Supporting Children’s Agentic Identities through the Approaches to Learning

This piece draws from experiences in an early childhood PYP context in Switzerland.  Reflections are shared on ways the Approaches to Learning have the potential to be powerful tools for supporting children’s agentic identities with a particular focus on environments, experts and teacher talk. 

Supporting Children's Agentic Identities through the Approaches to Learning

By Andrea Mills 

Young children were invited to share reflections about what it means to be a RESEARCHER:  

“It’s somebody who like discovers or investigates stuff. Like we are like scientists. Like we find stuff out.” – K., aged 4 

“We look at the trees and maybe they changed. Maybe they’re pink now. Maybe we can write it down.” – R., aged 3 

“We need the right stuff like maybe those glasses [magnifying glasses].” – K., aged 4 

“Maybe if I get the idea of something. Maybe I get it in a book or maybe I tell [my sister] I’m going to be the one who knows it. Who found it out.” – D., aged 4

These reflections by three- and four-year-olds are ideas that have been thoughtfully cultivated as part of in-depth inquiries and a classroom culture that actively seeks to nurture a sense of agency. We educators have found that thinking deeply about the Approaches to Learning as tools for supporting children’s identities as scientists, makers, artists, and in the example above, RESEARCHERS has framed how we plan for explorations connected to inquiries. 

The young children’s reflections on what it means to be a researcher make clear that they are quite capable of developing a strikingly self-actualized sense of themselvesWithout hesitation, they identify THEMSELVES as the researchers—citizens of our community who are highly capable as active participants in meaning-making with strong images and identities as learners. 

Supporting Children's Agentic Identities through the Approaches to Learning Many children in our school community are developing English as an additional language, so we educators also bring in other ways for children to share thinking and tell us about who they are as learners. A confident scientific drawing, ease with using materials to represent ideas—these traces of learning give us lots of information about agency, identity and learning. 

 But getting back to those articulately shared ideas about what it means to be a researcher…  As teachers, we have been considering how lines of inquiry and connected proposals to support learning outcomes might be optimized through the lens of the Approaches to learning (ATLs). Playing with the idea of developing the skills of Researcher (or Thinker/Communicator, etc.) as central to planning, we have identified three areas which have had a significant impact, including: Learning EnvironmentsExperts and Language (Teacher Talk). 

“Children are natural scientists, and an open-ended outdoor setting inherently promotes a sense of wonder and a space ripe for questioning, inquiring and theory-building.”

Learning Environments

Supporting Children's Agentic Identities through the Approaches to Learning

For an inquiry into ways of how exploring and caring for the natural environment leads to discovery (Sharing the Planet), much of the “fieldwork” happens in outdoor environments. Dedicated time learning outdoors in the forest, pond and garden provides inspiration for observing, questioning and collecting data. Children are natural scientists, and an open-ended outdoor setting inherently promotes a sense of wonder and a space ripe for questioning, inquiring and theory-building. The outdoors is the ultimate space for developing research skills, but there are others. Classrooms, for instance, have endless potential to support identity and agency. More on that from my far more knowledgeable former colleagues and me here.  

Experts: A Different Approach 

Opportunities to connect with members of the wider community have been important components of many of our inquiries. A visiting musician, an engineer and a professional dancer are just some examples of experts we have hosted. These visits often promote a meaningful exchange of dialogue, sharing of skills and connection. As a team, we have thought a lot about how to optimize these visits. Instead of the traditional invitation to come in and share expertise, we wondered how we might rethink these experiences with a view to reframe the relationship between the children and visiting experts.  

Recently, we were fortunate to have a scientist visit as part of a science focused inquiry. Before the visit, we shared that “Dr. O” was interested in hearing about the children’s work/projects/research and that a professional scientist might have interesting ideas to share back with us. The children were extremely motivated to share an ongoing color mixing project. Dr. O was able to make connections to his work by sharing, among other things, about how his research also takes place in a lab much like our classroom. Of course, this took some preparation and “frontloading” for our guest but he was grateful to have the teachers provide direction and shared how impressed he was with the children’s work and how it made a lot of sense for him to connect to their work and not the other way around. Our aim was to actively cultivate the children’s identities as Researchers/ Scientists by valuing their work in real time as opposed to something precluding the work they might someday aspire to – a shift in the role of expert toward a dialogue between researchers. 

“In thinking about words we use to describe children, we asked ourselves as teachers how this strong image of children as learners might inform the way we speak to children and each other in our classroom communities.”

Language (Teacher Talk)

PYP teachers do lots of thinking about how to support the development of the Learner Profile. In my context, some of us have spent dedicated time developing a shared understanding of young children as capable, curious and motivated to be active participants in their learning. In thinking about words we use to describe children, we asked ourselves as teachers how this strong image of children as learners might inform the way we speak to children and each other in our classroom communities. Circling back to those self-actualized young children/researchers at the beginning of this post, we see that their words are weighted heavily with a sense of agency. They spontaneously employed action verbs like investigatingdiscovering, finding out. They identified themselves as the researchers. They knew what “tools” they required. As teachers, we hope that our conscious use of empowering language contributed to the childrens’ metacognition—their ideas about themselves—as learners.   

For most educators, the day-to-day planning for teaching/learning is a practical, often creative, but usually time-consuming labour of love. The time we set aside to consider the impact our choices have on children’s agentic identities for lifelong learning is also time to appreciate the beautiful work of early childhood education.  

 

Supporting Children’s Agentic Identities through the Approaches to Learning

Andrea Mills currently works as both a Primary Teacher and Atelierista/Arts Specialist at The Inter-Community, Zurich. She is from the US, and has a range of international school experiences. Passionate about play based learning, she is also a trained Forest School Leader and is inspired by the educational projects of Reggio Emilia. 

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3 Responses to Supporting Children’s Agentic Identities through the Approaches to Learning

  1. Helen Morschel 7 January 2021 at 12:05 am #

    Dear Andrea,

    Thank you for sharing this learning snapshot. I love that you have placed ATLs at the heart of the inquiry to have learners inquire both into and through the lens of, in this case ‘research’. This provides so many opportunities for explicitly engaging with (as opposed to teaching) the ATL. So often ATLs are an add on that somehow get lost in the knowledge component of units. Your example also shows how authentic assessment of ATLs naturally follows when they are placed at the heart of learning. I also love that you emphasis how young learners can be stretched to engage with higher order thinking when given the prompts and support.

    I really enjoyed all aspects of your reflections.

    Helen

  2. Rashmi Singh 10 January 2021 at 8:59 am #

    ATLs approach towards optimising learning was quiet helpful . Thank you.

  3. Maria 10 February 2021 at 5:26 pm #

    Hi Andrea, I found this post really inspiring. We are in the midst of creating a play based learning approach in our school and would love to exchange ideas with you. Do you have an email where I can contact you? Thank you.

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