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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An ode to my rebel mentors

Ever since I heard Taryn’s story at the #IBSG2018, I have been reflecting deeply on my teaching and learning journey over the last two decades and more. Her talk was inspiring and it was almost like a coming out story that resonated with many of us who have earlier struggled to come out of the classroom closet! She had the courage to come out and share her humble yet powerful story… a simple act of human revolution I’d say, for lack of a better word (I find ‘rebel’ to have this popularly clichéd negative label and now through this blog, over-used). She had the courage to come out and confront constraints and challenges and turn them into opportunities… there was no more room for fear or worry. She had the courage to come out and review and reflect on her teaching practices, so that they ultimately contributed to making learning real and meaningful.

Over the last couple of months, each blog on this alliance has been such a lovely revelation into our own interpretations of Agency in the classroom. Whether through the glimpses into a learning journey, or through some personal reflections, each post has been like a jigsaw piece helping in co-constructing the IB rebels’ understanding of Agency. Interestingly, when I reflected back, I realised that my journey into teaching from Day 1 had been filled with Agency… just that it was not very explicitly talked about or consciously acknowledged by me. Agency had been like the oxygen I was breathing in and out in my classroom, but I had not been mindful of the same.

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With the original mentor… my mom

I take this opportunity to share some of those experiences, simultaneously acknowledging the contribution of some great educational visionaries and leaders, and in many ways educational rebels of their times, who have directly or indirectly mentored me on my own journey.

Where it all began…

I got into teaching by chance at the young age of 21, after a disillusioned year of work in the corporate world, which I was officially trained for. With a historian and author father and a mom who was a college professor, I had teaching in my genes, so to say… and hence, took to the world of education much like fish is in water.

One of my earliest mentors in education, apart from my parents, was Rabindranath Tagore. Tagore needs no introduction. He was the first Asian to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1913 for his famous work ‘Gitanjali’. Being Bengali, I was also steeped in the works of Rabindranath Tagore, as a cultural mandate.

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Don’t miss the rebellious look in Tagore’s eyes

Tagore advised, much before the IB era, “Don’t limit a child to your own learning, for he was born in another time.” His educational models of schooling and higher education at Shantiniketan are still matters of research interest, as people from across the world travel to study and learn from one of the earliest global universities of modern times. Reading, singing, acting and dancing to Tagore’s stories, poetry and plays, all through my childhood, I realised early on, that there are many artistic languages that can be used to express our thoughts and emotions and that aesthetics in whatever we do is something worth striving for.

His famous poem reads:

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit
Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.

This was my first immersion into real Learner Agency.

When students make you a teacher

My first teaching experience was in the most amazing Sahyadri School, founded on the philosophy of J. Krishnamurti. He was a noted philosopher and educator who talked greatly about the inquiry model and learning through observation. The Krishnamurti Foundation of India runs some of the oldest and most reputed schools in India and I was fortunate to join one of their newer establishments.

The environment was free, students did not have a uniform, the classes were structured flexibly through the day, and the learning spaces were accessible (especially the Art Room and the fields) through the day. Students were exposed to a wide range of arts and they organized an annual Art fair selling the products they designed and created through the year. The first two batches of students I taught there, walked me on the path of becoming a teacher. And Krishnamurti’s philosophy of education, helped me understand what it meant to be an educator.

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True inquirer

In his 1st talk to students at Rajghat School Banaras, on 4th January 1954, he posed the question “Don’t you ask yourself why you are being educated? Do you know why you are being educated, and what does that education mean?” and after discussions, summarized it as “Proper education is to help the student to meet this life, so that he understands it, he won’t succumb, he won’t be crushed under it as most of us are…. Your education must enable you to understand this pressure, not to yield to it but to understand it and to break through it, so that you, as an individual, as a human being are capable of a great deal of initiative, and not merely traditional thinking. That is real education.”*1

The air was filled with students and teachers having voice, choice and ownership in what they learnt and how they learnt… agency infused the learning environment and culture, so to say. This, being my first experience in teaching, became an anchor in forming my own educational beliefs.

A simple school with a visionary leader

 I was fortunate to thereafter work in a school, where the philosophy was simple… a school is a place for children, and hence, must be run by what children need and want. The students designed the uniform of the school (which included denim bottoms for comfort), the classes were broken down into large group and small group instructions, where students could go for specific lessons of their choice in the smaller groups. Jenny Mosley’s Golden Time and Circle Time were fundamentals of students’ behaviour management, as again the choice to behave in a certain way was placed in the hands of the students themselves. Classes could be held under the shade of a tree, on the field or in the computer lab. Learning could be expressed through the arts.

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With Madhavi Kapur and the core team at Aman Setu

It was a happy place where students and teachers felt empowered, important and inspired! A simple school that was led by a visionary leader, Ms. Madhavi Kapur… became the training grounds for me to not only acquire technical skills, but also to understand the emotional and psychological dynamics of learning. A balance of the head and the heart was guided by Ms. Kapur, and implemented by a great team of teachers and leaders. Today, the foundation in her memory continues to do active work in the field of making learning and education agentic and empowering through its own school called Aman Setu and its own curriculum and training centres!

When paths cross and merge

I had the good fortune of encountering a spiritual and humanistic life philosophy around this time in my journey, based on Nichiren’s Buddhism. As a member of Soka Gakkai International, I began exploring the principles of Soka Education founded by the founding President of the organisation, Mr. Tsunesaburo Makiguchi, who himself was a reformist educator by profession in Japan in the early 1900s. The current honorary President Dr. Daisaku Ikeda writes, “Education must inspire the faith that each of us has both the power and the responsibility to effect positive change on a global scale.”

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The Soka schools and the Soka Universities (see full list here), follow this basic principle in teaching and learning through their efforts to spread peace, culture and education. Though, I have neither studied nor taught at any Soka institution, practicing this philosophy helped me absorb the tenets of Soka education.

Reminiscing on a teacher’s reflection, “The smallest failure can destroy a child’s confidence, and the smallest catalyst can trigger explosive growth. The challenge for the teacher is to believe in each child’s potential.”*2, I realised that truly believing in students is the best way to empower and inspire them. When we truly believe with our heart that children can become successful in what they wish to pursue on their own interest, we are already opening up the path towards their success! In a way, I realised that if I believed in my potential as an educator, my faith would manifest in my students in the same manner… what could be a more powerful expression of agency than this?

Encountering the IB way

 As my educational beliefs continued to strengthen and get rooted by my personal and professional experiences in life, I was headhunted to work in an IB school near Mumbai. The initial year at the start up got me some IB training and soon I landed myself into a new school, Pathways World School, where I spent close to a decade (Jan 2005 to June 2014). I grew from being a specialist teacher, to being a home room teacher, to becoming a Grade Level Coordinator, followed by leading as a PYP Coordinator and finally doubling the role of a Primary School Coordinator. More recently, I have been heading the Primary Division at my current school, which is Singapore International School, Mumbai. I was also lucky to make it to IBEN in 2011 and also was selected to lead workshops online. Before this begins to sound like my resume, let me explain why I am sharing all this. The IB allowed me to explore so many avenues as an educator thereby giving me so much ‘Agency’. I could play different roles, don different hats and yet at the end of the day, call myself a teacher first.

The IB Mission Statement itself talks about developing ‘inquiring, knowledgeable and caring young people who help to create a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect’ and creating programmes that ‘encourage students across the world to become active, compassionate and lifelong learners who understand that other people, with their differences, can also be right.’. From its inception, Agency has been latently embedded in the IB ethos. Whether it was working as an educator, or as a student, it allows every one to enjoy the process of learning. Everybody becomes a life-long learner.

If we are to promote true international mindedness, we will need to develop the attributes of the Learner Profile and the knowledge, the conceptual understanding, the skills and attitudes and eventually lead students to taking meaningful action. None of this is authentically possible without agency. The process, which reflects in the curriculum as well as the pedagogy, has to be an experiential one, wherein students and teachers together work together to construct meaning and reconstruct new ideas and innovations. Students, teachers and parents need to explore choices and share their voice on issues they feel close to, thereby, taking ownership of that learning.

Student action, as originally conceptualised, could not have happened without Agency. Agency too, has all the attributes of the Learner Profile embedded in itself and here is a correlation I did for the same, which is of course not the only way to represent it.

Slide1At the end of the day, agency as a concept is not new at all. We are becoming more conscious of education being a process of developing independent, life-long learners capable of taking meaningful action. Agency is thus, a journey of inspiring our learners in every possible way to take steps towards good. The culture of a school’s leaders, teachers and parents ultimately determine how authentic agency is at a school.

I end with a quote that seems to summarise it all:

“A school’s CULTURE resides in the hearts and souls of its leadership, teachers, staff and students. A true Culture of Learning will tend to transcend the physical walls of the school and flow out into the community.” Robert John Meehan, Educator, Author, Poet

 

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Sources (except for the ones which are hyperlinked):

*1: http://jiddu-krishnamurti.net/en/1954/1954-01-04-jiddu-krishnamurti-1st-talk-to-students

*2: http://www.daisakuikeda.org/main/educator/essays-on-education/treasuring-every-child.html

Image of Rabindranath Tagore: Wikimedia Commons

Image of J Krishnamurti: http://domainededieu.over-blog.com/article-krishnamurti-se-liberer-du-connu-74291562.html

Image of Dr. Daisaku Ikeda: http://www.sgipanama.com

What’s worth learning?

Recently I gathered a group of volunteers from Grades 4 and 5 to help me look at our strategic plans for the coming year. We had identified three areas of focus (space, community, engagement) and I asked the students for their ideas, suggestions, questions, wonderings, thoughts and opinions for each area. There were so many inspiring and thought provoking statements that have caused me to pause and reflect. But today I’d like to look at one line of comments they wrote down, “we always have the same subjects… more variety/options.” I asked our learners what they meant by this and they asked me why school is always about English, Math and History? They wanted to know why couldn’t they learn about other areas like Psychology, Design, Carpentry, Mechanics, Video Games, Robots and Statistics.

I’ve been thinking about these questions and statements over the past few weeks. And I am stumped. Why can’t we learn about these other areas? Why do we tend to focus on just a few subjects? Do our units of inquiry allow enough breadth? How do we know what we need to learn and teach? Is it still relevant for today?

What is worth learning?

As I thought about this I saw a Twitter post (with linked blog post) by Eric Sheninger that made me think further about what might be worth learning:

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The skills listed refer to jobs of the future as outlined by the World Economic Forum: “advanced robotics and autonomous transport, artificial intelligence and machine learning, advanced materials, biotechnology, and genomics.”

Are skills what is worth learning? Is that what we should be really focusing on? Then what about knowledge? While I can see the math and science within each of these future jobs I do not see the point of learning these subjects in isolation. Should we be looking at more opportunities for transdisciplinary learning?

And so once again I return to the question posed by our students, what about other areas of study? And therefore what’s worth learning? I am beginning to wonder what are we teaching? And do we focus too much on what we think should be the learning?

Sugata Mitra said in his TED Talk, Build a School in the Cloud, “I think we need a curriculum of big questions… but we’ve lost sight of those wondrous questions. We’ve brought it down to the tangent of an angle.” Are we focusing too much on the “facts” that need to be learned and not enough on the passion of learning?

The Teacher Questions in a PYP Unit of Inquiry are often written last and many times as an oversight. But without really good questions where is the inspiration for curiosity? We have determined what should be learned and we have the scope and sequence (or curriculum objectives, standards, benchmarks) to back us up. But have we considered what’s really worth learning and what will inspire our learners to think creatively and discover their passions?

When we plan our Units of Inquiry we write Central Ideas and Lines of Inquiry as statements of what we think our learners should understand and inquire into. These inquiries have to fall under one of six Transdisciplinary Themes. Is this too confining, is it really all that is worth knowing? Does it allow for voice, choice and ownership?

Can we forget about the scope and sequence, the planned units and focus instead on wondering, questioning, discovering? Can we accept that children will learn even without adult intervention and curriculum objectives? Aaron Browder suggests in his article, “Can we stop obsessing about learning,” that we can and I am inspired by this idea.

But I also wonder how our learners will discover what they don’t know? How will they learn if they are unaware of the options for learning? If we never introduce them to multiplication will they figure it out, if they do how much time will be spent on the journey, is it worth it?

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From: https://dojo.ministryoftesting.com/dojo/lessons/not-sure-about-uncertainty

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From: https://poststatus.com/known-knowns-known-unknowns-and-unknown-unknowns/ 

So if the purpose of school is not to teach bits of knowledge that can be found through any good Internet search, is it to teach subjects that would never be learned in isolation outside of school? Or is school a place of wonder, where we discover ? A place where passions are born and students learn how to learn? Sugata Mitra said it best:

“It’s not about making learning happen. It’s about letting it happen. The teacher sets the process in motion and then stands back in awe and watches as learning happens.”

Let’s look at how we can set the process in motion, how we can inspire and provoke and question. How we can show our learners their unknown unknowns? Let’s reconsider what’s worth learning

Studio 3

In order for students to be successful in an environment where they are empowered with their own learning choices, they need to have the skills to be successful. I believe that explicitly teaching and assessing these skills should be the focus of what we do in school.

I teach grade 3 at ISHCMC and just as our colleagues in Studio 5 have been experimenting with different ways to give students agency in their learning, we have been doing the same thing. How do we prepare students for the Studio 5 model? How do we teach them the skills they need in order for them to be successful?

We have been experimenting with focusing a unit on a particular set of skills, explicitly teaching and assessing them. Then for the final part of the unit, opening it up for the students to put their new skills to the test. An example of this was our WWAITAP unit where we explicitly taught research skills through the content of explorers and then students used their research skills to find out about various topics that interested them. Always coming back to the skills, not the content.

Most recently, students practiced their self-management skills by planning and organizing their week. We had a list of “must-dos” that students needed to accomplish. How they organized their time, where they worked, and how they decided to complete their tasks were up to them. No matter how they decided to work, everyone agreed that by Friday afternoon, all the tasks would be completed.

Students reflected every morning about the specific things they wanted to complete for the day and if they were on track for getting everything done for Friday. Then every afternoon, they reflected on their accomplishments, frustrations, and changes, if any, they would make the next day.

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This sparked some amazing discussions about how people work in different ways. Some liked to get everything done in the beginning and have free time at the end of the week. Others liked to mix in playing with work and still, others preferred to play earlier in the week, needing the pressure of the deadline to work at the end.

We had many discussions about the fact that there is no correct way to work. What is important is discovering which way works for you and knowing yourself as a learner. In the end, I asked them to reflect on their experience and here are some of their reflections:






I thought it was a really successful week and most students found the time quite motivating and fun. Interestingly, some actually preferred the more standard approach. Those students tended to be the ones who do not have as much self-control and need to develop their self-management skills, as opposed to being told what to do. It is those students who would benefit the most from this approach.

Of course, this is still a work in progress. We are still experimenting and exploring how to specifically teach and assess these soft skills, prepare students for Studio 5, and for their futures. Any ideas or thoughts would be appreciated!

Exciting, Authentic, Connected…Transdisciplinary Learning!

As part of my professional inquiry for this year I decided to focus on student directed learning and student agency. The explanation of this is an entire blog post of its own (next one on my list) but in short I was looking at how I could play with my classroom logistics in order to stay true to what the school were requiring but still allowing the students to have agency.

Part of my process was to keep the parents of my class informed and aware of these changes. We are a team and it is important that there is complete transparency between us in order for the students to truly succeed.

Below is an edited blog post that I wrote to parents in December of this school year. The purpose of the post was to explain the changes that had started to happen in their child’s classroom. The response was extremely supportive and positive and resulted in many parents coming to visit and have a look.

PLEASE NOTE: the ideas that I have been implementing in my classroom are by no means my creation! I have adapted ideas received through observations of other amazing teachers and readings. The ideas are constantly changing as the students and I work together to make them the most successful for our class of learners! It is often messy and not always successful but there has been one constant result…learning!

Teacher to Parent Blog Post; December, 2017

At the moment in the education world, and specifically in the PYP, there is a big push for student agency and for educators to encourage students to be more in control of their own learning. The IB PYP is focusing on introducing student agency in a more focused way. They highlight the following advantages about increasing student agency as…

“Students with agency:

  • have voice, choice and ownership; and a propensity to take action
  • influence and direct learning
  • contribute to and participate in the learning community.”

As part of my own professional learning, I have been researching and looking for ways to create a learning environment that allows for greater student agency. For the last 4 weeks I have been introducing the class to new structures and concepts and giving them time (and a lot of guidance) as they learn what it all involves. This week was the first week where the students really saw it all come together, and I am so happy to witness the enthusiastic way that they have tackled the new approach!

Every morning the students come in to read an overview of what the day has to offer. Below is an example.

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IMG_2670An example of a completed weekly goals sheet that highlights not only the goal but also what success will look like and strategies to use to get there.

During the “Where We Are In Place and Time” unit of inquiry, the students did a range of tasks that were related to the unit but targeted specific math and literacy skills. They started to talk about their learning in terms of “I learned about… through the lens of math/reading/writing”. The content was focused on the unit of inquiry however the “skills” that they were learning were specific from the English and Math curriculum. At the end of the unit the students expressed that they felt they had a better understanding of the unit as they were looking at it from many different perspectives. They also highlighted that it allowed them to strengthen skills such as time management, reflection, cooperation and commitment.

IMG_7876An example of the Transdisciplinary Inquiry Journals that all students use to document their learning process.

img_0638.jpgThe list of Transdisciplinary Tasks students were required to do over the course of the unit, including a time management plan.
This week we have focused on developing our understanding of child rights, what they are and what they mean. Students have selected a range of tasks to undertake (each through the lens of either data handling, writing or reading) and began to work towards finding ways that they can take action towards to enable more children access to their rights.

At the beginning of each week they will reflect on their past week’s goals and look at how they are achieving them. They need to provide evidence of their learning and create their next plan of action, do they continue with the same goals or do they create new ones?

Snip20180331_2.pngCreating her weekly goals on Monday morning using her reflections to help her.

They then create a schedule for their learning. The class schedule is now broken into three sections;

  • student directed / transdisciplinary inquiry
  • whole class lessons
  • specialist classes
  • teacher and student led workshops on specific learning objectives

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. They decide what they are doing when (with teacher guidance!) and sign up for teacher OR student led workshops or independent inquiry tasks. Their key focus is on what they need to do to deepen their understanding and to have a balance of reading, writing and math. I help them with gaining this self-awareness and guide them to understanding what their needs are, if I recognise that they have not signed up for a workshop that I believe they would benefit from.

IMG_0848.jpg Signing up for teacher led workshops and recording these sessions on his personal schedule.

                    IMG_0583.JPGAn example of the workshop sign up sheet. Students have this information when developing their schedules and goals.

IMG_8552.JPGStudents deciding on the tasks they will undertake for the week ahead.

Overall, the classroom has become invigorated by the thinking that has been involved. The students are excited by the chance to shape the way they inquire into our classroom focus.

Snip20180413_43  An example of a planning document for individual workshop focus. Homeroom teacher (Mel), Teacher Assistant (Huong), EAL teacher (Nicole) and Learning Support teacher (Sara).

 

What could be the future of learning?

It might seem strange to look towards the future by first looking back at the past, but it seems that there have always been deep thinkers considering the purpose of school and education, challenging the status quo and trying to revolutionize the way we learn. So what have we learned from them and what are we going to do with it? How we will use their voices to make our own choices and take ownership over the future of learning? 

“He who learns but does not think is lost. He who thinks but does not learn is in great danger” wrote Confucius (551 BCE) in Lunyu. He did not believe that we are born with natural abilities but develop our knowledge through long and careful study. He also had suggestions for pedagogy, “Only for one deeply frustrated over what he does not know will I provide a start; only for one struggling to form his thoughts into words will I provide a beginning.” (Lunyu).

Do we offer opportunities for learners to be thinkers? Do we help our children understand that they can develop skills and abilities through hard work or do we also quietly identify those who are “gifted” and who are not? Do we consider that we can grow our own abilities or are we “just not great at math”? How much do we let our students struggle and how much do we help?

The words of Socrates (470 BCE), as portrayed in Plato’s works, state that “knowledge will not come from teaching but from questioning,” through this process the student “will recover it [knowledge] for himself.” Socrates did not believe that any one person or organization can teach others but that we learn by seeking our own understanding of truth by questioning and interpreting the wisdom and knowledge of others. He believed the goal of education is to “help you know what you can; and, even more importantly, to know what you do not know.” (Bob Burges, New Foundations)

Do we teach our students how to question or how to answer? Do we allow them to find their own meaning or do we give them our meaning? Do we act as teachers or as guides?

Mo Tzu (468 BCE) believed that we learn through challenges and by reflecting on failures (and successes), that we realize self-knowledge through questioning not conforming. His philosophy was one that encouraged people to work hard to change their fate and the inequality in the world.

Do we allow children the space to make “shame free” mistakes? Do we offer the time and guidance for authentic reflection or is it a chore met often with a groan? Do we ask our students to conform too often to the norms we set out for them? Can we allow them more opportunities to determine their own destinies even within our school communities?

Plato (428 BCE) wrote about a learning society in The Republic and The Laws, he presented a model for what we now describe as lifelong education.

Do we encourage lifelong learning by having an endpoint to school? Should we be enhancing the education of our adult learners through more professional learning opportunities, mentorships and coaching? Can we make our schools learning organizations? Can we better model lifelong learning for our students?

Aristotle (384 BCE) wrote, ‘Anything that we have to learn to do we learn by the actual doing of it… We become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate ones, brave by doing brave ones.’ (Aristotle Niconachean Ethics, Book II, p.91). He also categorized the disciplines into the theoretical, practical and technical.

Do we concentrate too much on the theoretical? Do we ignore practical and technical knowledge? Do we give our children the opportunities to do, to experience for themselves? Could we allow them more authentic learning experiences?

Michel De Montaigne (1533) wrote in his essay On Educating Children: “Obest plerumque iis qui discere volunt authoritas eorum qui docent.” [For those who want to learn, the obstacle can often be the authority of those who teach.]

Are we the obstacle? How do we share the “authority to teach”?

John Locke (1632) composed Some Thoughts Concerning Education where he stated that children “love to be treated as Rational Creatures,” and that parents and teachers should develop the habit of reasoning rather than just memorization. He emphasized a need for teaching critical-thinking skills. Locke also said that adults must should teach children how to learn and to enjoy learning; the teacher “should remember that his business is not so much to teach [the child] all that is knowable, as to raise in him a love and esteem of knowledge; and to put him in the right way of knowing and improving himself.”

Are we honoring children as “rational creatures”? Do we teach them how to learn or what to learn? Do we support their love of knowledge and guide them to find it on their own or do we prevent them from finding their passions through mandatory assignments and compulsory requirements?

On Education was written by Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712); he said that early education should be more about interactions with the world and less about books. He discussed the value of developing inferential thought processes through experiences and observations. Rousseau believed that middle education should then continue on to the selection of a trade and learning the skills of a trade. He believed education should be useful and purposeful for the learner.  And finally, he posits that education should conclude with lessons on human emotions, especially sympathy, so the learner could be prepared to be brought into the world and socialized as an active and compassionate citizen.

Do we allow our young learners the chance to interact with the world and develop their senses to wonder and question and derive meaning from experience or do we focus too much too early on reading and writing and arithmetic? Is there a role for apprenticeships in school? Do we include enough character development in our curriculum, are they ready when they leave us to be compassionate citizens?

John Dewey (1859) believed that students should be part of their learning, to not just learn pre-determined skills, but to use their own prior knowledge and make connections with new ideas, to find out through hands-on learning or experiential education. Instead of just mastering facts, learning rules and being compliant, Dewey suggested, schools should help students to be reflective, inquirers, autonomous, critical thinkers and morally sound citizens.

Do we focus too much on “predetermined skills”? Can we allow our students to be more a part of the learning? Do we have too many rules and expect too much compliance?

Jean Piaget (1896) suggested that teachers should view students as learners and view education as learner-centered. This means that there should be an allowance for learners’ to shape their curriculum. He also believed that learners can construct, or build, understanding for themselves. Piaget said: “Education, for most people, means trying to lead the child to resemble the typical adult of his society … but for me and no one else, education means making creators… You have to make inventors, innovators—not conformists” (from Conversations with Jean Piaget, Bringuier, 1980, p. 132).

Do we allow our students to construct their own meaning by shaping our curriculum? Do we nurture creators and innovators or conformists?

Paulo Freire (1921) and George Counts (1889) advocated for critical pedagogy. They believed that teaching is political and knowledge cannot be neutral. Their goal with critical pedagogy was to help students become more aware of the political perspectives within knowledge to develop critical consciousness and affect change in their world. Counts proposed that teachers “dare build a new social order” he continued by saying that teachers “cannot evade the responsibility of participating actively in the task of reconstituting the democratic tradition and of thus working positively toward a new society.”

Do we offer students opportunities to find information from diverse perspectives or are we teaching only one side of history and knowledge? Do we offer education for everyone or only those that fit our mold? “Do schools reflect society, or do schools transform society?” (quoted from Kevin Bartlett)

So what are my big takeaways? What we have learned about education and schools from the big thinkers throughout time? Will they guide us to reimagine schools? What could be the future of learning? Can we create learning communities where there could be:

  • More guidance for self discovery (Less teaching)
  • Learning organizations with more adult learning opportunities – lifelong learning!
  • More practical, authentic learning experiences offered – in the real world! (Less theory taught)
  • More opportunities to cultivate skills, especially critical thinking skills (Less emphasis on the knowledge and curriculum)
  • Possibilities for internships and apprenticeships
  • Classes and interactions focused on character development
  • Opportunities for active citizenship – action!
  • Chances for children to set the norms and determine the guidelines
  • Spaces for students voices to be heard as they determine their own path
  • Places with positive language aimed to develop a growth mindset
  • Spaces where we see the ability in everyone
  • More thoughtful provocations and productive struggle (Less teaching, helping and answering)
  • More active inquiry shaped by the learners (Less planning)
  • More opportunities for students to determine what they will learn, how they will learn, where they will learn, with whom they will learn and how they will know they have been successful
  • Education for everyone
  • Environments that develop creators and innovators (Not conformists)
  • Shared learning, planning, teaching, assessing (Less obstacles)

What could be the future of learning?

Studio 5- Too Much Too Soon?

I want to be a rebel, but I feel like things are getting a little outside of my comfort zone.

(UPDATE: I realise that being out of your comfort zone is probably what being a rebel is all about!)

Don’t get me wrong, I’d bite your hand off to be pushed to innovate as much as Studio 5 has done, but I want to ask a few questions to understand how far we should go.

  • Is the last year of elementary school too late or too soon for the level of student agency that Studio 5 is proposing?
  • Is it too much to offer this level of freedom outside the Exhibition?
  • Can we not still offer voice, choice and agency whilst following a programme which offers a balance of disciplines, ie. by following each Transdisciplinary Theme?
  • Is there not enough space within each Transdisciplinary Theme in the PYP for students to still take control of their learning and direct it around the breadth and depth that each theme offers without students having to create a unit from scratch?

I get it, they should have choice etc, but are we actually doing them a disservice by exposing them to the multitude of subjects that exist? Can we still provide space for student agency even if students are not all planning their learning from scratch?

I’ve been wondering about what agency means and if a ‘choose anything you want to learn about’ limits the possible options students can have access to. Can a student find their passion or talent unless they explore every element of language, art, mathematics, science etc.? When are they ready to decide what they want to learn? How long does it take to expose students to every strand of every discipline?

Of course they’ll develop interests away from school and these should be respected and we should be aware of them, but are we redefining school as a place where learning about the world, even though you didn’t choose that topic, is a considered a opportunity missed?

Should we be asking how student agency can exist in a programme that still offers a spectrum of opportunity to learn from a predetermined list of disciplines, or should students be able to choose to learn anything they want at any time?

I think we should try first of all not to create a system which provides too much structure and predetermined lessons which do little more than provide an opportunity to test comprehension. That’s obviously not helping anyone develop curiosity or maintain what was there to start with.

Let’s provoke, challenge, question and make space for our students to inquire about the world around them, and let’s take the opportunity as their guides to open their eyes to the wonders of the world whilst allowing them to bring who they are to the table, too.

I’m imagining something like this: take the theme How the World Works. We want the children to be scientists, to observe, to question, to experiment, to challenge themselves. What if we provide them with provocations, stimulating images, stories about the universe, information about scientists, about the different strands available to choose for their inquiries and then see where their curiosity leads them. Sometimes you don’t know that you’re fascinated by whale sharks until you discover them. Sometimes you can’t marvel at the power of nature until you see it in action.

My point is to offer them these options at each grade level instead of focusing on one in particular each year; that way they can still develop deep conceptual understanding about how the world works whilst developing knowledge in the area that fascinates them. There’s no need to necessarily teach natural disasters in grade 3 and biodiversity in grade 4, for example.

We can let their curiosity take the lead whilst sparking the fire.

Studio 5 has created something which challenges the preconceptions of the school model and taken it into the stratosphere, but has it also given the students too much freedom of choice too soon? Have the students explored enough to know what they want to do? Has personalised learning gone too far?

I’m just wondering, of course. Any thoughts and opinions would be greatly appreciated.

UPDATE: After sleeping on these thoughts, I have also realised that I’m looking for a way to go as far as possible towards what Studio 5 is offering students, whilst imagining an easy transition model for others to follow towards student agency within the POI that we currently use. I know full well that I need the support of school leaders to make my dream a reality.)