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?

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/

Learning stories…

Me: What did you learn about yourself as a learner?

Student: I learn much more when I’m inquiring into something I choose for myself and am really interested in.

Me: What message do you have for teachers?

Student: We need more opportunities to explore things we care about. Having a choice and working independently makes us learn more.

Me: So it’s better than ‘school subjects’?

Student: My inquiry had lots of school subjects! Maths, Science, English, Art.

I had many such reflective conversations about learning with Year 6 students at the end of their PYP exhibition (expedition) process.  Each inquiry was unique, every journey different and their passion shone through in the ways they chose to tell their learning stories…
img_0351

img_0348

fullsizerender-34

Some focused more on what they had learned, others on how they had learned. They spoke of skills acquired and knowledge gained, about what had benefited their learning, who had influenced them, how they overcame challenges and action they had taken. In many cases, they referred to sketch notes of their journeys, as they talked…

fullsizerender-24

img_0034

2673d21b-57b0-4d50-b571-d11d05e93788

fullsizerender-29
It was fitting to end the school year with such a powerful example of student ownership.
Our Year 6 learners had agency in what they chose to explore and how they chose to explore it. They chose with whom to collaborate and how to support each other. They chose how to express their learning creatively through art, film, dance, model-making…

screen-shot-2016-12-10-at-7-25-58-pm

screen-shot-2016-12-10-at-7-49-18-pm

They chose how they might make a difference, what impact they want to make and what kind of action to take…
fullsizerender-33
fullsizerender-32

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…

img_8621

img_8589

img_8605

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.

Reflecting on our goal of increasing student ownership…

It’s been four months since we set the tone for unleashing learning via Unleashing Learning, six since we outlined this year’s goal of increasing opportunities for student ownership

In this afternoon’s session, we revisit the notion of learner agency and the teachers, in mixed grade level groups, share steps they have taken this year towards increasing opportunities for student ownership, a goal we set ourselves at the start of the year. This is the second in a series of such sessions, this time with P-3 teachers and it’s great to hear the ways even (or especially?) the younger children can be have more ownership…

“The children decide how to find out what they want to know and it’s  up to them how they want to share their learning with the class.” (Year 3)

“We start with the game before the skills are taught. The children then say what skills they need to master to play the game. Rather than showing them the correct technique, by trial and error they discover for themselves.” (PE)

“Children select from a range of tailored learning experiences, based on their needs and goals. They are developing understandings of what is expected of them as learners.” (Year 1)

“As a result of allowing children more choice in what books they borrow, irrespective of reading level, there are a lot more discussions about books and the reasons for their preferences”. (Library)

“Through physically making their stories before writing (eg plasticine, Lego), the change in the children’s writing has been unbelievable. They are also learning to give each other meaningful feedback. The children are engaged and love writing”. (Year 2)

“During Exploration Time, the children choose what they would like to do and the teachers work with small groups to target specific needs as required.” (Prep)

After the group discussions, individuals think about how they might further encourage student ownership this term and they record these goals on a shared Padlet wall started last term by the upper primary staff. 

At the end of the session, a young teacher, new to our school this year, approaches me to share how happy she is to be teaching and growing in our dynamic learning community.  I am reminded of Craig Eldred’s tweet this week (and my response to it!) 

Screen Shot 2016-07-20 at 6.23.23 pm

Change…

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…

FullSizeRender 9

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… 

What does student ownership look like?

‘Imagine if we did this with kids’… I said in my previous post and, within a few days, some teachers have!

The learners work in mixed groups across two Year 6 classes and respond to the same question that we gave the teachers last week: ‘What does student ownership of learning look like’? 

The teachers move between the groups, asking probing questions, encouraging the learners to think more deeply.

IMG_4820

IMG_4826Responses are quite revealing!

  • Teachers tell students where to go, but they choose their own route to get there.
  • Teachers tell the students what to do, but they decide how to do it.
  • People can have their own opinions and points of view.
  • Freedom to learn and independence.
  • Taking pride in your own learning.
  • Thinking and reflecting about what and how you learn.
  • Doing your work without letting yourself be distracted.
  • We are all unique in our learning and thinking styles.
  • Teacher opens the door, but only we can walk through.
  • Choosing wisely where to sit and who to work with.

It’s only Day 2 of the school year and I know things will develop as the year unfolds. These young learners have teachers who value student ownership and will work at establishing a culture where this is real. They are part of a learning community where ownership of learning is valued and beliefs about how this takes place have been articulated and agreed upon.

Yet I can’t help but wonder:

  • Have our learners really experienced ownership of their learning within a school context?
  • Are the children saying the sorts of things they think teachers are looking for?
  • Can our learners imagine what really owning your learning looks and feels like?
  • Do adults really believe that children can be the owners of their learning?
  • Is ownership of learning compatible with traditional models of school?
  • How can we help children (and teachers) separate the notion of learning from that of ‘doing school’?
  • Does our practice align with our beliefs?