“Agency” and the UOI

For any of you playing around with the concept of student agency in a PYP school, you will likely know the stress and struggle of trying to negotiate the interplay between what students want to learn, with what teachers, schools, and systems have decided they have to learn.

Much cognitive dissonance and feelings of hypocrisy stem from standing in front of students saying “You own your own learning! We trust you! Follow your own passions, interests and curiosities!…… buuuuut make sure you’re meeting the learning outcomes that have been pre-determined for you in the units we have designed for you within the timelines we have set for you.

Much frustration also stems from walking around and seeing the students “not doing what they’re supposed to be doing” – regardless of autonomy over where they learn, when they learn, how they learn, who they learn with, how they share their learning… at the end of the day – if you look through the layers of choice –  we are still expecting them to learn what we want them to learn.

So can we blame them if they don’t care as much as we do?

Anytime we as teachers sit behind closed doors in planning meetings and design units for our students and then “hand the unit over to the students” we run the risk of pseudo-agency…. where we are saying students have ownership of their learning, but don’t really.  Or don’t fully.

And although it feels better than the traditional approach to education (because students are experiencing more choice than normal)… it still doesn’t feel quite right. And it makes you very hesitant to use words like “agency”.

Even when my team and I have tried to design a unit that is concept-based with a very open central idea that offers as much content choices as possible, at the end of the day we find that it is still too teacher planned… too teacher controlled… too teacher driven. 

So we’ve decided to stop planning their units of inquiry.

And instead, start helping them to plan their own units of inquiry.

At first we were going start the way many PYPXs start… by showing the students a Transdisciplinary Theme and asking them which part they are most interested in.

But then we decided that was not good enough. So we decided that we were going to try and flip that process.

As our PYP Coordinator says: Child first. Curriculum second. 

We are still in the early phases of planning this process, but we’ve begun to brainstorm some ideas.

Here is what we know so far:

  • We are going to be transparent with our students about our frustrations regarding pseudo-agency within a UOI
  • We are going to share Daniel Pink’s work about motivation and admit that although autonomy is in place, mastery and purpose are lacking (our fault)
  • We are going to take time to support students to identify their passion/purpose/interest
  • We are going to find/develop puroseful processes to help students do this
  • We are going to help students bend the Transdisciplinary Themes around their passion/purpose/interest
  • We are going to go through the process ourselves first
  • We are going to create a student-friendly PYP bubble planner (based around the guiding questions for “Planning the Inquiry” and also “Reflecting on the Inquiry”)
  • We are going to help students to set their own UOI timelines

Is this true agency?

Still, no.

But are we getting closer?

It sure feels like it!

Any maybe that’s the best we can do for now – within the current constraints we have as a PYP school.

(Until we’re ready as a PYP community to critically look at and break the mould of needing “units” in the first place…dun dun dun!)

Wish us luck! 

10 thoughts on ““Agency” and the UOI

  1. Alexandra November 6, 2017 / 6:57 pm

    Sounds super exciting! Not sure I would dare but I love the idea. Looking forward to hearing all about it on your blog. Thanks, Alex


    • tbondclegg November 7, 2017 / 5:58 am

      Thanks for the support, Alex! I’ll be sure to share the journey – good, bad be ugly!


  2. Sonya terBorg November 7, 2017 / 4:10 am

    Pseudo-agency. You have really put into words the crux of what we were talking about – and more! I love this approach and the flip from curriculum to children first. Deeply interested in your process which I know you will document with your unfailing honesty and clarity and reflection. Will be following closely! When you say “we’re going to go through the process first” what does this mean? What will you be doing?


    • tbondclegg November 7, 2017 / 6:01 am

      Thanks Sonya! Our conversations from Learning2 really stuck with me! And yes, I will share the process as it unfolds.
      What I meant by we’lol try it first – is that what ever process we find/develop for students to tune into their own passions, we as teachers will try it first with ourselves to see how it feels. Then how ever we decide to support students in planning their own units based on their passions, again we as teachers will test that process out first. Hopefully this helps develop empathy for how difficult it is and how long it takes to truly identify and plan for plersonal learning.


  3. Mark (@PypMark) November 30, 2017 / 9:36 pm

    Brilliant post, and your final comment about breaking the mould of needing “units” was very interesting. I’m currently teaching second grade and our units just connect so well, in many different ways. Because of this, my students are continually linking their thinking back and forth and on many occasions we find ourselves in previous units and just going with it, pulling up previous central ideas and questioning ‘old’ lines of inquiry. But then unwillingly, I cut this short as we are not in that unit and need to get back to what we are supposed to be doing. I’d be interested to have your feedback on this and to know whether it’s in line with your thinking about breaking the mould of needing “units”.


  4. Judy Imamudeen December 3, 2017 / 10:21 am

    Love this! You are spot on- and you gave me an idea for this week with the students as we begin planning a new UOI. Thanks for reminding me the importance of their perspective. Virtual High five from Laos.


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