year, the focus on content is overtaken by the importance of teaching concepts and skills. It is through the transdisciplinary inquiry that students get to take true control over their learning and achieve a level of learning that is authentic and connected to the wider world. Through asking questions and making connections between the key concepts and the different curriculum areas, the students can gain a realistic understanding of the unit. Assessments are no longer based purely on the content being addressed but instead a reflection of the learning they had made. This learning could be in literacy or maths but also the skills they developed and the connections they had made.

A real example of how agency can lead to authentic action

As students of the United Nations International School (UNIS), there is a level of responsibility to take action and help make improvements in the wider community.  A culture of student-directed learning and agency helps make this process of taking action a more authentic one. As students set their learning goals for the week, throughout the units of inquiry they set action goals that refer to how they can apply their new understandings practically. With teacher guidance, they are encouraged to look to the broader community, outside of the school, and gain different perspectives on the topics they are looking at.

It is through the transdisciplinary inquiry that students get to take true control over their learning and achieve a level of learning that is authentic and connected to the wider world. Let’s consider a real example. Fourth-grade students are looking at the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. The teacher introduces the unit and the students ask questions that highlight their wonderings about the topic. Through these discussions and inquiry, the students begin to make connections to the rights of the Vietnamese children that they see outside the school every day. What rights are the local children accessing? What are the different circumstances that affect the rights they have compared to the students at UNIS? Soon the students are exploring a range of different avenues, all connected to the UN convention. They are working individually, in pairs or in small groups. They are emailing the local embassies and UN headquarters asking for information and interviews. They are working with a member of the Vietnamese staff in the school, to organise and attend field trips to the Hanoi Old Quarter to talk with local kids and find out more about them.

All of a sudden their “learning” is real and connected to where they live. They have popped their international school bubble and are seeing the world through a more realistic perspective. Then one day the teacher asks them: “what are you going to do now you have learned all of this?” Brainstorming begins, ideas flow and the excitement levels rise. All of a sudden the question, “As students of the UN, what is my responsibility?” makes sense, and an answer is achievable!

By the end of this unit of inquiry, the students in grade four were taking authentic action! They created social enterprises with a goal of achieving their desired actions towards giving Vietnamese children less fortunate than themselves, access to their rights. The following six weeks, as they worked on their new unit of inquiry, focused on building a small business (in their case, a social enterprise), and keeping in mind their end goal.

Following a successful Grade 4 Market Day, the students jumped straight into planning for their actions. They organised pencil drives for a local charity, went shopping with the school gardener, made gardening kits, and then delivered them to families living on the banks of the Red River; they purchased a Lifestraw water filter and gave it to a small rural community school, and they purchased teddy bears for each of the children in an orphanage in Ho Chi Minh City. The classroom was buzzing and the students were driven!

Upon reflection, students stated that they felt that they had gained more than just an understanding of the content about children’s rights. They stated that their time management skills, communication skills, and collaborative skills developed significantly and allowed them to take more risks. When reflecting on staying with the transdisciplinary, student-directed approach, they unanimously requested to stay with the new classroom approach. The students want to be held accountable for their learning; they want to be in control of their education journey!

For many educators change inevitably brings a sense of loss to those involved and evokes a number of different positive and negative emotions (Fullan, 2001). For innovation to be successful there needs to be collaboration and buy-in from the entire school community. (C. DeLuca, personal communication 2018) By empowering teachers and other members of the school community to have input and a certain degree of voice and choice, more support for the change will be achieved. (A. Richardson, C.Stander, and M.Taylor, personal communication 2018) Transparency and clarity are necessary in order to ensure that students are meeting the requirements that the school asks for. Inviting teachers into those classrooms where the innovation is in operation is a way for them to visualise the reality, see for themselves what it “can look like”, and to give them the opportunity to ask questions and inquire into the possible concerns they may have.

When communicating with parents, an open-door policy is also a strategy that Taylor (2017) suggests is successful. Provide the background and research for the change with an open invitation for them to come and witness the changes for themselves. Ask for feedback prior to the parents coming into the classroom so that you are able to address these areas during the open house. The key is to remember that parents want what is best for their child and their child’s future. Show them the big picture and the evidence of results.

“If innovation is going to be a priority in education, we need to create a culture where trust is the norm.” (Couros, 2015, p. 69) and to do this, educators need to be comfortable playing with the unknown and be ready to make mistakes. As a school community, it is important to value a shared vision that is centered around student learning being current and according to the latest research. The priority should always be on preparing the students for their future, not for a future that is now in the past.

References

Couros, G. (2015). The innovators mindset empower learning, unleash talent, and lead a culture of creativity. San Diego, CA: Dave Burgess Consulting.

Fullan, M. (2001). Leading in a Culture of Change. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Holland, B. (2015, December 9). The Year of Agency. Retrieved from https://www.edutopia.org/blog/the-year-of-agency-beth-holland

International Baccalaureate. (2017, November). The Learner in the enhanced PYP. Retrieved from http://blogs.ibo.org/sharingpyp/files/2017/12/2017-December-The-Learner.pdf.

Kearns, G. (2017, December 11). Why student agency already exists. Retrieved from https://www.renaissance.com/2017/06/01/blog-why-student-agency-already-exists/

Levinson, M. (2016, April 11). Next Generation Learning: Bringing Student Agency Back to Schooling. Retrieved from https://www.edutopia.org/blog/next-generation-learning-student-agency-matt-levinson

Merrill, S. (2018, June 14). Flexible Classrooms: Research Is Scarce, But Promising. Retrieved from https://www.edutopia.org/article/flexible-classrooms-research-scarce-promising

New Zealand Ministry of Education. (2016, November 15). Learner agency. Retrieved from http://nzcurriculum.tki.org.nz/Curriculum-resources/NZC-Online-blog/Learner-agency

Senge, P. M., Cambron-McCabe, N., Lucas, T., Kleiner, A., Smith, B., & Dutton, J. (2012). Schools that learn.: A fifth discipline fieldbook for educators, parents and everyone who cares about education. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.

Sherratt, S. (2018, April 09). Already breaking moulds: Studio 5. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IcM2Sos091Y&list=PLOkeXFURWAFpzz-uzQ-nG-HTv0kq-iy_x&index=7 L2 Talks Europe

Stevens, K. (2016, April 22). 5-Minute Film Festival: Student Voice and Choice. Retrieved from https://www.edutopia.org/film-fest-student-voice-agency

Taylor, M. (2017, December 15). Exciting, authentic, connected…transdisciplinary learning! Retrieved from http://blogs.unishanoi.org/mtaylor/

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