Student agency: what it is and what it isn’t.

IMG_5834

Exploring the real meaning of student agency

It is the beginning of a new year. And I’m asking a bunch of 6-7 years olds, who I have only known for 5 weeks, to tell me about their academic and social successes and goals. Their answers are cute, wacky and hilarious in equal measure. But their answers are also very revealing and informative. Not in the way that this process was “probably” intended to produce. Experience tells me that attempting to capture their ‘voice’ in this way is not meaningful or helpful. It’s as though I am speaking in a foreign language. Over the years I have taken these children’s responses as evidence and motivation to change my teaching practice. It has provoked me into thinking more freely and deeply about what student agency is, and what it isn’t. But teachers are asked repeatedly to go through this very process on a regular basis. And teachers oblige. No questions asked. Just lots of muttering and stressing.

This received interpretation of student agency has never been explained to me or to any other teacher that I have spoken to. Woe betide any teacher who dares to ask the ‘why’ question. So in fact, I can only guess that the process I have described in the preceding paragraph is actually about student agency at all. Yes, “probably”. I can only assume therefore, that this is how student agency has been interpreted. Or perhaps more precisely, misinterpreted. As you may have figured out by now, I totally get the idea of the how and why student agency is a good thing to have. A curious, engaged student is going to be a much better learner. The learner in the driver’s seat, directing their learning has got to be great. I have built my success of effective teaching and learning on this notion. Wacky nonsensical responses to my earnest questions were my provocation to get to this point. But to put it simply, for many a 6-7 year old, after a whole 5 weeks at school, the only meaningful goal at the beginning of the year would be to sit quietly on the mat for 5 minutes. How is it that we have lost sight of that? Water flows freely down hill. It can be guided and pooled. But working with it, not against is most effective. I like to think of water and learning as having similar qualities.

So now let me describe

  • what student agency looks like in my classroom,
  • how I go about creating it,
  • why I see it as a worthwhile goal.

In my classroom at the beginning of the year, it is my ‘voice’ that is dominant. I am setting the culture, expectations, building relationships, providing a framework and a structure that is visible and consistent. It is more about psychology than teaching at this stage of the year. And I maintain the ‘benevolent dictator’ role throughout the year. I am the expert. I convey that message. I invite them to join me on a learning journey. That is not such an easy task if a student has not experienced this expectation before (or is still learning the skills of self-management). It takes time to convince a student to grasp this reality if they have only ever had teaching and learning ‘done to them’. I know what knowledge they need to know and how best to learn it. I know my impact. And as Graeme Aitken describes, the learning environment needs to be “teacher led, student sensitive”.

It is thanks to this approach that, as the year progresses, the students start to take “ownership” of their learning. The process of learning speeds up. Increasingly, the onus goes on the children to fill in the gaps that I have highlighted to them. I provide extra support to the children who need it – whether it is due to cognitive issues or social/emotional/attitude issues. Classmates are used to provide the extra support that is needed. The analogy being, the firehose has been turned off and in its place there are water fountains in the room for the students to drink from (the fountains being myself, other students, resources in the classroom, parents). My initial job is to get them to drink; to want to drink. Once that culture has been established, my job becomes easier.

It is from this point that the students who have mastered the essential knowledge are provided with opportunities to explore and be creative with this new knowledge and mastery. And that’s when the magic starts to happen. That’s when the ‘genuine’ student agency starts to kick in. The learning becomes a more organic and dynamic process – a learning conversation. The students get excited about their ability and potential. They seem to rediscover their curiosity. It becomes contagious. I then become a conductor – responding to their needs and wants – learning from the students. This is the formative assessment process at its most dynamic. And it is all built on from a foundation of strong relationships, high but appropriate expectations and, the teacher’s expertise.

So which interpretation of student agency do you prefer? If you are a regular reader of this blog, I think I know your answer. The next question has to be, “how is it possible to get education leaders to recognise this alternative interpretation?” I know teachers who understand implicitly what I am describing and would grasp the opportunity to implement this ‘alternative’ version ably and willingly. But they don’t. And I think I know why they don’t. Beliefs and biases are rife. It may go some way to explaining why the teaching profession fails to attract and retain good teachers. Maybe. Just reread this post and replace the words ‘student agency’ with the words ‘teacher agency’.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

Beliefs and biases – the biggest challenge faced by education

SpencerRowell

via Spencer Rowell

Some years ago I learned that a research based, evidence informed teaching pedagogy, that would vastly improve learning outcomes for all students, was readily available for all teachers to pick up and adopt immediately. Imagine it? A road map for effective teaching had been provided and was just waiting to be utilised. If only. The unfortunate reality is that this pedagogy is still only of interest to academics and a small group of dedicated teachers. And it’s this disconnection between the research and everyday practice that interests me the most these days. That is, my focus has gradually gone from exploring the features of “best practice teaching” to exploring the beliefs and attitudes of teachers that appear to be stopping them from taking up this amazing offer. My attention has shifted from education practice to one of human psychology. I wonder if it will ever be possible to get a sufficient number of teachers on board to create a “tipping point”? If so, what will it take to make that happen?

Experience tells me that, by and large, teachers are in the business of teaching because they care. It’s a “calling”. There is immense satisfaction in having a positive impact on a child’s education during their formative years. But these days I am more inclined to think that the potential to have a positive impact on student learning is, to a large degree, being squandered. So why is it that teachers would spurn the opportunity to make a positive impact on the students they are teaching? I am not the only teacher receiving the regular memo or attending professional development courses that implore teachers to help fix an education system that is failing so many students. The only difference seems to be that, upon receiving these requests, I started a personal inquiry into how I could make this happen. And let it be known that it was personal by default, not choice.

I found out as much as I could about this ‘magical’ pedagogy. I immersed myself in the research and began to trial it in my classroom. I had to. I had no choice. I had students in my class who were bright and articulate but were unable to engage in the standard learning programme that was expected to be delivered. The only alternative would have been to exclude them from the classroom. But that would be akin to giving up on them. Our judiciary system seems to work in that way. I definitely don’t want our education system to be the same. So I chose to meet these students where they were at. But I had to change my practice in order to get them to where they needed to be. It soon became apparent that this new approach worked for them and for every other student in my classroom. I liked what it was delivering. The children liked what it was delivering. It was delivering exactly as the research said it would. By that, I mean there was significant learning growth taking place. Better still. I had become aware of it and aware of what I was doing to make that learning happen. It was at that point that I felt compelled to share this experience; this new reality.

As well as benefiting the students, it has made my life as a teacher less stressful and more satisfying. But in other ways it’s been harder. Biases are hard to recognise, let alone shift. Teachers are not immune to this reality. It’s naive to think teachers would be any different to the general populace. When I started changing my teaching practice, based on the research and the evidence that was being presented to me, I naively anticipated my achievements would be fêted. Quite the opposite was the reality. It became apparent that applying a tried and tested, yet unfamiliar pedagogy, sets you on a collision course with the prevailing forces of the “status quo”. The default setting is to “shoot the messenger”. The silence, the lack of curiosity, the absence of critical discussion can be deafening. “How dare you challenge our beliefs about teaching or about the children in my care”, can be conveyed equally effectively, in subtle and less subtle ways. But regardless of how it is conveyed, it takes a personal and professional toll. Meanwhile, this incredible pedagogy that I witness on a daily basis never strays beyond the four walls of my classroom. Not for want of trying I hasten to add.

Once again, I sought solace in Hattie’s research. He says, “the biggest collective impact on student learning (effect sizes 1.3+) happens when teachers are able to share their learning and openly discuss their evidence”. That’s the theory. As you will have noted, making that happen in reality has proven to be a significant challenge. To do so teachers would need to leave their beliefs and biases at the door. And in order to do that, they would have to be aware of the existence of those biases in the first place. Maybe Hattie is as naive as I am. Back-slapping and high-fives is evidence of a cooperative environment. This should not been confused with a collaborative environment. Rigourous, managed debate, centred around evidence of learning growth is the hallmark of collaboration. Those with the most compelling evidence are the voices that need to be encouraged to share. An environment needs to be created that allows ideas to be tested in order for the best learning outcomes for all students to be achieved. Strong, confident, informed leadership is a prerequisite. And high expectations. Likewise, a no-fail and supportive approach needs to be in place to ensure all teachers are able to participate in the journey too.

It’s becoming increasingly clear to me that our education system, like our political system, is very resistant to making any material changes. It’s called inertia. Tinkering at the edges is currently as good as it gets. Fads and fashions come and go. Compliance and process are valued ahead of innovation and achievement. But the point needs to be made that unlike politicians,  teachers are in no need to be looking for votes. Teachers are well-paid professionals. They are impartial. They owe a duty of care to offer the best outcomes for all their students and need to be prepared to be challenged. Politely and professionally. They need to be reminded that they are in fact required to deliver best learning outcomes for all. To do so will require best teaching practice. Qualities of being caring and showing good intentions need to be converted into great learning outcomes for all.

At least I no longer assume that change will come automatically, be easy or, be championed by every teacher. There is unlikely to be a safe and easy pathway. But on the positive side I do think I have uncovered the circumstances that allows for the disconnection between research and practice. Beliefs and biases – that is now the focus of my attention. Wish me luck.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

Communities of Learning | Kāhui Ako – education game changer or empty rhetoric?

Blocks

5 year olds at work

I define myself as a critical, impatient, optimist. I am critical. Everyday I am reminded that our education system is well and truly past its ‘best before’ date. I am impatient. I have experienced personally how it could be made better, for everyone, right now. But I’m also optimistic. That’s because I get to witness a special kind of magic in the classroom everyday, as a result of making radical changes to the way I teach. If I can be successful, then so can others.

And now perhaps, there is reason to be a little more optimistic. The year is 2018 – the year that New Zealand school teachers have been given consent to do the right thing. Communities of Learning (CoL) | Kāhui Ako have come to town. The introduction of this initiative is an acknowledgement that things could be better. The education sector is being encouraged to evolve and be more effective. Change is essential, we are told. Because the World has changed a lot since the current education system was created. Because failure is creating a social and economic burden on society and it’s failing some more than others. CoLs provide impetus and offer a pathway for that change.

Getting teachers to acknowledge and change their beliefs and biases about their teaching practice and about the children they teach, is the biggest challenge faced by education.

And the talk is good. Words and ideas like:- putting the learner at the centre of their education. And, empowering teachers to share, to lead, to challenge current thinking and practice, to enact best practice by implementing the best research and using the best data to make the best decisions for their learners. At least now, with the creation of these CoLs and what they represent, teachers can feel empowered to be brave and bold. But of course, while the talk may be good, there is no guarantee that the desired change will be achieved – of helping all students reach their full potential. And I should know. It is the raison d’être of this site – highlighting the need for change, the resistance to change and, providing experiences that give me hope that change is possible.

Over the years I have become fully aware of the meaning of inertia. Getting people to acknowledge, let alone, change their beliefs and biases is extraordinarily difficult. Getting teachers to acknowledge and change their beliefs and biases about their teaching practice and about the children they teach, is equally difficult. And while I understand that the CoLs are a new initiative and need to be given some time, I believe there is insufficient understanding and/or ‘buy-in’ among teachers. I don’t think the need for change has been articulated well enough and therefore, not universally understood.

This should come as no surprise. Education suffers from a vision deficit. Sure, schools are as good as any organisation at creating vision statements. But in reality, these vision statements can be interpreted as mere platitudes because they are not supported by the essential actions that will allow them to be realised. A worthy vision would generate a strong emotional connection and would require an emotional leap of faith. Imagine the response, both negative and positive, to a statement such as “no child left behind”. Unfortunately, I suspect that this kind of statement is likely to be interpreted as unhelpfully provocative. That’s because it would require a light to be directed into lots of dark and uncomfortable places. It would challenge all those beliefs and biases that drive current teaching practice.

But if education is to move forward, if the CoL initiative is to be successful, it is that kind of vision that is needed. With that kind of vision in place, the ‘means to attain the ends’ could be implemented. At the moment though, teaching works the other way around. Variations of the same ‘means’ are implemented in the expectation that different or better ‘ends’ will be achieved – education remains as a research/evidence free zone.

It is becoming increasingly apparent that education is in desperate need of leaders who are willing and able to set bold goals and turn talk into action. It needs people who can lead. And please note that leading is not the same thing as managing. It needs people who understand the task at hand is fundamentally about building relationships and human connections. It needs leaders who are able to inspire others to break with the status quo, transform boundaries, create and manage dissonance, hear and act on other perspectives, develop creative and thinking people. And most importantly, do the right thing for the children.

“What is lacking today is not knowledge about leadership, but the courage to convert such knowledge into actual performance. But courage does not come just by wishing – it only happens as a consequence of one’s level of consciousness, one’s inner experience, one’s self identity.” Jagdish Parikh

It is that kind of leadership that would allow and encourage teachers to remove the shackles; to be able to question the current way of working and be, as Jan Robertson says, “open minded and vulnerable”. Teachers would then be free and rewarded to choose to be a part of the process of ‘undoing’ the current failing model – a model that has hardly changed since it’s introduction. Unfortunately, the changes that have taken place so far are merely variations of tinkering at the edges. Teachers need to be invited to recognise the power and privilege they possess in their role; to recognise the huge influence they have over the children in their care. They need to be invited to recognise the huge potential they have in being a part of creating transformative change.

Of course, being prepared to take up this exciting opportunity will require a willingness to tolerate discomfort and dissonance. Challenging and disrupting the status quo is not easy. Finding the courage to speak up is not easy. The cost of speaking up – socially, emotionally and financially, is very high. Being critical makes you a target – the messenger to be shot. In contrast, being quiet, saying nothing, having low expectations of oneself and others is comfortable. But it is this comfort that maintains the status quo. I suggest that there is a test for determining whether it is appropriate or not to speak up. Is what you want to say accurate, defendable and said with love and good intent? Then you should feel free to say it. Besides, teachers are paid professionals. Being critical and being critiqued is an essential part of a professional teaching environment.

A vision without action is like a yacht without a sail. The intent of the CoL initiative may appear earnest and bold but success is far from guaranteed. Time will tell.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

Inspiration and analysis for this blog post can be found at the links below.

Continue reading