This article shares one school’s continuing journey to unpack, define and support learner agency.
Over the past three years we explored LEARNER AGENCY in an effort to develop an understanding of:
- what agency looks like in action
- what it does to a child
- what teacher dispositions nurture it
- what curriculum structures honor it, and
- what role the environment plays in supporting it.
We began toying around with the idea of agency after attending an early webinar of the PYP (Early Years – Learner Agency). Some of our staff members connected with the idea of “choice and voice” and claimed that “we know it and do it”. We shared our understanding with the IB through a set of examples from our school. We continued to feel good about our understanding until we received a message from an IB staff member to have a skype call with us – to help us reflect on our understanding, which wasn’t “strong enough”. She assured us that it’s wonderful to see schools connecting with this idea and trying to draw parallels with it in their own context. She encouraged us continue inquiring into agency and keep her posted.
Self-Reflection leading to Inquiry
A bit shaken up, we reflected deeply on what we knew and what agency is. We read through some research available on the subject and realized that our choice of words indicated that we represented agency as something that we ‘give’ to the students whereas actually it’s something every child already has. We learnt that for us it was more of an ‘act’ where children made choices from the range that we offered, however it really is a more complex interplay of learning environment, teacher disposition and student ownership that encourages an individual to make decisions – big or small. We learnt that the power equation in our classrooms was still very uneven and that students often followed the teacher’s plans. However, a classroom that honors agency enables learners to take control of their learning—what, when and how they want to learn. We pondered over all these key ideas and wondered what we could do to “make it happen”.
We were determined to begin with baby steps and therefore thought to start with orienting staff members with the idea of agency through discussion. There were several questions that were raised around Time, Curriculum, Control, etc… Does it mean we let children decide everything? Does it require us to forgo our curriculum and leave it all to the students? Should we have fewer units; less content and longer chunks of inquiry? What’s the role of the teacher in this kind of scenario?
Clearly, we were scared to let go…
When experience helps children learn best, how could it be different for adults. If the teachers experience the sense of “owning- what, how and where you wish to learn” they begin to see the value in it. ISHCMC’s Studio5 inspired us a great deal! We organized a session with our ICT teacher where the idea of agency was introduced in a very learner centric way. Teachers got a firsthand experience of what it means to take ownership of learning… what it looks like and feels like… what it takes to a be teacher in such a set up… how could we still keep an eye on our curriculum and learning objective while students own the process and take “responsibility”.
Trial & error
We co-constructed a model of a ‘Masterclass’ led by & for the students, where students would have the opportunity, space and time to share what they are good at and teachers would experience what ‘letting go actually looks and feels like’. If structure gave them comfort, we decided to structure it initially, later on it becoming a natural practice.
This is what our broad and flexible framework looked like—
Sharing and Learning sessions led by the students
Why do we want this? (Purpose)
- Promote autonomy and agency through sharing and learning
- Contribute to resilience, executive skills and self-efficacy
- Even out the power equation in the classroom
How will it happen? (Process)
- Students choose what they want to share (a skill, craft or knowledge) with their peers in any way they feel like
- Every week 3-4 students volunteer to share, and rest of the class signs up for any one master class
- Teachers to confer with the volunteers to see ‘what’ they are planning and ‘how’ – only to be aware of their plans and help them think through – certainly not to modify or change it!
What do we need? (Structure)
- We will require one lesson per week to be allotted for this sharing and learning
- These sessions could be happening in different areas – corridors, classrooms, outdoors etc.
The students were super-excited with this ‘time and space’ to share what they know and can do. They planned for their sessions with such meticulousness that the adults were left in awe! They spent time in school and at home figuring out what they ‘know best’ and can ‘teach’ their peers. Soon we had a flurry of ‘Little Master trainers’ teaching their peers classical and western dance steps, origami, cricket tactics, calligraphy, cooking, an instrument, chess, art … and the list is endless. They organized all the resources they would need with such forethought and detail that we wondered if they were the same 7-10 years old that we thought were dependent on us (and their parents). Their parents were equally surprised to see the amount of effort these children were putting at home to look for the right material that would make their class ‘effective’.
This process led the entire school community (teachers, students, parents) through a process of reflection and self-realization- leading to a shift in thinking.
We saw students as competent and capable learners who can decide and plan on their own. The ones who hardly took interest in class activities also found their space and worked hard for it. Our perception of these children changed. We learnt how rewarding ‘letting go’ can be…
We can choose what we want to share (and learn) and seek help from teachers and parents only when we think we are stuck. We picked up so many skills along the way by teaching as well as learning…
Children are capable and can organize and take responsibility when they own the plan AND the process. They are not as helpless as we see them.
Each class has added its own flavor and unique name to these Masterclasses – Freaky Friday; Whacky Wednesday; Talented Tuesday – depending upon the day they would like to conduct it. That’s agency.
And so, our learning journey continues. Over the past three years, we managed to scratch the surface and will continue to dig deeper until agentic learning comes more organically to our school community.
PYP Coordinator at Pathways School, Vandana Parashar has been a primary educator for over 16 years in international schools from New Delhi to Tokyo. She believes in constantly engaging with research and innovation that leads to rethinking and questioning the existing norms in education. Passionate about self-directed learning and collaboration, she works towards empowering children with the right tools and mindset to keep them excited about learning and life. You can follow her on Twitter @Vandysays and her school @PathwaysSchools.