Agency – teaching jargon destined for overuse?

I have blogged about the concept of student agency before as I continue to explore what it means to me, my practice and in terms of leading a school.

I have to be honest and say that I am disappointed that it seems as though agency and agentic have become the new trendy phrases in schools destined for overuse and misuse. Reminds me of the term life-long learning or 21st century learners which was dropped into every conversation and used to encompass everything associated with current effective approaches to teaching and learning. It got to the point where many cringed when the words were used.

So now the urge to do so is back with teachers describing their practice as supporting agentic learners, a point which I would question. I would suggest that perhaps a lack of professional learning has led to this happening with the phrase being coined without a full understanding behind it. Perhaps that is a little harsh and on a continuum of developing agentic learners they are simply at the initial developmental end. Maybe my understanding is what is a fault or I can’t get beyond the pureness of agency.

This post has been prompted by a couple of discussions where people have described their agentic practices. For example, Teacher A having a ‘Must Do Can Do’ approach in their classroom suggesting this is student agency, or Teacher B stating a ‘reading contract’ type approach (filled with teacher generated activities) as being agentic. I do not see that simply providing an element of choice = agency, especially when these are secondary often unmonitored activities that play a distant second place to instructional learning directly with a teacher.

So here is my attempt to define what makes agentic learning from my perspective, not based on any research, just a what’s on top, Friday evening, as I dig deeper into this area.

Firstly, a couple of key concepts that guide my thinking.

  1. The foundation for student agency is teaching and learning grounded in assessment for learning practices.
  2. We need to remove the assumption that quality learning only happens when students are working directly with a teacher.

Let me take a little time to unpack those further.

The foundation for student agency is teaching and learning grounded in assessment for learning practices. In order for any student to be agentic they need to know what they are learning and why, what success looks like and what they need to do to get there. To take it a step further in order to be agentic, this process is directed by the learner, for the learner, but not in isolation and not without the act of supporting other learners and learning. Something like this…

Standard Practice Agentic Practice
  • Teacher using data to determine next steps in learning for students
  • Teacher finding examples/exemplars of learning that demonstrates expectations, goals, focus points
  • Teacher co-constructing success criteria with students
  • Teacher identifying teaching points and addressing them throughout learning.
  • Teacher and peers providing feedback and next steps.
  • Self-assessments by learner.
  • Student uses data to determine next steps in their learning.
  • Student sources examples of the learning or expertise to focus and guide.
  • Student develops their own personalised success criteria.
  • Student identifies where support is required and seeks support/feedback from the best person to guide them
  • Self-assessments/monitoring embedded throughout
  • Student recognises other students’ learning and supports this through effective personalised feedback/forward, questioning

It would be fair to say that many teachers, certainly that I know of, implement parts of the 2nd column, but I don’t know any (myself included!) that have reached the stage where all of it is happening consistently and is the norm. Maybe because the following concept was not in place..?

We need to remove the assumption that quality learning only happens when students are working directly with a teacher. Most educators are familiar with the concept of a flipped classroom, where content is provided prior the lesson enabling rich discussion and learning activities that use rather than learn the content. Take that concept and adapt it to working with the teacher/working independently in class. Traditionally we would place emphasis on time with the teacher, with the independent activities practicing and reinforcing already learnt content and skills.

What if that was flipped over and teachers instead emphasised and prioritised the independent activities? Is this not when the teacher truly becomes the coach and facilitator of learning, deliberately allowing for agency to be developed? This approach is a fundamental change, and one that I would suggest requires a very knowledgeable and effective teacher, with the ability to design independent contexts that are personalised, challenging, that require the students to make decisions about their learning, in an environment or culture where everyone is supporting each other to develop their own process of agency.

I am not an expert in this area but the concept of agency is something that fits very comfortably with my beliefs on teaching and learning. My thoughts may be at odds with others in terms of what agency is.

However, I just hope that when the terms is used it is used appropriately and knowledgeably, otherwise I fear it will join the scrap heap of overused education jargon before the full potential of the concept has been given the time to embed itself if the everydayness of teaching and learning.

Sometimes I wonder if the removal of professional learning programmes such as Assess to Learn (AtoL) was a big step away from the foundations and principles of what we want our students to do and become.

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