What if Agency was our only approach to learning?

Screen Shot 2018-10-27 at 8.38.07 AMI have recently begun a new unity of inquiry with my Early Years class, Central Idea, ‘A School Community is Organised to Meet the Needs of the Learner’. It has been an inquiry that I have been looking forward to for some time. I have watched with interest as other educators have begun their year with an empty learning space and allowed their students the opportunity to create and develop the space for themselves. I had contemplated the idea at the beginning of the year but considering the age of my students decided against. Maybe it was my own insecurities but I thought that maybe with the age of the children they needed to arrive at a place that was already prepared and could begin to make connections, familiarity, feel settled and develop routine. I held off with my ambitious plan until our second inquiry which presented the perfect opportunity to take risks. I could hear Taryn BondClegg’s rally cry at the end of Summer that ‘This was the year to take risks!’

I believe the ‘Why’ of the new inquiry should be to develop the children’s understanding of themselves as learners within the school community. Developing a sense of how, where and why we learn. Students beginning to recognise themselves as independent and responsible learners who can take ownership of every aspect of their learning experience. Placing themselves at the centre of their learning.

What if instead of pre-planning approaches to learning I allowed student-agency to be the sole driving force of our learning? Reflection of learning has to be at the centre of our practice so throughout our inquiry there will be ample time to reflect on the specific skills used, needed and supported within our activities but they will no longer be the driving force, student-agency will. Surely throughout the course of the inquiry all the skills will be addressed in a more natural way rather than being prepared and planned for at the beginning of the inquiry? 

Screen Shot 2018-10-27 at 8.37.44 AMAnd so with student-agency being the only driving force we have begun our new inquiry. After completing our first week I have been pleasantly surprised with the level of ownership that has already been achieved. From an empty classroom the children have made huge progress in developing their learning space. Communication, thinking and social skills are evidence in abundance. The class conversations and decision making when creating their space has been impressive. To listen as the young learners voice their opinions and explain their thought processes has been a wonderful experience. 

Screen Shot 2018-10-27 at 8.41.32 AMThe students have also been given ownership on how and when they learn. They had originally been given choice of activities based on a more traditional timetable. After some discussion we came to the conclusion that even this was still restrictive to the children’s learning. We have since created a new approach which will provide greater opportunities and choice for the children to take ownership of their own learning. A central theme within our inquiry is that choices can be made on what we must do, should do or could do. We have then decided on creating a timetable for the day based around these choices. Our next step in our inquiry will be developing the children’s understanding of setting personal goals. There is so much more to go with this inquiry but I was just to excited to share our learning journey so far. It has been amazing to witness the children demonstrating so much ownership even at these early stages of our inquiry. Who knows where it will lead but it will definitely be student-agency that will be leading they way.



It Takes a Village: Empowering in Support of Teacher Agency

I have been inspired to write this blog after reading an interesting articleIs the era of management over?‘. It argues for the end of the ‘management era’ within business but I made many connections to modern educational settings.

‘The bottom line is that the hierarchical management mode is no longer suited for the challenges of the modern economy. Every pillar of a traditional organization is now in flux, as was brilliantly conceptualized by Tanmay Vora.’

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When we place this same model within the modern educational setting it begins to make a lot of sense. It “Takes a Village’ to educate a child but how are we ensuring that all the voices are heard and valued? The school ‘village’ is full of introverts and extroverts, talkers and listeners, those with the plan and those with the ability to make it happen. Hopefully, like many new business models, our school settings are moving beyond the hieratical approach in leadership and are becoming much more inclusive. 

Teacher’s thrive within their personal learning networks. It is a community that they have created themselves and are comfortable within it to express their thoughts and opinions without fear of judgement. This choice in networks is ideal for the introverts amongst us who now have a chosen outlet to express themselves. This may be within small groupings within work or like many of us through the use of social media. It is where we feel comfortable and in control. I myself have found social media to be a fantastic opportunity to connect with like minded educators and a means of expressing myself in a more open and honest way that I may not always feel comfortable doing within meetings. It is an outlet that I feel comfortable within and I am forever thankful of my personal learning network.

Within my school this year there has been an excellent initiative to create ‘Communities of Practice’. As educators we were given agency in our choice of groupings based on a shared interest. Within our groups we worked together to create a statement that will frame the inquiry and direct purposeful, ongoing learning. Time has been allocated within the calendar for the groups to meet on regular periods for us to create and follow a personal agenda of learning. Not only is this system providing opportunities to follow personal interests but it also provides an opportunity for teachers like myself to have a voice, choice and ownership in an environment that is comfortable for me. Such a progressive move forward provides a voice for all.

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Teachers like myself need these opportunities to be able to thrive. It provides value to our position within the school environment. Providing opportunities for developing networks within the school will ultimately lead to greater empowerment. As professionals it is important that we develop a sense of empowerment rather than being controlled. We need to know that we can make a difference and that our voices matter in the decisions that are being made. It takes a village to educate a child and it can only be of benefit to the children that the power is in the hands of the many rather than the hands of the few.

I am thankful to be able to work within a school that does not fear mistakes. Mistakes are valued as learning opportunities for both the teachers and the students. If everything is always going to plan within the classroom it means that we have not challenged ourselves. I have personally worked alongside teachers that will pull out the same planning year after year because they know it works and it is the safe approach. I personally need to feel challenged, I need to be pushed out of my comfort zone in order to progress and provide an exciting and vibrant learning environment for the children. How can we expect the children to challenge themselves if we do not demonstrate the same?

Openness and transparency is beneficial for any social environment. It creates an atmosphere of trust and understanding. Not all decisions within schools can be open to a vote but they are made more acceptable with open dialogue and discussion. Teachers need to be able to voice their concerns, worries and issues even if they cannot be addressed. The decision process needs to be clear so that it can be more easily accepted. 

We are seeing the era of agency but that must not only extend as far as the students it must also include the teachers as well. Thankfully we are seeing a change in which all voices are beginning to be heard. Teachers are being given an increasing voice, choice and ownership of their own destiny. It takes a village to educate a child but we must first make sure that the village is listening to everyone.

What is the Measure of Success in Learning?

Lately I have been distracted in my thinking after reading a thought provoking post by Maddison Cooper called ‘How Do I know That My Inquiry Has Been Successful?‘ After initially reading the article I spent a considerable amount of thinking about this very question. What does a successful inquiry look like?

Like Maddison I was inclined to think about the stance taken within the pages of ‘Making the PYP Happen’ in which it states ‘successful inquiry will lead to responsible action’ (Making the PYP Happen 2009). It seemed an open and shut case but the question of success has continued to bother me. In my understanding, true inquiry should be an ongoing process with no definitive beginning or end. True inquiry should be a continuous cycle of learning, process, evaluation and reflection. What if a child took no immediate action as a result of learning?

If the process of inquiry is ongoing then how can Action, regardless of its merit, be the cursor for a successful conclusion? Student Action may also be immediate or it may only become evident weeks, days or even years after we have concluded our learning within the classroom. I have been more inclined to believe that immediate student-action, done within the timeframe of learning, is a reaction to the learning rather than a product of it. And so my quest for understanding continues.

If I am to be believed that immediate student-action is a reaction rather than product then the only true measure of success of an inquiry can surely be sustainable action? Again, sustainable action may not become evident to the educator some time after the student leaves the classroom and so from an educators perspective we would be unable to measure the immediate success of an inquiry on action alone?

I have again started to think about the merit of action and it it cannot fully evaluate the success of inquiry then maybe we have to evaluate the learning process itself? Do we evaluate the success of learning based on the learner coming to a universally accepted correct answer or do we place value on the process of learning itself? Do we have to be mindful that the action may happen within the learner as part of the learning process?

I will try to use examples of a world famous learners and inquirers to try to make my point. Charles Darwin, Galileo and Edison spent their whole lives asking questions, observing, evaluating and ultimately driven by learning. All three are fine examples of the learners and inquirers yet had throughout their careers been questioned about their success and failure. What if their conclusions or findings had been fundamentally wrong? Would we judge their success as learners on the conclusion of their work, right or wrong, or would their success be evaluated on their desire to learn, their perseverance, their lifelong learning journeys? I am sure that, regardless of the right or wrong answers, there would be no educator that would consider any of these learners as unsuccessful.

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My thinking has now come back to considering action again. Very often we consider student-action to be something that can be seen or something that has been done. What if the action comes from within the learner itself? A change in mindset? a change in behaviour? Creating a joy for learning, a desire to ask questions, demonstrating curiosity and wonder, to seek answers, to actively participate in the learning process without fear of being wrong but looking for an answer that makes sense to them. Is this not the real measure of success in learning?

Screen Shot 2018-09-10 at 9.57.24 AMIn conclusion, the success of our teaching should be based on our ability to inspire our students to become lifelong learners, curious and empathetic about the world, seekers of knowledge, communicators and collaborators, fearless about being wrong or making mistakes.

Success of learning should be evaluated on the students ability to take ownership, desiring change and understanding. The change may come in the form of something big or something small. It may change the world or we may help a friend. When I think of success in these terms I think about my Early Years class and how successful each and every one of them are each and everyday. We are all born scientists and explorers without the preconception that we might be considered wrong or fail. We are all happy and enthusiastic to be part of the learning process rather than driven by the product of learning. In my opinion this is the real measure of success and it is our duty as educators to continue to support and develop this natural curiosity for learning without restrictions throughout their journey.

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”.

Learning to ‘Let Go’ in the Presence of Agency.

Screen Shot 2018-08-26 at 7.16.49 AMLike many in education I have been swept away by the wave of ‘Student-Agency’.  The new era in education is seeing the voice, choice and ownership of learning being willingly transferred from teacher to student. Our young learners are enthusiastically taking charge of their learning environments, increasingly making the decisions on what, how and when they would like to learn. With the aid of the learning environment we provide they are in every sense becoming their own teachers. So where does that leave the teacher?

To many educators the change in dynamics is welcomed but then to others it can be a challenging process to give up their authority in the classroom. It may certainly cause some bruised egos with the realisation that teachers are no longer the fountains of all knowledge or the central figure of authority and learning within a classroom in which they claim some ownership.

It is my belief, and even hope, that the changes that are taking place are irreversible and represent a new direction in education. But still, I have been left with much to ponder. This new learning environment is certainly much different than the one that I entered over a decade ago. I was much more certain in my role as a teacher back then when I was allocated ‘my’ classroom and it was ‘my’ responsibility to create detailed lesson plans for the week that ‘my’ ‘good’ students would follow. I can still remember the hours spent during my evenings and weekends creating a precise learning agenda for the week. Then the wave of ‘student-agency’ swept over my world.

At first, there was a period of time that I felt a little lost. I was insecure in my new role and setting. What was my purpose if the students had taken ownership of their own learning? The classroom was no longer my own and I was no longer the fountain of all knowledge. I had even given over control of my detailed lesson plans, which at one point, I had taken so much care and pride in creating and implementing.

I found myself going through a period of self discovery as I tried to find new purpose to my role as a ‘teacher’. I began my journey by developing a deeper understanding as to the ‘why’ these changes have happened. Once I fully understood the implications and benefits to the student’s learning all that was left was for me was to rediscover my purpose. It required a change in mindset and a sense of ‘letting go’ but once I achieved this it changed my world.

Screen Shot 2018-08-26 at 7.19.20 AMWithin the learning environment I am no longer outside the learning process but I have become an active member within it. No longer the fountain of all knowledge but now working alongside the students in their journey of discovery. The joy I once had of providing students with knowledge has been replaced by the increased pleasure of being alongside the children as they discover the knowledge for themselves. In my new role I find myself being a guide, mentor, motivator, counsellor, friend, facilitator, questioner, observer, philosopher, parent, listener and learner. I feel that the term ‘teacher’ can no longer be an accurate description of my duties.

My weekends and evenings are no longer spent in the creation of lesson plans but now I am more inclined to reflect on the days learning thinking ‘where to next?’. Rather than providing planning my role is to provide opportunities for learning and developing skills. Guiding my students to the next step in self discovery. I am reminded of quotes from Seymour Papert, who said “The role of the teacher is to create the conditions for invention rather than provide ready-made knowledge.” And second, from Carl Rogers, who wrote “I have come to feel that the only learning which significantly influences behavior is self-discovered, self-appropriated learning. It seems to me that anything that can be taught to another is relatively inconsequential and has little or no significant influence on behavior.”

Throughout my journey of self discovery I have come to realise that just as the students have become their own teachers, I have made the opposite journey from teacher to learner. With a change in my own habits I have more time to pursue my own interests. During my free-time I am more inclined to research educational theory, write educational articles and blogs, connect with like minded individuals on social media and exchange ideas and practice. Do I still spend hours planning? No! Does this make me less of an educator? Absolutely not! At no other point in my career do I feel more passionate and  informed about educational issues and child development. At no other point in my career do I feel more confident in being in a position to support, engage, and develop the students within my class.

When ‘Agency’ came it did not just give voice, choice and ownership to the students but it also gave it to the educators as well. It gave us greater freedom to take ownership within our own careers and the benefits are enormous to both the students and teachers.  Providing agency to our students does not have to be a challenging process in fact it should feel liberating.