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

No secret teacher business…

Our new approach to planning units has opened up teachers’ thinking. They talk about feeling liberated (from box filling or linear approaches), the organic way the elements are revealed and the easy visualisation of how we might develop the whole child.

Why would we keep such a successful approach as ‘secret teacher business’? First one then another intrepid teacher has shared our style of ‘table planning’ with the learners, so that they can thoughtfully plan their own inquiries, through the lens of various concepts, simultaneously considering what skills will be required, the dispositions they will develop and how they might grow through the process.

A Year 6 student considers the skills required for his exploration of psychology
‘This unit is really about being responsible, independent and creative…’ Year 3
This student started from a consideration of how he’d like to grow as a learner and individual. Now he’s thinking about how he’s going to help others…
Contemplating the descriptors in MTPYPH (student booklet) just like teachers do! (Photo Dean Kuran)
Collaborative planning – Year 3 version 🙂 (Photo Mel Sokol)

For more details, read Dean’s post here and Mel’s post here.

Agency begins with the belief that children are capable of planning and driving their own learning. What else do we as teachers do that the learners could be doing themselves?

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. )

Planning (but not too much) for inquiry…

 

There were so many things to be excited about during the planning of this unit with our Year 1 team:

  • the honest reflection of the teachers who engaged in this inquiry last year and their willingness to view it through fresh eyes;
  • the openness of the teachers for whom the unit is new and the ideas they bring to the learning process;
  • how far we have come from the days when we thought we had to plan the whole inquiry in advance;
  • our split screen approach to planning, in which we simultaneously consider the unit and the format of the new planner we are designing;
  • the opportunities for the development of the whole child, both as a curious scientist and as a human being who cares about animals;
  • the authentic learning that will arise from having caterpillars, chickens and rabbits in the learning space;
  • the teachers’ own inquiry into how best to provoke, support and encourage the children’s inquiry;
  • the agency learners will have as they help care for the animals, share their wonderings to lead the inquiry, develop their own theories, find the best ways to document their observations and choose how they might like to present their learning…

and now, the wonderful possibilities arising from the children’s initial wonderings:

  • I wonder if they eat their poo.
  • I wonder what patterns they will have on their wings.
  • I wonder what they do when no-one is there…

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/

The ‘so what’ of learning…

Action is the ‘so what’ of learning…

“PYP schools can and should meet the challenge of offering all learners the opportunity and the power to choose to act; to decide on their actions; and to reflect on these actions in order to make a difference in and to the world.” (Making the PYP Happen)

At the start of our PYP journey, we used to think…

  • Action was a separate ‘thing’.
  • Action usually happened towards the end or after the unit.
  • Action needed to be visible.
  • Action was only about what students ‘did’.
  • Action needed to go beyond the self in order to be valuable.
  • Student initiated action was the most desirable kind.

Now we think…

  • If learning is active, relevant and meaningful, action will be integral.
  • Learner agency implies ongoing action of all kinds.
  • Some of the most valuable forms of action are not overtly visible – shifts in thinking, deepening feelings, development of dispositions.
  • Action might be shifts in what learners think, say, feel, have, believe and become… not just what they do.
  • Action often begins with shifts in the self.
  • Shifts in thinking can lead to visible action. Action can lead to shifts in thinking.
  • Demonstrating attitudes and skills can be a form of action.
  • Sometimes an idea isn’t initiated by students, but they can take it and run with it resulting in highly meaningful action.

Do you consider these to be examples of action? Try placing them on an iceberg, depending on whether they are overtly visible or not and see what new ideas emerge?

The PYP review update suggests the following lenses through which to view the demonstration of action: social justice, advocacy, participation, lifestyle choices and entrepreneurship. We have applied the model of action below (shifts in thinking, having, saying, feeling, being as well as doing) to unpack what each of the new lenses might look like… in action.

 

When viewed in this way, it becomes apparent that concepts like social justice can apply just as much to 5 year olds as to older students and that any one of the lenses can be just as relevant in the classroom context, the school, the local community or globally.

What action will you be taking next?

Opportunity for learning…

The children at Matt Glover‘s feet are unsurprisingly engrossed in the conversation. Matt is interesting and funny and he talks to them in an engaging and respectful way.  This is the introduction to a lesson in which he models his approach, observed by teachers inquiring into how to improve the teaching of writing.

What strikes me is that it’s not just about writing workshop. Good practice can be applied across all learning areas….

What if teachers kept all ‘lessons’ to 5 minutes?

What if the learners were quickly released to get on with it?

What if the majority of learning time involved learners engaged in doing?

What if the teacher conferenced with individuals, not to correct, remind or tell, but to teach at point of need?

What if strengths were noticed, named, shared and built upon?

What if children were encouraged to see themselves as ‘insiders’ in the learning process?

What if learners modelled their own creations on authentic examples from the real world?

What if learners were encouraged to imagine and to innovate?

What if learners were encouraged to be the teachers in the room?

What if teachers trusted the learners and the process?

What if learners had agency over their learning?

What if successes were shared and celebrated?

What if classrooms were always filled with ‘real’ learning rather than ‘doing school’?

Beautiful questions… and a whole school unit of inquiry

 ‘A beautiful question is an ambitious yet actionable question that can begin to shift the way we perceive or think about something—and that might serve as a catalyst to bring about change.’ Warren Berger ~ A More Beautiful Question.

This generally starts with a ‘why?‘ question which identifies the need for change, followed by ‘what if?‘ which imagines new possibilities, and moving onto the ‘how?‘ which leads to action.

A couple of years ago we asked ourselves: Why do we spend the first few weeks ‘setting the tone’ in the classroom and then start the first unit of inquiry? What if the first unit of inquiry at every year level helped create classroom culture and set the tone for the learning to take place? How might we go about that?

A recent visit to ISHCMC provoked us to ask: Why do we need a separate central idea for each grade level? What if we tried one overarching central idea for the whole school? How might a whole school approach influence school culture?

And then: Why reinvent the wheel? What if we adapted the central idea we saw at ISHCMC and tweaked the lines of inquiry from our previous units? How might feedback from other educators support the development of this idea?

And now…

PYP Trans-disciplinary Theme: WHO WE ARE

An inquiry into the nature of the self; beliefs and values; personal, physical, mental, social and spiritual health; human relationships including families, friends, communities, and cultures; rights and responsibilities; what it means to be human. (IB Primary Years Program)

Central Idea: Our choices define who we are as individuals and as a community.

Possible lines of Inquiry:

These are still to be refined with input from teachers, students and the world. (As our junior school learning spaces will be redesigned over the summer, all grades have a line of inquiry about how the new spaces will be used.)

Prep

  • How our choices help us build a learning community (responsibility)
  • Choices in how we express our learning (reflection)
  • How we choose to use our environment to support our learning  (function)

Year 1

  • Choices that help us learn (reflection)
  • Choices in how we we interact with others (reflection)
  • How we choose to use our environment to support our learning (function)

Year 2

  • How humans learn (function)
  • Choices we make as learners, individually and collaboratively (reflection)
  • How we choose to use our environment to support our learning  (change)

Year 3

  • Choices that affect our learning community (causation)
  • How diversity enriches a community (change)
  • How we use our learning environment to support our learning community  (connection)

Year 4

  • How communication affects relationships (connection)
  • Choices in how we communicate – audience, purpose, context (causation)
  • How effective groups function (reflection)

Year 5

  • Personal values (perspective)
  • How our values influence the choices we make (connection)
  • The choices we make as learners (reflection)

Year 6

  • Active citizenship
  • Decision making strategies (reflection)
  • Our choices as individuals – personal interests and passions (perspective)
  • The impact of choices/decisions on other people, our community, the world (responsibility)

The central idea provides possibilities for authentic trans-disciplinary inquiry too. They might inquire into how our health and exercise choices affect us, how our choices affect others in games and sports, artistic and musical choices…

Teachers might inquire into how our choices define us human beings and as educators; the impact of our  choices as educators on the social, emotional and academic learning of our students; ways to increase opportunities for student ownership and agency…

And a few more beautiful questions of my own:

What if this was a year-long unit of inquiry?

What if, instead of a central idea, we had an overarching big question?

What if, instead of lines of inquiry, the learners came up with their own why, what if and how questions?

What if everything we did was about real learning instead of ‘doing school’?

Empowering our learners…

One of the most exciting things we saw during our recent visit to ISHMC (International School of Ho Chi Minh City, where Sam Sherratt is based) was the unstructured inquiry set up in a Grade 4 class by Adrian Watts, the principal.

Learners were given a choice between four different explorations (although they didn’t know the precise task until after they had selected what seemed interesting to them):

  • Reassemble a computer so that it works.
  • Fix the motor on a scooter.
  • Knit a finger puppet.
  • Sew a pair of trousers that fits someone in your group.

Participants were permitted just three questions over the course of the day. It was interesting to observe the thoughtful way they approached this, writing down possible questions and carefully considering what and whom they would ask.

It was more difficult for the observing adults to adhere to the rules. Most found it hard to overcome their natural inclination to step in and help, instead of stand back and observe the learning (and the range of trans disciplinary skills in action).

What did we observe during this exercise in child driven learning?

  • learner agency and empowerment.
  • total engagement in meaningful learning experiences.
  • curiosity and willingness to experiment.
  • competence, creativity and problem solving.
  • resourcefulness and fearlessness in approaching the unknown.
  • interesting group dynamics and differing gender biases within groups.
  • risk taking, learning from failure, persistence and resilience… in varying degrees.
  • collaborative decision making.
  • and more…

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The transferable messages…

We need to believe that children are capable, curious, competent and creative and, given the opportunities and encouragement, can lead their own learning.

We need to rethink contexts where the teacher controls the learning and the students jump through hoops set in front of them by the teacher, the school or the system.

We need to stop ‘doing school’ and think about what it means to really learn, because real learning often has very little to do with traditional notions of school.