Shaping our future: Teacher agency and inquiry

Recently my principal and I attended and presented at the IB Global Conference #IBVI2018. We have shared our notes from the various sessions and plenary speakers here. Our presentation was called “Shaping our future: Teacher agency and inquiry”. I’d like to share it with you here also (take note, this is a long post).

Shaping our future: Teacher agency and inquiry

For me this journey with education, inquiry and agency started in my own elementary school education. I was lucky to be a part of the Open School movement in the US. This meant that I went to school in a “pod” of mixed age levels with a team of teachers. Each day when I arrived I found my popsicle sticks with my name on each and I placed them in the pockets of choices I had for the day, essentially planning my own daily schedule. Some options were non-negotiable but I could choose when I did them. Other options were purely my choice for following my own passions. I could even choose my lunch time and break times. These freedoms shaped who I was as a learner.

I then moved and attended a more traditional middle school – all options for learning were taken away from me. I couldn’t even go to the library on my own… When I later became an educator I reflected on the dichotomy of experiences I had in my own education and I endeavored to allow choices and freedom in learning for the students I taught. I extended these opportunities to adult learners when I moved into the Assistant Principal/PYP Coordinator role. And this is where our story of teacher agency and inquiry begins.


We are an IB Continuum school in Kampala Uganda. We have just over 500 students and 50 nationalities.

We believe it is essential to understand our roles in shaping the future and to connect these to an idea of our purpose in education. Dan is the Elementary School Principal, his role is to provide vision, systems and support to help others achieve their purpose. I, Ryan, am the Assistant Principal and PYP Coordinator, my roles is to empower lifelong learning through inquiry, action and reflection. I will come back to this idea of purpose and how essential it is to creating a culture that values agency later. For now maybe you can think:

What is your role in shaping our future?

How would you write your job description in one sentence?

To share our story we tried to frame the process using Simon Sinek’s “Golden Circle.” And as he suggested we will start with the why.


Why is agency so important?

Start with these provocations:

Think – If you were given two hours off timetable every week at work to learn anything you want and still get paid for it what would you learn?

Watch – “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us” by Daniel Pink and RSA Animate

Provide the autonomy to find your purpose and master your passion.

Screen Shot 2018-10-22 at 1.20.53 PM

Daniel Pink and his book “Drive” talks about motivation and how it is realised through engagement, this has been the inspiration for our journey in teacher agency and inquiry. We were so excited when the enhancements for the PYP started to be revealed. We immediately saw the connection between agency through choice, voice and ownership and motivation/engagement through autonomy, mastery and purpose.

Autonomy is the choice for self-directed learning, mastery is having the skills and knowledge to take ownership of learning and voice is about being able to contribute to a greater purpose.

Agency is defined by the PYP Enhancements as the capacity to take intentional action, which again is echoed by both Daniel Pink and the IB.

make the world better

~Daniel Pink

create a better and more peaceful world

~IBO Mission Statement

Why are these statements so essential to the “why” of agency? Because:

85% of the jobs that will exist in 2030 haven’t even been invented yet ~ Report published by Dell Technologies

We are the creators of our future. In this changing world we don’t know what the future holds we have to embrace everyone’s capacity to take action, to change, to innovate, to contribute to progress and shape the future.

Which brings us back to our guiding question. We’d like to pose it again for you to consider.

Why is agency so important?


The next question we had to consider is How?


How can we cultivate the agency that is within our schools?

How can we build a collaborative learning culture?

First, we all need to remember:

  • Agency is not ours to give or take.
  • We all have agency by nature.
  • As schools and leaders we can decide to honor this and support learners to engage with agency.

When we started this journey with teacher agency and inquiry it was a bumpy ride. We tried to make it fit in our current systems, our systems of goal setting and appraisal. It didn’t work. Will Richardson asked us to consider if we are trying to do the wrong thing right in schools? If we are just creatures of habit who continue with old models because that is the way it has always been done? He challenged us to  think how we can we do something about these “wrong” structures? We reflected on our systems and we saw that we were encouraging product over process because everyone was focused on the “goal.” We were disempowering our teachers because everyone was focused on appraisal. We wanted to shift the focus back to what the purpose of education – LEARNING.

So we “built” what we call the Personal Learning Journey.

Increased emphasis on… Decreased emphasis on…
Innovation, risk-taking, commitment Compliance
Building confidence by identifying strengths to build on Identifying weaknesses to be “fixed”
Agency (choice, voice, ownership) Directed learning
Positioned in a learning community Individual (“silos of greatness”)
Teachers actively involved in reflecting on their own learning (dialogue) Teachers as passive recipients

We have replaced traditional professional development, goal setting and teacher evaluations with a new structure. This starts with teachers reflecting and finding their purpose and passion. It is extended by giving teachers back 50% of the professional development time to follow these inquiries. It is about teachers finding motivation through engagement, owning their learning, developing partnerships, having a voice and discovering purpose as agentic learners. It is about teachers shaping the future.

agency in pyp

What we discovered along the way is that it is essential to allow for true agency, not our ideas of what “agency” should be. We needed to respect the rights of our teachers as learners to choose where they learn, how they learn, with whom they learn, how they will know if they have been successful then finally how they will share what they have learned. And most importantly, what they learn.

“We don’t receive wisdom; we discover it for ourselves after a journey that no one can take for us…” ~ Marcel Proust

One of the Personal Learning Journeys embarked upon by a teacher was an inquiry into creativity. She followed this journey through research both outside and within her classroom. Her students became partners in her journey as they discovered together what creativity is and how they could cultivate creativity in their learning. The summarized their understandings together and then Sarah shared her learning with other teachers through what we call Choice Workshops (similar to  an edcamp or unconference). Today the understanding formed by her and her students permeate the learning across our classrooms.

Being creative means…

Fluency. Having many ideas.

Brainstorming (personal interests, immediate surroundings, wider world)

Flexibility. Variety.

Different viewpoints. Analogies/metaphors. Changing/transforming. Categorising ideas.

Originality. Unusual ideas.

Fluency and flexibility first…  Important to understand knowledge and context

Elaboration. Adding on details.

Collaboration. Use of graphic organisers.

Through reflecting on the Personal Learning Journeys we realised that instead of giving parameters our job is to empower learners through their own journey; really our role in learning is to cultivate agency and build a learning community. There are three main beliefs that have guided our process.

Cultivating Agency & Building a Learning Community

1.Build Trust & Find Purpose

2.Redefine Leadership

3.Resource & Empower Innovation

We started first with trust. It is essential that trust comes first and it is a belief that needs to be embodied. We trust that everyone comes to do their best. We know that everyone can learn. We believe we all want to learn.  From there we have put relationships first. Good relationships establish a culture of trust. And so we have hosted shared community lunches (involving our whole community – gardeners, teachers, maintenance, administrators…), TGIF happy hours, we make time in meetings to talk about our weekends and families, we share successes and challenges in our teams. We have made sure to honor identities as people over just our roles at work. It is about who we are, not just what we do.

“We have found that the single factor common to every successful change initiative is that relationships improve. If relationships improve, things get better. If they remain the same or get worse, ground is lost. Thus leaders must be consummate relationship builders with diverse people and groups – especially with people different from themselves.” ~ Michael Fullan

This idea of trust and relationships is probably most crucial for a leadership team. Leaders have to be willing to be questioned and challenged and to understand that those challenging them are doing so because they have come to do their best and make the school the best it can be. As leaders we need to store our egos and connect with humility so we can see these questions as opportunities for growth instead of personal criticisms.

“It is… advisable that the teacher should understand, and even be able to criticize, the general principles upon which the whole educational system is formed and administered. He is not like a private soldier in an army, expected merely to obey, or like a cog in a wheel, expected merely to respond to and transmit external energy; he must be an intelligent medium of action.” ~ John Dewey, 1895

Trust and relationships are only half of the equation, the other half is all about finding purpose. Remember at the beginning we asked you to think about your role in shaping the future and how you might write your job description in one sentence? This was about helping you to consider your purpose. I told you I would explain more about this and so let me tell you about Morten Hansen. He did this study on the intersection of passion and purpose, which is summarized in the table below. He was looking for the relationship between purpose and passion and job performance. What he found that was so surprising is that purpose trumps passion. We are told to follow our passions and this will lead to the greatest happiness but this advice might be wrong. He found that those who felt passionate about their jobs were less engaged, performed lower, than those who felt their jobs were contributing to a greater purpose.

High Purpose

Low Purpose

High Passion

80th Percentile 20th Percentile

Low Passion

64th Percentile 10th Percentile

With this information we try to help our teachers find their purpose so they can be engaged, which as Daniel Pink said is all about motivation and we found is directly connected to agency. This idea of purpose is personal but as Moten Hansen found it has to be connected to a greater purpose, that what we do has meaning outside of just ourselves. So we also help our teachers find how their role is connected to a greater purpose. With these shared understandings of purpose we can come back to the idea of trust. We trust that we are all here to do our best to contribute to our greater purpose. With this trust we can offer autonomy and choice, we can get out of the way of their learning and let them take ownership over their journey.

“If a group wants to move forward, it needs to develop an understood, agreed-on purpose. A shared vision allows for autonomy and decisiveness within a group.” ~ John G. Gabriel and Paul C. Farmer

So how do we help ourselves and our teachers find purpose? We come back to it again and again. One way is to write your job description in one sentence. In teams we look at inspiring mission statements and then we write our own to start off our essential agreements. We have used a sentence structure to help guide us in writing a shared purpose in our schoolwide learning support meetings: We do what, so that, for who. In the book “The Power of Moments” Chip and Dan Heath share a story of how a hospital janitor found his purpose through five questions, this is one you might like to read and try.

First answer what do you do? Then keep asking ‘Why?’ Why do you do what you do? Why does it matter?

  • What do you do? Clean hospital rooms.
  • Why? Because that’s what my boss tells me to do.
  • Why? Because it keeps the rooms from getting dirty.
  • Why does that matter? Because it makes the rooms more sanitary and more pleasant.
  • Why does that matter? Because it keeps the patient healthy and happy.

Cultivating Agency & Building a Learning Community

1.Build Trust & Find Purpose

2.Redefine Leadership

3.Resource & Empower Innovation

The next step in our process to realize teacher agency and inquiry was to redefine leadership.

Watch – “How to start a movement” TED Talk by Derek Sivers

“Leadership is not something you do to people; it is something you do with people.” ~ Susan Fowler

Leadership is about being a risk taker and following a vision. But it just as importantly it is about embracing others as equals and being willing to follow others in their vision. Leadership is not about you, it is about us.

To redefine leadership we created what we call an instructional leadership team. We invite teachers to join us in leadership and we use our time together as what might be more of a “think tank” or creative hub. We ask the question WHAT IF and we follow new ideas. This has allowed us to implement Choice Workshops (as I explained above) and Sharing Successes, which are opportunities for teachers to share innovative practices taking place in their classrooms with others through a kind of gallery walk conversation. We use another 25% of our professional development time to allow for these opportunities which were presented to us in our Instructional Leaders think tank.

Cultivating Agency & Building a Learning Community

1.Build Trust & Find Purpose

2.Redefine Leadership

3.Resource & Empower Innovation

Finally, to cultivate agency and build a learning community we resource and empower innovation.


What we have realized about innovation is that everyone wants to be innovative and try new things to make what they do better they just don’t always have the resources to do so. And there are three main resources needed for innovation, they are risk-taking, time and support. When we talk about risk-taking we mean that we have to provide an environment that is a safe place to try new things. We have to have a culture that embraces mistakes as learning opportunities. And leaders have to model this. Time is self explanatory, innovation needs time. And support is not about guidance it is about walking alongside teachers in their journey and removing the barriers in their way.

Noah, our PE teacher and swimming coach wanted to redesign our swim meets. He wanted to give children an opportunity to celebrate who they are as swimmers and not just compete against others. He wanted to host a “personal best swim gala.” In this way swimmers would be competing against their own times and celebrating their own growth. The problem was this event was not scheduled into the calendar. There was no time for it. As we mentioned before innovation is empowered through time. But time is not something we can create and it is probably our most precious resource. So what we have to do is prioritize time. To consider what is really necessary and cut out the rest. My principal, Dan, decided that this “personal best swim gala” needed to be prioritized and so the calendar was revisited and things were reprioritized and Noah hosted his event, his innovation.

So now we take you back again to our guiding questions and ask you to reflect:

How can you cultivate the agency that is within your school?

How can you build a learning community?


This brings us to the last circle, the what.


What can personalizing professional learning look like?

What models for inquiry help support an agentic learning community?

“Everything we have ever deemed as ‘best practice’ in education was once an innovation. Someone saw things weren’t working the way they should, and they did something better.” ~ George Couros

What has teacher agency and inquiry looked like for us? It has looked like a transformation of who we are as learners and how we learn. It has looked like new innovations and a a restructure of our systems. Through the Personal Learning Journeys, Choice Workshops, Sharing Successes, Instructional Leadership team and with teacher agency and inquiry we have made many changes.

morningOur mornings begin differently now. Students used to come into their classrooms to be greeted by activities that would keep them busy until the school day began, things like handwriting practice and worksheets. But now our children come to school and take part in play. We have been creating sensory playgrounds that students get to interact with in the mornings before school. We now have children who wake their parents up asking if they can come in early and be a part of play.

snackWe have revisited the importance of breaks in the day. We used to have a shared snack and break time in the mornings but many students didn’t actually have time to take a break as they spent all their time eating. So now snack time takes place outside of break time. Some classes have a shared community snack time others allow students to eat as they are hungry. No matter what though, all students have the full break to recharge and get ready to learn again.

communityThe school day now begins with community time. Just as we found that trust and relationships are essential for teacher agency and inquiry we found they are equally as important for student agency and inquiry. After the first bell our classes gather as a community to develop empathy, discuss challenges and successes, problem solve as a team, honor identities, and celebrate who we are.

lunchAs we were looking at break times and their importance for learning we decided to remove all lunchtime “activities.” Before children attended things like choir practice or Student Council meetings at lunch, but now we have reprioritized our time and those events take place during other parts of the day allow students the opportunity to eat and play. And as we were talking about this we realized that is should be extended to our adult learners. And so there are no more committees meeting at lunch or duties taking place. Our teachers have time to also sit and recharge their batteries as a learning community.

reflection*image courtesy of SeeSaw

Another change in our schedules has been to incorporate time for reflection. Reflection is one of our learning principles and a key component of the PYP and so should be a big part of our days. Now it is. We have time for students to reflect on their learning and share these with their families through SeeSaw.

choiceWe have been looking at how we can incorporate more time for choice and autonomy in learning into our days. And so we have set aside time each week for what you might call Golden Time, iTime, Passion Projects. Our student council has embraced this idea and is working to schedule longer periods of time for students to choose and follow an inquiry and also host their own workshops to share their learning across grade levels.

loose partsIn our first year with Personal Learning Journeys our early childhood team inquired into the environment. They found that the more authentically and inviting their spaces were designed the more the children interacted with them and took ownership of the space. This learning journey inspired the kindergarten team to continue a similar journey the next year as they looked into provocations. Their big take away was that the more open ended the provocation the longer the children interacted with the materials and were able to direct their own learning. The image above is of the grade one team and their giant loose parts provocation in the playground space. They were building on what was discovered through the Personal Learning Journeys of their colleagues and by presenting opportunities for self-directed learning to their own students. Through the these inquiries we have seen our learning community grow and the ideas of agency being extended beyond our adult learners and to our youngest learners.

passion projectsAgency has also been cultivated in our upper elementary learning community. Again in our first year with Personal Learning Journeys we had a team look into Passion Projects. They worked on understanding what these are, how they could be structured and what would make them successful. They shared their challenges and successes and soon we saw iTime in grade 5 and grade 3. Today, as we mentioned this is a school wide focus.

So how have we structured the Personal Learning Journeys?

Screen Shot 2018-10-21 at 2.04.16 PMTo find an inquiry we provide time and provocations for reflection. We meet with teachers in structured reflections and we encourage reflection throughout the journey.

What did we model the Personal Learning Journey after?

Screen Shot 2018-10-21 at 2.05.53 PMWe used a model of inquiry that we were already familiar with and let teachers interact with that model and restructure it to fit their journey.

So what’s next?

“If you want to help people embrace a new narrative, the best way is to create that new narrative together. What is the story of your school or organization? Not just the story of the past, but what is the story you will write together in the future?”~ George Couros

For us we are going to continue reflecting and inquiring. Looking back, looking at and looking forward to understand where we are going and how we can redefine our journey. I’ll share some of the inspiring ideas from the IB Global Conference that are provoking our thinking in another blog post. In the meantime maybe you’d like to consider your journey and the story you’d like to write.

How can you cultivate agency and build a  learning community?

What will you do on Monday?

In a month?

Next year?

We’d like to take you back to the ideas presented by Daniel Pink and Derek Sivers and ask you to think… What If?

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.” ~ Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

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