Tag Archives: Learner Agency

Student Agency – What is it and why should teachers/parents care?

What Is It?

In the social sciences, agency is defined as ‘the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices’ or ‘an individual’s will and capacity to act’. Therefore, student agency can be most simply defined as “learners having the power to learn independently and make their own free choices about their learning”.

Core education suggests that there are three features to understanding learner agency. I think that the three features that Core education outline are useful to consider and reflect upon. The three features are as follows:

Agency involves the initiative or self-regulation of the learner. The notion of agency isn’t simply about handing control over to the learner – a sort of abdication model – it involves a far greater tapestry of intentionality on the part of schools and teachers to create that context and environment where the learners are actively involved in the learning.  Second, agency is interdependent. It’s 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 thirdly, agency includes an awareness of the responsibility of ones own actions on the environment and on others. 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.

Agency fits naturally with school specific curricula. One way schools can encourage learners to exercise agency is by focusing learning on local environmental and community-based problems. For example, Schools located near farm land learning about the nitrogen cycle and its impact on plant and grass growth as part of the Science curriculum. Through school specific curricula, personalised and self directed learning can begin to truly occur. As learners see areas of interest around them, in their own world, they are naturally drawn to find out more about the particular phenomena.

JESS3_Blackboard_EngagingtheActiveLearner

 Why Should Teachers/Parents Care?

What impact does agency have on learning/learners? Why is schooling/the education system heading this way? Is it just another passing fad?

Think about when you learnt how to ride a bike. Did you learn to ride your bike because someone sat you down and told you that it was time for you to learn to ride? Or did you learn to ride your bike because you were excited and really wanted to do it yourself? What was your motivation like? I bet you tried and tried, pestering someone more experienced than you to help, until you finally left those training wheels behind and could feel the wind in your hair, well helmet depending on how old you are.

Learning is learning, it doesn’t matter if you are learning how to ride a bike or how the hydrological cycle works. If one has interest and autonomy of what and when one learns the experience is going to be more meaningful and rewarding. The implication here is that if we want students to become more engaged and excited about what they are learning they should have a part to play in the content they learn.

Zone of Proximal Development and The Vygotskian Framework

I can hear my lecturer from the 300 level Human Development paper I took, from over a decade ago, rejoicing at the fact that I am about to write about Lev Vygotsky. Vygotsky was well before his time and had, in his day, unique ideas about the way individuals learn.

Vygotsky’s four principles around how individuals learn, known also as the Vygotskian Framework are as follows:

1 Individuals construct their knowledge.

2 Development can not be separated from its social context.

3 Learning can lead development.

4 Language plays a central role in mental development.

How is the Vygotskian Framework applied in classrooms today?

Lev Vygotsky believed 4 basic principles underlie learning. Principles that wouldn’t sound to out of place in a classroom today where educators encourage agency, autonomy, contextualised and authentic learning. Fortunately, Vygotsky taught in a classroom setting. (Wertsch, J.V, 1991). This expereience undoubtably gave Vygotsky an insight into how to connect his theories with practical application in the classroom. To better understand Vygotsky’s theories we must think about principles that underpin many educators philosophy towards teaching toady – agency, autonomy, contextualised and authentic learning.

Student Agency – Students live, learn and play in a media saturated world. Often students are told what to think, how to act by the media. As educators, surely we are wanting students to have the a clear understanding of what they know and how they can construct knowledge for themselves – moving themselves forward as learners (Briceño, E, 2013).

imgresLev Vygotsky (1896-1934)

Briceño, E (2013) Mindsets and Student Agency. Unboxed online. A Journey of Adult Learning in Schools.

Wertsch, J.V. (1991) Voices of the mind: A sociocultural approach to mediated action. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

 

 

Who’s in the driving seat?

During our second Teacher Only Day, Anna Stephenson who was our facilitator gave out a reading by Watkins (2009) entitled ‘Learners in the Driving Seat’. The reading looks at who is responsible for students’ learning and how young students can take the lead in their own learning. You can view the article here: Learners in the driving seat – Watkins (2009). I am looking forward to trialling an idea with my class on day one – Ask the students to point at the ceiling with their index finger and then ask them to point at who is responsible for their learning. I am looking forward to taking pictures of this that we can, as a class, reflect back on later in the year. It is my hope that some of the students that I had last year point at themselves, but time will tell:-)

Watkins’ reading was a confirmation of sorts that the professional development/leadership that I had been planning for my team was heading in the correct direction. Last year, after reading about student agency, visiting various schools that promote student autonomy and attending educamp2014 I decided that I wanted to give students greater control over what they learnt in my classroom.

During Term 4 I trialled running small groups where students could opt into what was being taught. If the students decided to attend the small group and realised that they new the content they were free to leave. Of course, there were varying degrees of autonomy depending on the student; however, I felt that this approach worked very well. It was interesting to anecdotally note that motivation of the class improved as a result of being able to choose when and what they studied within the context of a wider topic.

Following on from this, I decided that I would like to try this approach on a wider scale. As part of our team teacher inquiry, which each teaching team has control over, I decided I would like to look at creating greater student agency/autonomy in 2015.

Aa part of the session with Anna, we were asked to think about what our team inquiry would look like. I was conscious of wanting to develop interest and motivation for the topic with the rest of my team members rather than telling the team what we would be inquiring about. I think that team ‘by in’ is massively important when looking at new initiatives/ideas.

After some explanation of my thinking and showing the rest of the team The Learning Pyramid they were excited about the idea of creating greater student agency across the team.Learning-Pyramid

Realising that this could be a massive inquiry for a team which has a third year teacher and a PRT 1 we decided to narrow our approach to the maths curriculum. Hopefully this would be beneficial from two aspects, firstly it will give us a more focussed approach and secondly it will give us concrete data to use and compare when studying the effectiveness of our inquiry.

I am thoroughly looking forward to implementing some of the ideas, readings and thinking that I have done over the Christmas holidays within my class and team.

PS: I tried the activity today from Learners in the driving seat (Watkins, 2009) with the students in my class and interestingly there was a correlation between the contributing schools my Year 7 had attended previously and who/where they ended up pointing. I was pleased that about 80% of my Year 8 students pointed at themselves. When asked to discuss who they pointed at and why, one of my Year 8 girl’s said that she pointed at herself because “You can take a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink” which I thought was very insightful comment/reflection.