Learner agency – be sure you’re asking the right questions

Agency.

It’s the word right at the centre of the new enhanced PYP.

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Like many schools, our teaching team is starting to reflect on what this means for how we plan learning engagements. A few weeks ago, I was sitting in a planning meeting focused on what the teachers would be doing to support learner agency and more inter-class collaboration.

Towards the end of the meeting,  a group of children wandered into my classroom and started setting up for to rehearse the play.

As the children set up, I realized the teacher contribution to this initiative was to provide some classroom space at lunchtime and show one of the children how to gain the attention of the group.

After spending 45 minutes talking with teachers about inter-class collaboration and learner agency, it hit me. Here were a group of children from different classes getting on with it!

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Over the last few weeks, I spent some time talking with the students, none of whom were in my class, about what actions they had taken to organize themselves. I discovered that the children had:

  • Written the play on google docs after school.
  • Designed posters, printed them and put them up in the pod.
  • Emailed their peers to advertise rehearsals.
  • Organised to use my classroom space during lunchtimes.
  • Solved creative differences and resolved group conflict.

The children were there because they loved acting and writing (or had a friend who loved acting) and wanted to perform for a larger audience. They recognized they needed to practice and audition first before showing their work to a larger audience.

Voice.

Choice.

Ownership.

Agency is going be something PYP teachers spend a lot of time talking about in planning meetings over the coming months.

Yet how many adults really understand what learner agency means?

Would they be able to spot it?

Or would they be a bit like me and not recognize it even if it was happening right under their nose?

The lunchtime playgroup taught me an important lesson.

If I’m serious about learner agency, I need to spend less time thinking about what teachery stuff I need to be doing, the posters, the planning sheets, the activities in order for kids to exercise agency and more time really understanding my students. I need to look beyond what happens in class and watch the children, how they interact with each other and the learning environment especially when they think I’m not looking.

As agency becomes a more frequently used word in planning meetings, I know I need to really understand it.

I need to start wondering.

What is it I don’t know about the learners?

In what ways do children already exercising choice, voice, and ownership in school, in learning, in their lives?

What is it I need to be doing less of to create time and space for learners to make decisions, take action and voice their thinking?

What might I need to stop doing completely?

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Learning – Who gets to define success?

@sherrattsam threw some serious shade into the conversations around rubrics. I’ve got a fair number of criticisms of rubrics. 

  • Children who, despite their best efforts, were still at the lowest point of the rubric. Classroom culture can mitigate this.
  • Children who go beyond expanding that still need to be challenged.
  • Rubrics full of language that the children didn’t understand (and if I’m honest, at times, I didn’t really understand either)
  • Selective reading of rubrics. Small font sizes and large blocks of texts. Our rubrics are often not child-friendly. Why are we surprised that the children often end up looking at the top column and giving the rest of the rubric a cursory glance at best?

When I look at the underlying problem, it’s that the definition of success is owned by the teachers. We’re the ones writing the rubrics, often with very little input from our students. As a result, rubrics can be narrow paths for the learners to passively follow.

What about reconceptualising a rubric a compass?

A compass enables flexibility to wander down unexpected paths. An opportunity to embrace the unknown while still heading in the same direction.

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But how will the children know what way is north?

Take time to co-construct the success criteria. 

What might success look like from your students perspective? Go beyond just pulling out old pieces of work and picking them apart.

Start with the end

Our current Unit of Inquiry involves the children setting up a business. Instead of the summative task being at the end of the unit, the children had a chance to create a business right at the start unit. Not everything went according to plan, budgets were blown, disagreements erupted and sales weren’t met. A lot of this action was caught on camera and became an object to reflect on later. When it came time to discuss success, the children were speaking from a place of concrete experience.

Bring in the outside experts – kids who have done the unit before!

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As part of this unit, we set up a panel of successful Year 5 business people to talk to the current group of Year 4s. For 40 minutes the Year 5s answered student-generated questions from the Year 4s. They shared not only their own experiences of the unit but made connections to other children’s experiences in their cohort.

A true win-win.

The younger children heard in true child-speak, a definition of successful learning. The older children had an opportunity to reflect on learning from over 12 months ago, further deepening their learning from that unit. As a teacher, there is no great joy than hearing children from previous years articulating their learning.

Think beyond your own school 

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Maybe you are starting a brand new unit. Chances are, there’s a school out there who has run a similar unit. Reach out to your own network. I knew from twitter, that the International School of Ho Chi Minh City runs a similar unit as part of their PYP exhibition.  @OrenjiButa was very kind and organised a Flipgrid where my students could use an asynchronous video chat to answer questions. Engaging with children from outside our learning context enables our unit at school to move beyond ‘we’ve always done it this way’ thinking. 

To make these exercises worthwhile, take time to notice and name those behaviours that you notice

Parents – don’t wait until the end of the unit

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Rather than have the parents in at the end of the unit to passively listen to a finished report or business. The children pitched their ideas to their potential investors early in the process. This enabled the parents to give detailed feedback and the children gained another perspective on success.

This process took a lot of time, far more than a meeting trying to construct a rubric. Taking time to notice and name successful behaviour, from students both in your class and the invited guests. Taking on parent feedback to adapt criteria.

But the result was a shared understanding from teachers, parents and individual students of what the unit was about, where the children were heading and how they were going to get there.

With nothing but a compass to guide us along the way.

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Teaching the Teacher

@sherrattsam threw some serious shade into the conversations around rubrics. I’ve got a fair number of criticisms of rubrics. 

  • Children who, despite their best efforts, were still at the lowest point of the rubric. Classroom culture can mitigate this.
  • Children who go beyond expanding that still need to be challenged.
  • Rubrics full of language that the children didn’t understand (and if I’m honest, at times, I didn’t really understand either)
  • Selective reading of rubrics. Small font sizes and large blocks of texts. Our rubrics are often not child-friendly. Why are we surprised that the children often end up looking at the top column and giving the rest of the rubric a cursory glance at best?

When I look at the underlying problem, it’s that the definition of success is owned by the teachers. We’re the ones writing the rubrics, often with very little input from our students. As a result, rubrics can…

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