Agency is the Power to take Meaningful and Intentional Action

Screen Shot 2018-09-03 at 7.02.11 PMWithin my ten years of working with the IB curriculum ‘Student-Action’ has always been central to my practice, a ‘golden chalice’ at the centre of all learning. Not only to me but to many of my colleagues and administration alike. There has been so much discussion and importance placed on the idea of ‘student-action’ with, I fear, many of us not fully understanding its full implications or importance. 

Unfortunately, to often than not, ‘student-action’ has been something very much teacher or school prescribed with little or no input from the students. The idea for action is instigated by the teacher and then presented to the children. Once the children accept and adopt the idea it is then wrapped up and parcelled as ‘student-action’. We seemed to have lost sight in the idea of authentic student-action, something that does occur almost on a daily basis, but then again may not.

To the school community when any form of ‘Action’ occurs, or even better documented, it is a demonstration of success for the teacher, school and to the programme. Due to its importance ‘Action’ is something that has needed to happen and so must be considered and even planned for. Teacher’s, including myself, would plan their inquiries with ‘Action’ as its end goal without considering the importance of  ‘authentic’ or even ‘student-initiated’. Very often I have seen pre-planned allocation for ‘Action’ as part of Summative Assessment tasks. ‘Action’ that would be taken to demonstrate the success of an inquiry and then be forgotten when they begin their next.

I have even worked within schools in which the implementation of Action has been so high that it has been insisted that each grade ‘must’ be seen to be responsible for some form of ‘Action’ throughout the year. Yearly Overviews have been constructed with planned Actions for each grade penciled in at the beginning of the year before a student has even stepped foot through the door. Not only is this form of ‘Action’ premeditated it is very much meaningless to the students. I believe that this kind of thinking forces the issue of ‘Action’ in an unnatural way. It constructs group collaboration within year groups without taking into consideration the importance of individual and personal action that occurs almost on a daily basis within our class.

‘Every teacher wants their students to take action that makes a difference to and in the world. I believe that the concept of action is more a state of mind than a product. Action can only make a resonating difference to and in the world when it is developed in tandem with a toolbox of explicitly taught skills, modeled behaviors, scaffolded plans and a gradual release of responsibility. 

Teachers need to provide the scaffolded learning experiences that help students gain the skills (including how to collaborate and how to focus on solving challenges) and knowledge to take sustained and meaningful action.’ (What is Action?)

I have noticed that we have a tendency to miss or disregard ‘student-action’ if it is individual or personal. We seem to be waiting for the kind of ‘student-action’ that will change the world, something big and something very important. While these kinds of Actions are very nice it makes us forget and miss the small actions that are taking place within our classrooms on a daily basis. If we want to change the world we need to start with changing ourselves. If we want children to make a difference in the world we need to help them personalize the action they take, and understand that it is not just a mandate from their teachers and parents, but a life long mindset they develop. 

Meaningful, sustainable and ‘student-initiated’ action can only truly come through student-agency. It is only when we provide an environment and stimulus that allows for student voice, choice and ownership within learning can the students feel a sense of power to make meaningful and intentional action. Without the students voice, choice and ownership the action becomes meaningless to the students. They need to feel empowered to make a change. Providing our students with opportunities to take action is not only necessary but vital for learning. I have come to believe that authentic student-action is possibly the only way to fully assess student understanding. No matter what the curriculum contents I believe we can never have a comprehensive assessment of student understanding unless they take action and demonstrate their understanding in an authentic ‘real-life’ context.

For example, I could be teaching my Early Years class to be able to count 10 objects. Within the timeframe of my teaching my formative assessments show that a child can be successful in counting 10 objects but how can I be really sure that they understand? It is when they transfer this knowledge to a ‘real-life’ situation that I can fully assess their understanding. Next day, if I were to observe the child in role-play counting 10 oranges to give to his friend then I know that they not only understand but are able to transfer this knowledge to ‘real-life’ situations. Is this not an example of authentic student-action? 

Screen Shot 2018-09-03 at 7.02.29 PMThese kinds of demonstration of learning are visible in my classroom on an almost daily basis. It is these little demonstrations of knowledge that provide my assessment for understanding. Only this week I was witness a new child in my class asking ‘Will you be my friend?’ to another. It may be a coincidence that we have been having many discussions about being a good friend and making friends. We sometimes forget that Action may come in the form of personal change and does not always have to be through the planting of trees or cleaning our rivers. It may be as simple as making a friend. 

Student initiated action does not have to be a change in the world but a change in the child. Taking action by using their learning in real-life situations. This is what authentic student action looks like and it cannot be planned for it has to come from the child. So to all those that worry that action is not happening in the classroom just take the time to observe and listen. It has to be the students voice, choice and ownership that shines through.

(Making the PYP Happen 2009). The text continues on to highlight that “Effective action does not need to be grandiose. On the contrary, it begins at the most immediate and basic level: with the self; within the family; within the classroom, the hallways and the playground”.

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