This article explores the notion of learner agency: how ‘kids are the boss’ in our learning environment.
PYP students as leaders of learning
Returning as a teacher to the elementary homeroom this year, I wanted to take the opportunity to fully explore the latest themes in PYP education.
The notion of learner agency(1), that students can and should be the drivers of their learning(2), was something that seemed familiar, but in practice would provide me with a year of growth and challenge.
As an early years educator I hold an image of the child(3) that views students as capable, competent and intrinsically-driven inquirers. Encouraged by the PYP’s focus on learner agency and action, and eager to apply my philosophy in my new classroom, I was raring to get the school year underway.
Genius hour: My “Brilliant First Flop”(4)
I opened the year by communicating that ‘kids are the boss’ in our learning environment. Our initial class meetings delved into what being the boss would mean in practice.
The conversations went well and at this stage I was feeling rather pleased. The class agreed that starting a genius hour(5) would be a terrific application of our co-constructed essential agreements.
We were all excited, but our enthusiasm quickly began to wane. Students would arrive at school with burning questions on the tip of their tongues, or a passion for a project that they were desperate to work on. And yet, these flashes of inspiration rarely coincided with our scheduled genius hour.
Of course, we would commit to return to these individual projects either later in the day or week, but it was clear to see that our genius hour had become a non-starter. It seemed like just another part of the schedule that the teacher valued and the students “did”. Some students were keen, others benignly obliging, but the thrill was gone(6).
Transdisciplinary learning and the tyranny of the schedule
As I reflected about the lack of spontaneity, and the unresponsiveness of our genius hour sessions, my attention turned to my weekly schedule.
In my previous school’s authorization report, an area for attention related to expanding faculty awareness of the transdisciplinary nature of the PYP. I still recall reading the IB’s report and cringing in uncomfortable self-recognition.
Yes, I had been guilty of displaying on my whiteboard a daily schedule which I dutifully updated for the students. You might know the type. It was splendidly laminated, enhanced with magnetic backs and had colors corresponding to different subject areas: mathematics, English, unit of inquiry. I thought it was helpful and certainly students have the right to know what to expect from their day.
Yet, by dividing the day into fragmented blocks of time, I was not just reducing learner agency, but also expressing to my students that their learning was unconnected. By boxing curriculum, I was boxing student thinking and their understanding of the world.
Who owns the schedule?
I now firmly believe that if you really want to position your students as the owners of their learning, then focusing on who owns the schedule? has to become a priority. Schedules are a balance of many factors and an interplay of the many priorities within schools. Whether school schedules are flexible or rigid depends upon the pedagogical approach taken by teachers and administrators(7).
The classroom schedule had positioned us as disciplinary learners.
I responded by seeking simplicity and flattening the schedule. We established that there would be times when adults would guide or lead learning and times when students would take on this role for themselves and their peers. It was that simple. This was what ‘being the boss’ would really mean for our class. Educators and students can step in and out of the lead role within a culture of learning.
As the educator, I remained accountable for ensuring we made connections to all the outcomes required by the curriculum and reporting process. At the same time I increased my expectations that my students would also be accountable for approaching their learning as reflective, balanced and enthusiastic students(8).
During our (now student named) Personal Project Learning Time, students could select from a range of learning activities, keeping a balance of their individual learning targets in mind. During any single session, students can work on a variety of tasks, covering all areas of the curriculum. At times, students would add their own learning activities to the menu. This suggests we had started to transition from a learner-centered to a learner-driven model(9). See below several practical tips for implementation.
- Provide unbroken blocks of time
- Say ‘yes’ as much as possible
- Students can work on individual and small groups projects
- A gradual release of control supports students in their success
- Valuing and making student work visible sparks others to join the inquiry
- Progressive physical and digital learning spaces are key tools to the process
My next step would be to engage with other adults and classes in the learning community(10) as I have discovered that working in isolation installs a glass ceiling above our heads.
At last, after a year of experimentation and a gradual release of control, the class community is basking in the glow of a more holistic, student-directed learning environment.
As the lead learner in the room, it is highly inspiring to say the least.
(1) Students take the lead, via SharingPYP blog
(2) Personalization vs. Differentiation vs. Individualization Chart V3.
(3) Your Image of the Child: Where Teaching Begins by Loris Malaguzzi
(4) Rosie Revere, Engineer by Andrea Beaty
(5) Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Daniel Pink
(6) The Thrill Is Gone by B.B. King
(7) The Case for Time, by Nathaniel Atherton
(8) Six Ways the Teacher’s Role is Changing, by John Darcy
(9) The Personalized Learning Look Fors by Kettle Moraine School District
(10) Young Students Benefit from Self-Directed Learning Days by Western Academy of Beijing
Dylan Meikle is an elementary counselor at United Nations International School Hanoi and is an experienced homeroom teacher in the PYP. He is a member of the IBEN and an Apple Distinguished Educator. Dylan is passionate about learning environments and contributes to a blog on the subject at www.makespace4learning.com. He welcomes feedback, collaboration and further discussion via Twitter @dylan_meikle.