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

Letting go….

 There is every reason for a poor turnout for the reading group. New units are just getting underway. Teachers are busy writing reports. It’s less than two months till the end of the school year…

Yet more than half the teachers at our Year 4-6 campus turn up an hour before school to discuss the first chapter of Ron Ritchhart’s latest book, ‘Making Thinking Visible‘. It’s partly because we really value the ‘Visible Thinking’ ideas and material and the positive impact they have had on our teaching and learning. But it’s also because there is a core group of teachers who, over a period of several years, have developed into a real community of learners. We know that sessions like this push our thinking and keep us constantly reflecting on our practice. 

We ‘unpack thinking’ over breakfast. Those who haven’t managed to do the reading pick up the ideas from the others and are quickly involved too. (I’ve summed up some of the key points of the chapter in an earlier post here.) Among other things we talk about how creating a culture of thinking in our classrooms has shifted the focus from teaching to learning. It’s part of the process of students taking ownership of the learning.

In this reflection, one of the veteran teachers in the group makes her thinking visible…

Letting go….the more I do it, the better it gets! by Desiree Finestone

I am still learning.  The more I gradually release  control of my students’ learning and allow learning to happen where  they are given opportunities to naturally think, analyse, synthesise and internalise concepts and processes, the more I realise this is the way to go!

Providing tools and opportunities to make their thinking visible fosters engagement and discussion around the content. Post –it notes displayed around the room, blogging and thinking routines all support the thinking.  These tools allow students to share, listen to and build on each other’s ideas. 

It’s a great feeling to literally sit back, fold my arms and observe what is happening!  Each time I ‘see’ and feel their thinking and learning, I move up one rung on the ladder towards my next teaching goal. The more I teach, the more I realise how important it is to know how my students learn.

I so enjoy being involved in our Thinking Group.  It provides us teachers opportunities to make our thinking visible and learn from each other.

Image by HocusFocusClick

10 ways to give students control…

The least successful session I ever facilitated for teachers was one I had been asked to do on goal setting. It’s something I am neither comfortable with nor expert at. I don’t set formal goals for myself, so it wasn’t authentic. I was uncertain of the value of the session and I was performing to someone else’s script.

A colleague told me she was uncomfortable teaching a new grade level and thought she wasn’t suited to teaching this age. It actually had little to do with the students and a great deal to do with the fact that she was guided by others who had taught the units before. She used their lesson plans, which didn’t always fit in with her style of teaching or beliefs about learning. She was performing to someone else’s script.

Talented actors can perform to anyone’s script and bring something of themselves to the role. But most of us find it easier to perform to a script of our own creation, which reflects our own beliefs, values and ideas. We need to question things that don’t feel right. We need to follow our instincts. We need to listen to our inner voices. We need to take risks and experiment with our ideas. We need to create our own scripts…

How does this play out for our students? How do we ensure they don’t spend most of their school lives performing to someone else’s script?

1. Make sure they have choice in what they learn and how they learn.

2. Ask their opinions and listen to them.

3. Care about what they say.

4. Don’t make all the decisions.

5. Provide a safe environment for experimentation with ideas.

6. Teach them that mistakes are part of learning.

7. Encourage them to follow their interests and their passions.

8. Provide opportunities for creativity.

9. Create a culture of thinking, where everyone’s thinking is valued.

10. Don’t expect them to do things without knowing why.

The only things in our way are demanding curricula, prescribed programs, content based text-books, standardised testing, emphasis on grades,  parental expectations…

Teachers thinking about learning…

It’s great to work in a school where a bunch of dedicated teachers will come in voluntarily before school to share practice, discuss ideas and learn together. Our group is enhanced by the variety of age, experience and subect discipline of the teachers who come. Our head himself comes, which is both supportive and encouraging.

The focus of this week’s session was stepping back and allowing students to be more responsible for their own learning. It’s a difficult one for most teachers. Veterans are used to having control and often find it hard to let go. Less experienced teachers are often struggling to gain control in the classroom. I think you need to have some control before you can let it go…

We watched Sugata Mitra’s TED talk in our last session, so today we just had a quick look at a short clip of The Hole in the Wall. It was a good trigger to provoke thinking about just how capable kids are of learning independently. We used the thinking routine ‘Headlines’ to capture its essence. It’s one I use often in my class to help students capture the gist of things.

We imagined what it would be like to have someone else set you tasks, give you instructions, check up on you, tell you when to do what all day long. We discussed ways to ‘let go‘, like talking less, testing less and focusing on learning rather than on work. We talked about the importance of classroom layout. We discussed the way kids tend to ‘talk through’ the teacher and how difficult it is to get them to look at each other in a whole class discussion. Rubi told us she sits outside the circle while her students talk. We talked about the challenge of personal goal setting and Hailey shared how her students sometimes set goals for a particular lesson, so that they can focus on them, rather than long term ones they tend to forget. We talked about the value of feedback, not just to the teacher but between members of a group. We wondered how habit can be overcome, when kids come to us already conditioned to see the teacher as ‘boss of learning’.

I took the issue to my classroom after the session. I love to tell them that teachers are learners too and get their perspective on the things we have discussed. I gave them scraps of paper to jot their thoughts on and asked them to think about all the teachers they have known so far. Here are some of their responses…

What are ways in which teachers tend to take control of learning?

  • They keep demonstrating and don’t let us have a go
  • They think only one answer is right
  • They think they have to give us all the information, instead of letting us find out
  • They give us worksheets about a topic instead of letting us talk about it
  • They stand out front telling us what to do
  • They over-explain

What helps you take more control of your own learning?

  • Having choices
  • Working things out together in groups
  • Having time to think independently
  • When the teacher doesn’t over-explain but lets us put our learning into it
  • Having time to talk in between about what the teacher is saying to us
  • When the teacher gives us a menu and we choose the order we want to do things
  • Choosing our own inquiries
  • Trying stuff out for ourselves

Nothing to add…


Whose learning is it anyway?

When my students, rather than using their initiative, ask me what to do or how I want them to do something, I often respond by asking ‘Who owns your learning’?

These posts  got me thinking this week, on related topics…

Against the Wind by @Nunavut_Teacher

DB talks about his efforts to abandon the ‘total control’ mindset that many teachers have. One of the ways he began the transition to a more student centred class, was to ask himself  ‘Is it important?’ before responding to students’  simple day-to-day requests. Letting go is just as difficult  for those of us used to being in control for years, as it is for less experienced teachers  still trying to ‘gain control’ in their classrooms. Starting off as DB does, with asking ourselves ‘ Is it important?’ seems to be a step in the right direction. I blogged recently about ways to get your students to take responsibility for their own learning.

The Hive by @mrs_honeysett

In this candid, reflective post, Michelle talks about the the fact that her practice doesn’t always reflect her beliefs about teaching and learning.  She admits to sometimes doing things because that’s the way she was taught.  How many of us do things in the classroom without thinking about the reasons, because we have always done them that way?! I’ve blogged about this before in relation to Simon Sinek’s TED talk ‘Start with Why’.

The Wejr Board by @MrWejr

In his post about a student designed curriculum,  Chris describes how students’ needs and suggestions were taken into consideration in developing a girls PE program.  The post shows students as key players in their own learning. (Sounds obvious, doesn’t it?)  It further highlights the need to move away from the idea of teacher (or admin) in control of all learning situations. And it demonstrates the power of not just considering the ‘why’ before doing things, but including the students in the decision making process…

Whose learning is it anyway?!

Series of posts: Blogs that made me think this week.. #3

Blogs that made me think this week #1

Blogs that made me think this week #2