10 ways for leaders to encourage agency…

My school’s focus this year, more than ever, is on student ownership and many teachers have set themselves the goal of increasingly letting go.  It’s been six years since I wrote 10 ways to encourage students to take responsibility for their learning and it’s still the post with the most hits on this blog, on a daily basis.  

Looking back at this surprisingly popular post about student ownership, I realise that most of the tips identified are the behaviours that effective modern leaders exhibit, leaders who wish to encourage autonomy and to shift from a hierarchical model of leadership to a distributed one.

And once again I note that what works with kids, works as much with adults!

What kind of leader are you? Ask yourself these questions… (not just if you’re a manager.)

1. Who makes the decisions?

How often do you ask your teachers, parents and students what they think? How do you ensure shared ownership of decision making? Do you work collaboratively to define problems and develop solutions?

2. Are you open to other perspectives?

Do you come with preconceived ideas, ask others’ opinions, then do what you wanted to do anyway? Or are you open to the ideas and perspectives of others, especially if supported by knowledge, experience and evidence?

3. Do you listen more than you talk?

Do you really listen to the people above, below and beside you? Do you listen to the changing world around you…? 

4. Do you model behaviors and attitudes that promote learning?

Do you talk about your own learning? Are you an inquirer? Are you an active participant in the learning community? Do you model and encourage enthusiasm, open-mindedness, curiosity and reflection?

5. Do you take an inquiry stance?

You don’t need to be the expert. Do you explore, experiment, reflect, learn from failures, try again… collaboratively? 

6.  How do you get your people involved?

How do you ‘invite participants in’ and get them excited to explore an issue further? Do you plan every detail or do you leave space for your people to make their mark?

7.  Do you value initiative above compliance?

Do your teachers know the reason for everything you ask them do? Do you implement one-size-fits-all rules that ensure compliance? Or do you encourage your people to use common sense and rely on professional judgment? Do you celebrate initiative?

8.  Do you focus on growth rather than accountability?

What kind of performance reviews do your teachers have? Are they evaluated against a list of preset criteria? Or do they have opportunities to set their own goals and have support and encouragement to grow?

9. Do you encourage reflection and seek feedback?

Do you get your teachers and leaders to reflect on experiences and initiatives and think about how they might be improved? Can you take notice of what they say and plan ahead based on their feedback?

10.  Do you display an innovator’s mindset?

Do you constantly look at things through fresh lenses? Do you ask yourself, and those around you, what you could change and how you could improve things? Are you willing to seek solutions that lie beyond the known, in the realm of emergent practice?

And remember… You can lead from anywhere.


We started the new school year after the summer break, with a focus on ownership of learning for teachers and students alike.  A couple of months later, our exciting Unleashing Learning conference provoked further thinking and action, followed by a week of learning and sharing with Sam Sherratt. And now, as the seasons change and we settle into the year, it’s exciting to observe bright spots of colour and evidence of new growth…

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One team is exploring a new project based approach to maths. Another is experimenting with unleashing writing through play. Year 6 is investigating a year-long approach to the PYP exhibition, allowing students time to discover what they really care about, with a greater focus on sharing the learning journey. Two different groups are reading and discussing The Innovator’s Mindset by George Couros.

Teacher A has let go of control and seen what happens when students have agency. Teacher B is well on the way and feeling the exhilaration of learning unleashed. C wants to rethink the school musical and find a way to give students more ownership. D has realised that authentic, meaningful learning experiences trump delivering curriculum… and noticed that much more of the curriculum is addressed incidentally via this approach! E is rethinking the way she used to do things and collaborating with others to reimagine her role. F and G are changing the way they reflect with their teams and refining the process as they go. H is breathing imagination and creativity into everything she touches… And I? 

I hear the steady drumbeat of hope for real and meaningful change.

Once unleashed, there’s no stopping the learning… 

The provoker…

Everyone needs a provoker. Someone who questions everything, is never content with the status quo, is impatient to see action…

Image by Kevin Richardson

‘Have you seen the article about…?’

‘What do you think about this idea?’

‘I think there is a better way to…’

‘Are you free to talk about something?’

‘Could we change the way we do this?’

‘How do we make this happen?’

I receive these sorts of messages from my provoker at all hours of the day, sometimes when she’s in meetings with other people, sometimes while she’s out for a walk. She has what George Couros calls an innovator’s mindset

‘Innovation is a way of thinking . It is a way of considering concepts, processes, and potential outcomes.’ That’s how my provoker functions. She looks at everything through a fresh lens and asks ‘Is there a better way?’ (She sometimes upsets those less eager to question and be questioned).

She never lets me rest. And I love that.

Who’s your provoker?

Playing the game of school…

Grab a dice and play the game of school…

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This was the provocation for my Unleashing Learning workshop, entitled ‘From Doing School to Real Learning‘.

How did playing the game make people feel? It seemed pointless. You could win without doing anything meaningful.

What was missing?  Purpose, fun, discovery, feeling, thinking and, indeed… learning!



This was not a workshop about answers, its intention was to provoke thinking, to unsettle and to push. Hopefully, it left participants wondering about these questions and more…

  • What are the conditions for powerful learning?
  • How much time do we spend on things that do not lead to powerful learning?
  • What do you believe about learning?
  • Does your practice align with your beliefs?
  • To what extent do children create their own learning opportunities way beyond what school can offer? 
  • Does school slow down learning?
  • Is it easier to do something the same way than to rethink learning from scratch?
  • What’s one change I can make, starting tomorrow?
  • Is your planning time spent thinking about what and how you will teach?
  • Do you think about how best each student will learn?
  • Are old pedagogies suited to a rapidly changing world? 
  • How might we unleash learning rather than doing school?

The story within…

In an attempt to switch off the buzz of thinking emanating from the past week of learning, I walk in the drizzle, breathe in the smell of damp grass and enjoy a beautifully written and evocatively narrated audio book, set in another time and another place..

“Somewhere in there was a story, which she had yet to find,” I hear this sentence and lose the flow of the narrative as my mind shoots back into the reality of the past week. Being busy and distracted has made me a lazy writer! My previous post was a simple recount and a few bullet points and now I need to scratch the surface and find the layers of story beneath.

Unleashing Learning was a conference by teachers for teachers, and it was filled with powerful, interlinking stories…

The story of collective inspiration…

A hundred and fifty passionate educators grappled with similar issues, applied ideas to their contexts, exchanged experiences, challenged ideas and explored solutions together. The principal shared how his own learning was unleashed by a teacher who encouraged him to take ownership and pursue his interests. Sam Sherratt asked us to think about whether the same old pedagogy will suffice in a rapidly changing world. Rebekah Madrid urged us to start a revolution in our own practice, to ask forgiveness not permission. 12 year old Jazi confidently told an audience of teachers that despite her struggle with words, spelling and reading, she is capable, creative and interesting. Another student, Georgia, explained her perspective on unleashing learning through student empowerment.  Jake asked the audience not to blink while he gave them insight into Tourette’s, then explained that trying to control his tics was like us trying to control our blinking. And woven through the fibre of the all of this, was a powerful message of change and hope.

The story of community…

The conference brought people together in delightful and unexpected ways. Every member of our staff added value in some way, via organising, printing, greeting, presenting, planning, sharing, supporting, facilitating, participating, inspiring or cleaning up.  Relationships were built and strengthened through the interactions of a community working collaboratively towards the twin goals of Unleashing Learning and unleashing learning. Having people who used to work at the school participate in the conference, rekindled relationships from the past. Visitors from other schools and other countries enriched our community with their insights and instilled a sense of pride in our teachers at what we have achieved and what we have to share. As always, the sense of community was enhanced by shared passion and vision, common purpose, and active participation.

The story of belief…

When Jina set out for Learning2 in Manilla, she had never travelled on her own, nor been to an international conference.  She came back determined to provide the same sort of experience for other teachers, and would not allow limited time or money, or any other obstacle, to stand in the way of the momentum inspired by the experience.  Lauri is a natural comic who thrives on inquiry, but not on public speaking. Bolstered by our delight in her story of children’s inquiry (and why flies have bums) she overcame the jitters and stood on stage to share it with all. Desiree and Rubi (like others who had not presented before) kept telling themselves that agreeing to present a workshop was a mistake, but pushed on determinedly and were rewarded by the positive feedback from participants who loved their sessions. Nathan, Lesley and others volunteered to facilitate reflection groups, something out of the ordinary for them, requiring an extra degree of courage and confidence. All of these stories and more are manifestations of our belief in our people and their growing belief in themselves.

The story of empowerment…

This story includes themes of trust and autonomy. Its characters include a principal who encouraged us to bring our vision to life, leaders who allow their people the freedom and space to explore and to innovate, and teachers who take up the challenge to lead from wherever they are. It’s a story of choice, in who you want to learn with and what you want to learn. It’s a choose-your-own-adventure story, in which you decide the future direction and you have the power to make it happen. It’s a story of teachers who simply will not let frustrations with accountability and compliance deter them in their march towards learning, their own and that of their students. It’s a true story of students who have overcome obstacles like Jazi and Jake and students who have taken their learning into their own hands like Georgia. And an imaginary story of what is yet to come.

It’s a story of unleashing learning…

Learning unleashed…

I’ve been in education longer than many of you have been alive. School has changed in so many ways… and stayed the same.

At Learning2 in Manila last year, I chose the Disrupt Strand, working with a team of educators to pitch an idea that could disrupt the traditional model of school.  If you count where we were born and where we work now, we are from 5 continents and ten countries. Yet we share frustrations about the limitations of school… and dreams about how learning could be.

We looked at each other and wondered…  Why shouldn’t students have opportunities like this conference? Opportunities to experience learning that is not confined to your usual space, not imposed on you from above, not defined by age group or limited by subject area? Our pitch: Why can’t school be Learning 2?

Our first step was to create a similar kind of experience for our own teachers. We called it Unleashing Learning... and it did!

These were some of the big ideas participants took away:

  • How to make sure that my learning as well as the children’s learning is constantly challenged and unleashed.
  • Provoking children’s thinking (and my own).
  • The value of international connections to unleash learning.
  • Creating the conditions for student-created learning to thrive.
  • The importance of student agency.
  • The power of simplicity.
  • Finding the balance between teaching and learning.
  • Students at the centre of their own learning.
  • Leaving better kids for our planet, rather than a better planet for our kids.
  • Emotional wellbeing of teachers and students.
  • Kids doing interesting things that tick the boxes of the curriculum.
  • Fostering a sense of responsibility for learning through meaningful engagement.

The conference provided time to relate, to debate and to create. Opportunities for reflection and for introspection. We inquired and we were inspired…

Moved to tears by a students’ speech



Teachers’ highlights included:

  • The 5 minute unleashing learning talks, in which teachers and students shared their learning stories and inspirational messages.
  • The opportunity to choose something that interested them from a wide range of workshops.
  • Having thinking extended in so many ways.
  • Time and opportunities to discuss new ideas with different people.
  • Learning with people from outside our school, especially those previously known from Twitter.

Something to think about…

  • How do we unleash learning in our schools?
  • What’s one change you’re going to make?
  • If WE don’t change schools, who will?


Lessons from the Granny Cloud…

Some of the most satisfying sessions I’ve had as a Cloud Granny interacting with the Indian kids through the School in the Cloud program, have been when kids emerged as communicators and leaders and when kids engaged with kids.

So I loved the session yesterday in which my Grade 5 group in Phaltan (Maharashtra) connected with my Grade 6 group in Delhi, because I had accidentally double booked my sessions. Despite bandwidth issues, we managed a three-way connection, although I turned off my camera and only dipped in and out to observe now and again. The two groups sang and danced for each other, they communicated by texting as well as talking and a good time was had by all (or so I thought.)


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Both groups exploring art last week (separately)Screen Shot 2016-02-27 at 1.10.53 pm

Initially my impression of the big ideas from the session were:

  • Step back and let the learning happen.
  • Two groups of children in different places can figure things out together.
  • It can be surprising which kids take the lead, when given the opportunity.

But at one point I got a text message from Phaltan saying ‘We want to talk to Edna Granny’ and later, Madhura, the coordinator, shared that when she looked in towards the end, the kids were getting bored because nothing was happening. So I need to add these messages:

  • Students need a voice in deciding on the learning experience.
  • Be prepared to abandon your plan in response to student needs.
  • There is a fine line between letting go and knowing when to step in.

On reflection, watching the videos, I realise that when the Phaltan group became disengaged, the other group was searching for the music for their dance. So maybe I should add:

  • Be careful of making assumptions.
  • Communication is vital.

Not a session goes by  with that doesn’t teach me something about the children, about their world, about learning or about myself. I just discovered these reflections from six years ago, when I first got involved in the magic…

Workshop workshop…

The joys of preparing for our Unleashing Learning conference lie in the collaboration, opportunities for growth, teacher involvement, the sense of shared purpose, the risk taking, the willingness to help…

This morning’s ‘workshop workshop’ is a session for teachers who are not yet experienced presenters. For our check-in, we discuss how we like to feel when we participate in a workshop…

What makes a workshop successful?

  • Being challenged.
  • Learning something new.
  • Changing something about the way I think.
  • Constructing meaning actively.
  • An interesting, meaningful process.
  • Something practical or a take-away that stays with you.
  • An engaging presenter who make things personal.
  • It has to make me want to take action.
  • Clear expectations, purpose and flow.
  • Variety and active engagement.

How will we ensure participants leave our workshops feeling these things?

We start by sharing concerns:

  • What if nobody comes?
  • What if it’s not engaging for participants?
  • Does my workshop have enough depth and complexity?
  • How do I turn ideas into an interactive workshop?
  • What if the technology crashes?

We encourage our presenters to start by being clear on their objectives . What understandings do you want the participants to leave with? What do you want to achieve?

Next we unpack a structure for a successful workshop (although we agree that it need not be a linear approach) and we brainstorm ideas under the headings of:

  • Introduction – What will you do to warm the participants up and tune them in?
  • Provocation – How will you provoke their thinking from the start?
  • Constructing meaning – How will you get participants involved in engaging with each other and with the big ideas?
  • Connection – How will you/they pull it all together?
  • Reflection – What protocols will you use to encourage participants to reflect and plan ahead?

By the end of the session we are buzzing. People have offered their intentions, shared creative ideas and resources and are ready to “take the workshop from inside their heads to something concrete” (Hailey).

So much learning has already been unleashed and we haven’t even got to the conference yet!

Have you registered???

Are you the only judge?

Is there a line of children standing at your desk waiting for you to look at their work?

No matter how old the learners are, they deserve better than to stand around doing nothing while they wait for you.

Have you added up the number of minutes in a day, a week, a year, that a child in your class waits on line for your attention?

Instead of waiting around doing nothing, would any of the following work?

  • Have them share their work with a peer.
  • Have them self-assess or peer assess, using pre-agreed criteria.
  • Collaboratively compose scaffolding questions to help them reflect eg.
    • Have I considered my audience and purpose?
    • Do I like how this sounds when I read it aloud?
    • Have I checked my spelling or my calculations?
    • Is there anything I could change?
    • Does my friend have any suggestions?
    • Could I have done this in another way?
  • Encourage them to reflect on the process of learning:
    • What did I learn?
    • What attitudes did I show?
    • What trans disciplinary skills did I practice?
    • What did I find challenging? 
    • What I notice about myself as a learner?
  • Get them to read while they wait for the teacher: to themselves or to each other.
  • Have them post what they have done online (eg in Seesaw or on a class blog) for feedback from peers, parents or the world.


  • More efficient use of learning time.
  • Increased student ownership.
  • Practising a range of skills beyond waiting – reading, writing, collaborating, thinking, speaking, listening, decision making, reflection…

What other ideas can you add to the list above?

#2 in a series on breaking habits, making small changes creating learning time. (It took me a while to realise what they are really about…)

Homework: Add the number of minutes children wait for a turn to talk (see previous post) to the number of minutes they wait for you to look at their work…