Tag Archives: student agency

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.

More on Student/Learner Agency

In a follow up to a previous post, my old colleagues at CORE Education via their 2014 10 Trends and their EdTalks portal, have shared two valuable resources re learner agency.

The first features Derek Wenmoth giving a great overview of learner agency. This extended my thinking and made me reconsider the scope of learner agency beyond just the student and their self-regulated ‘power to act’.

Ten Trends 2014: Agency from EDtalks on Vimeo.

In particular, that agency is interdependent and has a dimension of social connectedness. i.e. It is:

…not just about a learner in isolation doing their own thing and what suits them. Learners must develop an awareness that there are consequences for the decisions they make and actions they take, and will take account of that in the way(s) they exercise their agency in learning.

Every decision a learner makes, and action she or he takes, will impact on the thinking, behaviour or decisions of others – and vice versa. You can’t just act selfishly and call that acting with agency.

I had not considered these areas within the domain of agency. I had only really considered agency from the learner as an individual – thanks for prompting me to make these connections! Thanks for the new word too – agentic.

A second resource via the 10 Trends site is Motivation, Engagement, and Student Voice, with the Executive Summary being a quick and easy read. The graphic on page 3 captured simply the degrees of student voice in school activities – an easy starting point for professional discussion and review. Where would you place our school on this continuum? Where would you place your classroom? What changes would you need to make in your practice to move from Expression to Partnership? From Participation to Leadership?

sv-spectrum

A challenge for me from this report was the discussion based around students having the ability to disengage with digital distractions.

Recent research has shown that the “noise” of myriad digital distractions threatens productivity and cognitive complexity in learning.

Recent brain research reveals that our brains are indeed capable of doing many things simultaneously as long as those things do not require much complexity and the costs for making errors is low… …In short, multitasking hinders the deepest forms of engagement our brains need to learn complex things.

Challenging because of my firm beliefs around the effective use of technologies in teaching and learning. It would seem as though technology is taking the blame here for students being unable to develop their own self-regulatory competencies. Surely though, students have been distracted from their learning long before the prevalent use of technology in schools? The key for me is that there is still a need for the deliberate teaching and/or supporting of students to develop these skills and awarenesses but not, I would suggest through strategies such as “…outside restrictions via teacher (and parent) monitoring”.

I think that a read of the full report may shed some more light on this area.

A good connection though was the the discussion around “…helping students to experience their own minds in this way is one of the most powerful contributions we can make to their development and learning.”I can see some parallel threads of thinking here from another current read, Quiet Leadership by David Rock, who asks, “How can I best help you with your thinking?”

So what/now what? Currently as a staff and community we are heading into some deep thinking about our core beliefs and approaches to teaching and learners i.e. those foundation principals that drive a school’s curriculum design and approaches to making our students develop the knowledge, skills and competencies for life-long learning. To me, learner agency, and everything that is required to scaffold students to get there, is one core belief/approach that will enable our students. These resources will be a great starting point for discussion and direction.

Student Agency

Our writing PLD for this year is based on the underlying principal of student agency driving an improvement in student achievement. At the beginning of this development when Brian Annan was discussing the approach I was familiar with the term but not conversant nor had a deep understanding. So I needed to connect some of the dots and clarify what it was all about.

Isn’t it funny too that when an idea is emphasised like student agency, that it seems to appear everywhere now that your awareness of it is heightened. e.g.

So what is student agency? Some quick definitions:

Russell Burt:

Agency – the power to act – informed/empowered/enabled learners

Mark Osbourne refers to the Quality Teaching for Diverse Students in Schooling: Best Evidence Synthesis Iteration (BES):

In summary, sustained higher achievement is possible when teachers use pedagogical approaches that enable students to take charge of their own learning. Such approaches do not leave the students ‘to discover’ in an unstructured environment. Rather, they are highly structured in supporting student agency and sustained and thoughtful engagement. For example, they foster students’ abilities to define their own learning goals, ask questions, anticipate the structure of curriculum experiences, use metacognitive strategies when engaging with curriculum, and self-monitor. Pedagogies that emphasise, embed and enable metacognitive strategy-use throughout curriculum engagement for class groupings, are associated with much higher achievement and enable marked improvements for low achievers.

Raikes Foundation:

Student agency is a cluster of academic mindsets and learning strategies that have been demonstrated to advance learning and achievement. Academic mindsets are more evident in students who feel a sense of belonging in a certain subject, class or school; believe that they have the capacity to learn, and see value in their participation. Learning strategies include study skills, meta-cognition and goal-setting, competencies that help individuals persist when learning becomes challenging.

Values Centered Schools:

Student agency refers to empowering students through curriculum approaches that; engage them, are respectful of and seek their opinions, give them opportunities to feel connected to school life, promote positive and caring relationships between all members of the school community, promote wellbeing and focus on the whole student, relate to real-life experiences, are safe and supportive.

These definitions illustrate to me that agency is about student learning and teacher teaching. It is about the teacher providing the right environment, support and approaches to learning that enable learners to develop the skills and attitudes for agency to occur, and about the student being engaged in, and empowered by assuming responsibility of their learning through reflection, goal setting and a range of other self-monitoring behaviours.

Some of the key words that describe student agency for me are therefore; enabling, empowering, self-monitoring, goals, feedback, meta-cognition, active, responsive, self-directed and meaningful.

A further look at some student agency research unpacked the following Approaches to Learning Model. You can clearly see the relationship between the approaches and agency. These are further supported by additional definitions of student agency:

  • the satisfying power to take meaningful action and see the results of our decisions and choices
  • since meaning-based tasks fail to proscribe the use of particular structures, learners have to take an active role in sorting out exactly what they are learning
Student Agency and Language-Learning Processes and Outcomes in International Online Environments Olga Basharina University of New Mexico

What strikes me about this model though is that it does not take in the role of the teacher in to the equation (or maybe it does… I would need to read the full explanation from Entwistle himself). As I have stated above student agency isn’t just the responsibility of the student, the teacher and school must provide the conditions and support/model/teach in an way that provides all students with the ability to learn and demonstrate agency.

So bringing it back to where this post started, with our writing PLD. Our facilitator Rita Plamer has introduced us to Ralph Fletcher’s work and she dug out this reference to agency from the text  A Writer’s Notebook – Unlocking the Writer Within You. Being in control of their own development, i.e. their own learning – great! This surely is the core of what student agency is.

agency

 So what does all this mean? A couple of reflective wonderings…

  1. Deliberate vs accidental… A few of you may be saying that this is what happens in your classroom all the time. Yes my students set goals, yes they are reflective. But how much of that agency is a deliberate approach i.e. If I looked at your planning and a see how you have deliberately structured your teaching to ensure the conditions and strategies are student agency productive?
  2. If student agency is a way of empowering our students, then teacher agency is just as important (through the principal leading and providing the support/conditions/opportunities) which makes principal agency equally as important (with the Board providing the support/conditions/opportunities). Is this being overly simplistic? Seems to make sense to me.
  3. One aspect that has surprised me was that there was little to no reference to student voice in the information read to date. I would have thought they go hand in hand.
  4. Most of the definitions/examples are about the individual learners, but like the excerpt above from Ralph Fletcher’s book, the social learning aspect is really important. Meaningful action could just as well be the outcome of collaboration and teamwork. If the action is a result of feedback, then that is a partnership in learning too, or does agency count when the thinking and action is done as an individual – not the process leading up to it?

Much to ponder… and more reading required.

Draw Me a Picture – Reflecting on Literacy PLD

This year Kumeroa-Hopelands School is involved in range of literacy PLD opportunities working alongside Papatawa, Makuri, Ballance and Mangatainoka schools and our facilitators from CPL.

I am leading this development within our school and as such attend all sessions and bring back to school any new learnings and lead staff through any associated inquiry into our current practice.

The first sessions focused on how well we know our learners with a particular focus for us at KHS on our underachieving writers. To help facilitate these conversations with our students we were first asked to visualise and draw what writing looked like in our class. If you were a fly on the wall, looking down on writing in your classroom…

  • What would you see?
  • What people interactions would there be?
  • What tools would you see being used?
  • Where would the data trails be leading from and to?

Taking this back to school, how would the teachers visualise their writing teaching? How would the students? Would they ‘look’ the same? Here are a couple of examples of teachers drawing their writing ‘time’.

Some common characteristics of their visualisations:

  • Cyclical in nature
  • Teacher modeling and sharing of examples/exemplars
  • Writing is planned by students with opportunities to discuss ideas as a group, with the teacher, among students
  • Feedback/feed forward from teacher and peers
  • Sharing of writing (reading to class, traditional publishing, online) is part of the process

All in all these characteristics form a positive snapshot of writing processes and include some essential elements for effective teaching. Do the students agree? Are there similarities? Here are a few:

Characteristics of the student pictures:

  • Conferencing an questioning with/to teacher
  • Use of technology to share exemplars/examples of writing, search for information and to print/publish writing
  • Using dictionaries to help edit writing
  • Learning talk amongst students

So similarities between student and teacher pictures. Teachers are much more complex and students simplistic, no real surprises there. Great to seeing the interactions betwen students talking about an helping each other with their writing. What would the purest in me like to have seen more of? Self-assessing, some stronger reference to success criteria and more effective use of technology for sharing to name a few.

So where next?

  • This approach to unpacking perceptions and perspectives of teaching and learning was new to me but really worthwhile. There are many other contexts you could use it in to show people, systems, interactions, relationships, tools and data. For example with teachers:
    • Draw me a picture of what success for Maori looks like in your class.
    • Visualise your elearning classroom.
    • What would I see if you drew a picture of your community engagement?
  • This process has also reinforced to me that importance of a school having an agreed upon ‘What an effective writing classroom looks like’ set of criteria that guides teachers and sets up common beliefs and practices across the school. KHS’s version of this is up for review this term. Timely.
  • The most important outcome though is the value of knowing our learners and small wake up call in terms of how well we really know them. The concept is not new, it is at the heart of Ka Hikitia and integral to the deeper notions of student voice… but do we do it well enough and often enough? With teaching as inquiry kick started with the What are our learners needs? question this process actively gets teachers, through their students, to start digging deeper.