Agency in the time of COVID

I’ve started to receive some messages in my Twitter inbox asking my personal opinions about how us agency-supportive educators can stay true to our beliefs and philosophies this upcoming year despite the unique circumstances and constraints of how we are returning to school. These requests have engendered much deep thought and reflection throughout my summer holiday; despite my best efforts to shut-off and re-charge!

Instead of sharing my thoughts just with them individually via Twitter messages, I decided to share my thinking here, with all of you – in hopes of opening up a larger dialogue as an education community.

DISCLAIMER: I have no magic answers.

All I can do is share my thinking at the moment.

And then I hope you do the same.

So we can all learn and grow together and keep the global momentum for respecting and supporting student agency going, even during these uncertain, challenging (and likely more restrictive) times.

Regardless of health and safety protocols or whether we are face to face or online (or some sort of hybrid combination of both!) here is my perspective on where there might be space and opportunity this year for continuing to nurture learners’ agency:

  1. Prioritize their humanness – Now more than ever we must see, understand and respect our learners as human beings.  Definitely, their academic growth and development is still important; but it shouldn’t be the only thing on meeting agendas and day plans. This is a year where have to honor, prioritize and advocate for their physical well being, emotional and mental health, physical needs, and social development. We need to respect that they (like all of us) have gone through change, uncertainty, and potentially loss and trauma. Now more than ever we must see them as whole human beings – not partially complete adults-in-the-making.
  2. No secret teacher business – This is year there will likely be many new restrictions, special parameters and constraints in place; rightfully so, for the health and wellbeing of the community. Why not bring learners into the conversation? Make the “why” transparent. Take the time to discuss the reasons, purposes and benefits behind the decisions that have been made in these unique times.
  3. Democratic decision making (where possible) – Although this year many additional decisions will be made by leaders, administrators, boards, ministries and governments there will still be many decisions that rest with the teacher. Why not share those decisions with your learners? How best can we use the time we’ve been allocated? How can we still collaborate while needing to be 2 meters apart? What games can we play where we can keep our distance and don’t need equipment? What should the order of our units be? What online tools and resources might help our inquiry? Obviously, the specifics of the questions depends on your age of learners, subject, and unique context – but the idea of inviting and involving learners in the decisions that are still up for grabs can apply to all.
  4. Be intentional with making space and time for their voice – Make school (whether face-to-face- or virtual) a time and place where they know they will be heard. Specifically have a plan for their questions, ideas, problems; things they want to talk about out; perspectives and opinions and philosophies they’ve developed these past months; their reality, experiences, hopes and fears. Why not have a dedicated whiteboard somewhere in the physical or virtual classroom for this? Or a specific Padlet? Perhaps a daily Flip Grid? Or an infinite Google Form? Or carve out a designated community meeting time?  Somewhere and somehow intentional;  where their voice is not an add-on or interruption to the learning. Somewhere where their voice is seen and respected as an important part of the learning.
  5. Meet ’em where they are… and move ’em along – now more than ever we need to be critical of the “should be” approach to curriculum. Many agency-supportive educators are always critical of trying to standardize learning, achievement and human beings; but the current reality has amplified the tenuous nature of this curriculum model. What learning and progress was able to be made for each learner in the final months of last year’s school year differs learner to learner and has many variables – family situation, access to technology, health, language – just to name a few. Now more than ever we need to take the approach of understanding learners’ current knowledge, understanding and skills and helping them progress and grow from where they actually are. Regardless of if that is where they are “supposed to be” or if they are “ahead” or “behind”.
  6. Stay critical about what’s worth learning – the world has changed, but for many of us, our curriculum hasn’t. Many of us are going back to the same documents that contain the same outcomes and standards that were “critical” a year ago. But what’s worth learning now? What has risen in importance? What has declined in importance? What has presented itself, that wasn’t acknowledged before? What was there before, but now seems less relevant and significant? Getting discussions going about what’s worth learning with colleagues, your learners, their parents is also a great step towards exploring different paradigms of curriculum (like co-constructed and emergent approaches).
  7. Plan in response to learning – As PYP and inquiry-based educators we should always be planning in response to learning, but now more than ever, this approach makes the most sense. We don’t know where our learners are in their learning journey… Many of us don’t know if or how long we will be face-to-face or on-line… and none of us know what the future holds. So although it can be difficult to let go of those perfectly laid out curriculum maps and long range plans and unit designs… we might find that this year, getting to know our learners and their families first, then involving them in decision-making and planning and always going one step at a time might be a more fruitful approach.
  8. Explore the concepts of individual freedom and collective responsibility – Every country around the world is engaged in their own inquiry and exploration of the balance between an individual’s freedom and their responsibility to the collective wellbeing. Why not explore these same concepts within the context of your classroom. Where does individual freedom supersede collective responsibility in your learning community? Where does collective responsibility supersede individual freedom in your learning community? How does the interplay between those two concepts manifest in some of the changes learners are experiencing at school this year? What is their experience with this in their home country? How do they feel about it? What are their opinions? Do they have any suggestions? Agency-supportive educators often naturally find themselves trying to figure out how best to navigate these concepts anyway, but now more than ever the conversation is globally relevant.
  9. Use your language as your compass – the words and phrases we use when speaking to and about learners can be a very interesting barometer to reveal where our own and one another’s thoughts and practices are in relation to our learners’ agency. How often are we saying “make them” “force them” “allow them”? What does that reveal about our thinking? Beliefs? Philosophies? Decisions? Constraints? Contexts? When are these words and phrases in relation to the issues above (health and safety; wellbeing of the community etc.) and when are they not? If we are wondering where we’ve held our course and where we might have strayed – the answers will likely be found in our language.
  10. When in doubt… ask your learners –  How can we ensure choice this year? How can we ensure voice this year? How can we ensure ownership this year? It is second nature of us as educators to ask these questions of ourselves, of our colleagues, and of our leaders, administrators and coaches… by how often do we ask those same questions directly to our learners. Be transparent about your goal to respect and their support their agency in light of  the additional parameters and restrictions. Ask them how you are doing with this goal. Ask for their ideas, feedback, suggestions when it comes to amplifying their choice, voice and ownership in their learning and their learning community this year.

Did anyone else notice I used the phrase “now more than ever” in almost every section? That was not intentional! But I think it might be revealing…

Revealing that this year – as we go back to whatever re-opening plan our school or district has in store – not only are agency-supportive practices prefered, but they may actually end up being essential. Essential in order to give our learners the support that they deserve. Essential in order to surf the waves of uncertainty and change. Essential in order to maximize the learning in consideration of each learner’s unique needs, challenges and situations during this global pandemic.

So maybe we won’t be able to have 120 learners freely flowing through an open-concept, student-designed learning studio, mixing with different groups of peers and interacting with different adults… but I believe there is still lots of space – regardless of the constraints and parameters – to see and respect children as human beings, invite and involve them in their learning and the decisions that impact their lives, and make school a place where learning is relevant, significant, challenging and engaging for each learner.

What do YOU think?

What would YOU add to the list?

Where do YOU see space for agency-supportive practices this year?

2 thoughts on “Agency in the time of COVID

  1. Maira Britto Namura August 13, 2020 / 8:39 pm

    Hello there,

    I am a pre-k teacher in a IB school situated in São Paulo, Brazil.

    I am so thankful for your blog. It is really great to be remembered that we can always do more for our children.

    Agency is a concept I am still working on, but as I read your text, I feel that I have been doing more than I thought,

    Little ones are always heard and always given space to speak about anything they want. We also have been planning activities where they can be the “teacher” such as reading a book to a peer and the teachers, telling us about a recipe they like to do at home and other things.

    We have also reached some families by asking them to give space to their children, because some parents were “stressed” during lessons and pushing their children to answer and do things as they expect.

    Thank you so much for sharing your reflections!

    kind regards,
    Maíra

    Like

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