Tea circle…

We sit around a table, drinking tea in a relaxed manner, engaging in meaningful conversation about learning and life.

I am participating in my first ‘tea circle’ with a group of 12 year olds and it feels much more like a ‘real life’ experience than like ‘doing school’. Once they are over the initial novelty of the situation, they relax into the conversation, listen and respond to each other naturally and build on each other’s contributions. They talk about what they have learned and how they have grown this year and no-one mentions anything related to content or traditional school subjects.

  • I’ve learned to listen to other perspectives… to be open to adapting my ideas based on input from others. (Leo)
  • I really understand people better now, because I think about where they are coming from (Amelia)
  • I’ve learned to dig deeper and find the roots of an inquiry. (Rosa)
  • It’s like an iceberg, you need to be open to the ideas and perspectives that are below the surface. (Eiden)
  • I’ve learned to be comfortable in the learning pit, what to do when I’m stuck and how to overcome challenges (Amalia)
  • It’s a pity that the lesson sometimes ends while you are still in the learning pit and you have to go to another class. It makes you lose flow.
  • I think it would be helpful to learn in mixed age groups, especially for something like art, where you can be inspired by people of any age.
  • I’ve learned to take responsibility for my own learning. The teachers trust us in Year 6 (Romy)
  • I think teachers would always trust us, but it’s up to you to earn trust; some people cause loss of trust for others. (Eiden)
  • We need to be role models for younger students. I’ve learned about leadership. (Eden)
  • The way we learn is different this year, it’s less about content and more about understanding ourselves and others. (Amalia)
  • The focus is on the explanation, on our thinking… on process. (Rosa)
  • For this kind of learning you need self management skills, like organising your time and interacting with others. (Leo)
  • If this kind of learning started earlier in our schooling, it would become a norm… (Amelia)

I find myself wondering why we don’t invite learners to the table (literally) more often, as individuals and as equals, rather than as students, to share conversation, stories and insights and to learn from each other.

What if…?

What happens when we begin with a belief that children are competent and curious and creative? What if we believe they have the capacity to drive her own learning?

I’m a granny. Observing my grandchildren wonder, play and experiment with theories validates and reinforces my beliefs about children and about learning. For almost 10 years, I have also been another kind of granny, engaging virtually with children in disadvantaged settings in India, witnessing the capability of children in another context.

What might be learnt from the experience of being a granny… both kinds? I’ve learnt that if you believe they are capable, children will surprise you with what they can do and and how they can learn. Overcoming our inclination to jump in and take control often leads to extraordinary learning.

Teaching does not mean opening heads and pouring stuff in. It’s important to know when to step away and allow the learning to happen. Real, deep learning usually has little to do with covering curriculum or competitive grading. Indeed, ‘doing school’ can sometimes get in the way of learning.

That’s why, in 2015, when attending Learning 2, a conference by educators for educators, we chose the ‘Disrupt strand’.  We were invited to ask the question ‘what if?’ in the pursuit of ideas that might disrupt traditional models of school.

‘What if school were more like the conference?’ we asked ourselves… and the entire audience educators to whom we had to pitch our idea.

What if our learners had more voice and choice in their learning? What if they could opt to participate in workshops that piqued their curiosity or responded to their needs? What if they could present their own workshops? What if there were more opportunities for learners to collaborate, to create and to drive their own learning? Just like the conference.

Our pitch didn’t win, but we came back inspired and determined to set our action plan in motion…

What if we offered all our teachers the sort of conference we had just experienced? This was the seed which grew into the first Unleashing Learning, a conference by teachers for teachers. What if we created a conference (mostly) by students for students, with talks and workshops presented both by outsiders and by our Year 6 students?

What if we set ourselves a whole primary school goal of increasing ownership of learning? That year, we made this our focus. As a school, individually, in teams and groups, we have since continued to explore, research, adapt and tweak our practice to shift further from old models of ‘doing school’, towards more authentic, student driven learning.

This does not mean that we abdicate our responsibility as teachers, simply step back and let go, hoping that students will find will their own way! Although we might do that sometimes…

Everything we do is intentional. We start with the child, we try to listen to the learning and respond accordingly, rather than simply delivering pre-planned content. We experiment with ways of planning, documenting and responding to learning. We revisit and reassess what we mean and what we might mean by inquiry learning. We constantly re-examine our curriculum and reconsider how to align our beliefs with our practice. We agonise over the tension between what we believe and the demands of the system.

Our second Unleashing Learning conference was a celebration of all the ways in which learning has already been unleashed in our school, for both teachers and students. It was also a call to action. If we truly believe our learners have the capacity to drive their own learning, what are the possibilities?

What if we persistently question the status quo? What if we perpetually seek further ways to unleash learning? What if we never cease to ask ‘What if?’…

(From my talk at Unleashing Learning #2)

When do inquiry teachers let go?

A request arrived this week for permission to use a cartoon I’d created years ago, showing the gradual release of responsibility of model.

As an inquiry teacher, who values learner agency, do you always teach or model first, only letting go when you think they are ready?

Or are students free to have a go, explore, experiment, test theories, formulate ideas… while you observe the learning, allowing your observations to inform when and whom to teach or support and when to step aside?

Do you trust the learners and the learning process?

Update 2019

Building a culture of agency…

It’s exciting to see so many teachers relinquishing control and empowering their students. Stephanie in Singapore had kids do their own set up on the first day of school and the inspirational folk of Studio 5 at ISHCMC have broken yet more moulds.  Right here in Aus, at my own school, some students are planning their own inquiries in the same way that teachers plan, and teachers are releasing control and reflecting candidly about the process in the pursuit of learner agency.

What if you’re not ready to release control to this extent? How might you start small? What might some first steps be towards an increase in agency for your learners?

Ron Ritchhart’s 8 cultural forces provide a platform from which to embark on your journey. Just apply them to agency, instead of thinking! How might you build a culture of learner agency in your classroom?

What sort of language will you use?

Do you talk about learning, rather than tasks and work?

Is your learning framed as a question that invites learners into the process?

Do you ask the learners’ opinions and really listen to what they say?

Do you notice and name learning assets?

Do you refer to your students as authors, mathematicians and scientists?

How is the environment organised to foster agency?

Who designs the learning space? Whose thinking is on the walls?

Are there options for where and with whom to sit and learn?

Are materials and resources well organised and easily accessible?

What sorts of opportunities are offered?

Are there opportunities for learners to pursue their own inquiries?

Are there opportunities to write for an authentic audience and to extend learning beyond the classroom?

Are there opportunities for learners to wrestle with challenging problems and design solutions?

How is time managed? 

Is there time for thinking, reflecting and inquiring?

Who manages the time? Is self management encouraged?

Is time used constructively for meaningful learning, rather than just completion of set tasks?

Do students waste time waiting for the teacher, when they could be doing something more worthwhile?

What dispositions do you model?

Do you model vulnerability, apologise when you’re wrong and talk about your mistakes?

Do you openly change your mind and your plan?

Do you model decision making and talk through the process aloud?

What routines are in place to encourage agency?

Are there routines for accessing equipment, sharing learning, asking for help…without waiting for the teacher?

Do they start when they’re ready, rather than waiting till you have finished giving the same instructions to all?

Are there routines for giving and receiving peer to peer feedback, without being told?

What kind of expectations are clearly set?

Are learners expected to and trusted to take ownership of learning?

Do they have (at least some) choice and voice in what they learn and how they learn?

Is initiative valued over compliance?

Is intrinsic motivation expected and encouraged through powerful, engaging learning experiences? (no Class Dojo)

How do interactions foster agency?

Are interactions between you and your learners mutually respectful?

How well do you know every child’s story, her interests, her passions and her insecurities? Can she tell that you care?

Do your interactions demonstrate belief in the learners’ capacity to own their learning?

Can they tell that you trust them to learn?

What small action will you take to shift the culture in your class?

Image from Presenter Media

10 questions in pursuit of learner agency…

1. What is your ‘image of the child’?
How do you view the learners in your class? Do you believe children are inherently intelligent, curious and creative? Do you recognise their rights and their capabilities? Do you trust them to learn?

2. What do you believe about learning?
Knowing what and how to teach is not enough. Have you, individually and as a school, thought deeply about how you believe learning takes place? Have you carefully examined the extent to which your practice aligns with your beliefs?

3. Who do you believe should hold the power?
Is your token nod to agency allowing the learners a choice when you decide it’s the time? How much of what your students say and do has to be channeled through the teacher? Do you make most of the decisions? Or do you believe the learners can really lead the learning? Is initiative valued over compliance?

4. Do you see every learner as an individual?
Are you tempted to refer to the class as ‘they‘ or do you always consider each individual’s personal story? Are you aware of what influences each student’s  learning? Are your beliefs evident in your language, your expectations, the routines in your room and in the relationships you build?

5. Do your learners believe in themselves?
Do you group your learners on perceived ability or do they have opportunities to learn with and from others with varying strengths, challenges and interests? Is a growth mindset fostered? Are learners motivated by learning itself, rather than extrinsic rewards that encourage winners and losers in the game of school?

6. Who do you believe should do the heavy lifting?
Do you explain everything in detail, sometimes several times in different ways? Or do the learners have a go at experimenting and tackling problems first and you step in at point of need? Are you able to release control so that the heavy lifting is done by the learners?

7. Who owns the curriculum?
Do you have secret teacher business? Do you always decide what to cover and how to teach it? Or do you believe that students can be empowered to explore curriculum requirements via their own inquiries, in their own ways?

8. How important is measurement of achievement?
Do you teach to the test? Do you believe everything has to be formally assessed and what can’t be measured is less valuable? Or is the process of learning perceived as more significant than the outcome? Is process valued over product?

9. What is the language of your classroom?
Do you talk about work and tasks or does everyone speak the language of learning? Is how we learn as much a part of the conversation as what we learn? Are students aware of who they are as learners? Are learning dispositions noticed and named? Do you and your students believe that reflection and metacognition are integral parts of learning?

10. Is there a safe space for risk-taking and failure?
Does the learning culture encourage students to take risks and make mistakes? Do learners seek and grapple with challenging problems and unanswerable questions? Do you (and they) believe that failure is an opportunity to learn and grow?

If you’ve thought about your ‘why’, the ‘how’ is much easier to achieve.  Are you asking the right question?

* Influenced by the Modern Learners podcast The Answer to How is Yes. Now reading the book by Peter Block.

(With apologies. This has been posted before under a different heading. Found the post in drafts and accidentally posted it again, deleted the previous one, now it’s back with the right title. For my new friends at NES. )

Learner agency and classroom management…

How does learner agency influence the need for ‘classroom management’?

Posting the question on Twitter brought responses such as these:

After listening to Derek Wenmoth’s video, our teachers collectively came up with a list of words that characterise agency. These included concepts like initiative, empowerment, intentionality, self-regulation, trust, awareness, active involvement, interdependence and, interestingly, wellbeing…

Inspired by Nadia Ellis’ post, we explored the meaning of ‘management’ and compared our agency list with synonyms for ‘manage’ – control, handle, master, manipulate, dominate, rule, oversee, supervise…  No wonder that little blue guy is pushing back!

So how might we create a culture of learner agency in our classrooms, a culture in which learners are empowered to take ownership of their learning and the need for classroom ‘management’ is diminished?

We’re exploring agency through the lens of Project Zero’s Eight Cultural Forces: language, time, opportunities, expectations, interactions, routines, modelling and physical environment. How might a thoughtful approach to each of these support the development of a culture of agency? What might we need to change? We’re compiling a collaborative list, so what are your thoughts?

Images from http://www.presentermedia.com/