Supporting Students’ Agency

My students and I were recently asked to Skype into a PYP workshop to share examples of how student agency works in our classroom.

In preparation, we brainstormed everything this year that contributed to students experiencing a sense of ownership over their own learning. In addition to sharing our story with the participants of the workshop, I thought I’d also share the list with you!

So here it goes… a list of ways to support student agency:

What they think…

Setting up the classroom

Student shared that being invited to help set-up the classroom at the beginning of the year helped them to have a voice in decisions about their learning and how the classroom could be set-up to support their learning.

Making decisions together

Students reflected that being able to participate in decisions usually made by the teacher helped them feel like they had a voice. The specifically pointed out our classroom board where they could identify problems, ideas, and questions. The explained how the routine we had each morning going through the board and collectively solving problems, agreeing on ideas and answering questions helped them experience more control over in their lives as students.

Pre-assessments

Students identified the pre-assessments (or time capsules) we do at the beginning of each unit as playing a role in helping them to own their own learning. They explained that the pre-assessments help them know themselves and what they already know and can do before a unit starts. This helps them know where they are and where they need to go.

Choice and Trust

Students shared the importance of choice and trust in feeling agentic. Choice in where to learn, how to learn and who to learn with were identified as factors that helped them have agency in their learning. They also shared the importance of having trust from their teacher to test out different options and space to make mistakes and wrong choices along the way.  It was often experiencing choices that blocked or hindered their learning that had the biggest impact on getting to know themselves as learners.

         

Three-way conferences

Students reflected that our approach to three-way conferences also helped support their sense of student agency. Being able to share their thoughts and perspectives about their own learning first – before hearing from their parent or teacher – helped them feel the sense that the learning is theirs.

Planning their own day

Far and beyond, the one thing that students identified as helping them experience the most agency as learners was the opportunity to plan their own day. This has been a ongoing experiment and has taken many forms along the way – but the main idea is having students write their own day plans.

(I plan on writing a full post about this experience soon!)

Creativity Thursday

One specific version of students planning their own day is Creativity Thursday. Students explained that this provided them with the most ownership over their own learning – because unlike other days when they are planning their days around teacher planned units or school-chosen curricula – on Thursdays they have ultimate choice over not only when, how and where to learn, but also what to learn. On Thursday they are able to truly pursue passions, interests and curiosity of their own choosing.

What I think…

Learning about learning

I believe that investing the first month of school to learn about learning and learn about ourselves as learners set the stage well for students to feel empowered and capable of exercising ownership over their learning for the rest of the year.

Assessment

In addition to pre-assessments, our approach to assessment in general this year has helped students to feel more agency in their learning. Approaching assessment as something you do with students – not to students – has helped them experience more ownership and voice in the process of assessing and evaluating their learning.

Learning Plans

Taking the time to purposefully plan out their learning, based on personal learning goals has also helped students be in charge of their own learning. Taking data from pre-assessments and planning what they wanted to learn, how they wanted to learn, how they were going to get feedback and how they will know if they achieved their learning goal really put them in the driver’s seat of their own learning.

Learning from each other

Building a culture where students see one another as valuable sources of learning, assistance and feedback has also helped students to be able to take ownership of pursuing learning through multiple avenues – not only depending on the teacher in the room.

Shifting from mandatory to optional 

This year, as much as possible, I have tried to move away from things that are mandatory for students (often decided, organized and arranged by their teacher). I tried to take things that students are usually obliged to participate in, and reimagine a way to make them optional. Our approach to reading buddies is one example of this.

Supporting student initiatives

I think it has been important to try and create a culture of initiative. Whether it is an idea to label to garbage cans, the desire for a height poster or a proposal for a field trip, I believe that honouring and supporting students’ initiatives this year, both inside and outside of the classroom, have help students notice and be aware of their own agency. It often comes at the cost of a “pinterest-perfect” classroom, but it is worth it!

   

Teacher transparency

I think it has also been important that I share my goals to develop student agency with my class. I think there should be no “secret teacher business” and that my students, their parents, my colleagues and administrators can all have a part to play in helping me work towards my goal. Being open and honest about my goals was a great first step, but then taking the initiative to ask for feedback about my goals was really what helped me reflect and grow along the way.

I am by no means an expert on the matter. Just a curious and interested learner who has tried to take risks and reflect in the pursuit of building a classroom that honours student agency. I’d love to continue my journey as a learner and hear from you as well!

How do you respect and support student agency in your classroom?

Are our authentic assessments truly “authentic”?

Most educators around the world are currently committed to creating “authentic” assessments. A way to measure students’ learning in a “real life” way.

But here are some examples of authentic assessments I have seen or heard about:

“pretend you are a designer”

“imagine you write for a magazine”

I began to wonder… if we are asking students to pretend to be or do something in their “authentic” assessment, isn’t that by nature inauthentic?

So I looked up the definition of the word “authentic”…

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and the word “inauthentic”…

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It seems like if we are asking our students to do something that is not real, accurate, true or sincere then it’s not really authentic. We’re merely mimicking what happens in the real world, without allowing our students to participate in or contribute to the actual real world.

I’m not discounting that these types of assessment tasks are an improvement from traditional tests and quizzes, but calling them “authentic” might be a bit of a stretch. I think if we are asking students to pretend to be or do something, then that’s quasi-authentic or pseudo-authentic at best.

Should we settle for quasi or psuedo-authentic tasks? Or should we be aiming for truly authentic ways for students to demonstrate their learning and apply new skills?

I vote the latter.

In this day and age, with the help of technology, students don’t need to pretend to be bloggers, magazine writers, podcasters, advocates, speakers, inventors, creators, designers, teachers, publishers….

they can actually be and do those things. Authentically.

Forced feedback or found feedback?

Feedback.

One of the it words of education today and probably something most educators around the world seem to agree about – that feedback impacts learning. But I wonder if our obsession with feedback has us so focused on the potential impact of feedback, that we are forgetting to question the context and conditions of that feedback.

This tweet from @justintarte provoked my thinking about this:

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Are we forcing our feedback upon students or are we empowering students to own their learning and find feedback in order to help themselves grow and improve?

This got me thinking about training I received last year to become an instructional coach for teachers. The biggest takeaway from the course was that instructional coaching needed to be optional in order to be most effective. Teachers needed to seek out a coach by choice because feedback for their teaching was more powerful and impactful when it was something they were looking for on their own accord. Something done by them, not something done to them.

…gathered, not given.

…found, not forced.

This means the difference between a coach scheduling a meeting with a teacher and telling them “here is what you need to do in order to get better” and a teacher requesting a meeting with a coach and asking them “what can I do to get better?”

So if we acknowledge and protect that for adult-learners, why are we not doing the same for child-learners?

As teachers, are we scheduling a conference with students and telling them “here is what you need to do in order to get better” unsolicited? Or are we empowering students and creating conditions where students request conferences with teachers (and beyond)  so they can ask “what can I do to get better?”

If we believe that feedback is most effective when sought out by the learners themselves, the question for educators then needs to move away from “Are you giving your students feedback?” and towards “How are you empowering your students to understand the purpose and process of gathering feedback?”

Assessment – Caught between two worlds

I have been an educator for 8 years and throughout those years I have learned (and tried) to be more discerning and to question educational practices. My goal – common to many 21st C educators – is to move away from “doing school” and more towards facilitating true learning.

I started my career in the Ontario system of education which provided me with a great foundation. Then I became an IB educator which really pushed and challenged my thinking about teaching and learning. The more my understanding grew and changed, the more I realized that although some of the practices I picked up as a teacher in Ontario could be transposed into my new practice as a PYP teacher, other practices no longer seemed to fit.

And then there are the practices that I’m still not sure about. Sometimes I feel caught between both worlds and have trouble figuring out which “best practices” from non-IB systems support true learning and which merely help students get better at “doing school”.

Many of these conundrums for me center around assessment specifically….

Namely success criteria, exemplars and bump it up walls. 

When I started my teaching career in Ontario I used all three of these things. They helped my students “do well” on summatives. They increased “achievement” in my class. They provided students with a clear pathway to “success” on the rubric. But now I question – were they really helping my students learn? Or were they merely helping my students get better at “doing school”?

I’m not sure, but before I move back into the classroom I sure would like to figure it out!

Should these practices be packed in our “international educator suitcases” when we leave home to be brought with us and transposed into our PYP practice?

 Do these practices truly support learning, or do they just help students “do school” really, really well? 

I’d love to hear your thoughts… 

Learning Time Capsules – shifting the focus from achievement to progress

Here is an example of how one of our Grade 4 teachers is shifting his students’ focus from achievement to progress through the use of a math “time capsule”.

Diagnostic: This teacher looked at all the big concepts the Common Core outlined for fractions in Grade 4 and created open-ended questions to allow students to show what they already knew or thought they knew about each big idea. Students were encouraged to be risk-takers and try every question!

Grade 4 Open Fractions

The teacher then tracked students’ prior knowledge on an excel sheet. This allowed him to plan full group, small group, guided and individual math inquiries based on needs.

Formative: After a few weeks of inquiring into these fraction concepts, the teacher gave back the same task and highlighted questions that students were required to try (based on the concepts that had been learned over the past few weeks in class). Green meant they showed competent understanding the first time they tried the question (during the diagnostic), but could still show extended understanding if they added to it. Pink meant they had not previously attempted it or showed a developing understanding and would need to add or change their answer. Students were encouraged again to be risk-takers and try the questions that were not highlighted, as their new knowledge and understanding might help them figure out concepts that had not yet been explored as a class.

Grade 4 Fraction formative

The teacher then added this formative data to the excel sheet to show the progress each student had made in each area, who was ready for a challenge and who needed more support.

Students were also given the chance to reflect their own understanding of the concepts learned in class so far and indicate which areas they were feeling confident in and which they wish to work on more. The teacher also filled in the same feedback sheet which highlighted his perspective on what the student did well and what they could still practice. This feedback was shared with parents along with recommendations for support at home.

Stars and Wishes Template

Summative: At the end of the Unit, the teacher gave the same task back and the students were instructed try every question in order to show their final knowledge and understanding. Again the questions were colour coded so students knew which of their answers showed a competent understanding and which answers needed to be added to, changed or attempted. Prior to handing out the time capsule, the class came up with a student generated rubric for each question, indicating what would show a competent or extended answer. Students had access to both an electronic and paper copy of the rubric to help them understand how to be successful at each question

After completing the time capsule, students completed the Visible Thinking Routine “I used to think… Now I think” to reflect on how their thinking about fractions changed from the beginning of the unit to the end of the unit. The time capsule, self-assessment rubric and meta-cognitive reflection were all sent home so students could share their progress with their parents.

Used to think now i think

When the focus is on achievement, students have no choice but to compare their achievement to the achievement of others. But when you place the importance on progress, students focus on how their knowledge and understanding grows and changes over time. Each time the students added to or changed their time capsule it was a visual representation of how their knowledge and understanding had grown and changed. Each student felt successful in his or her own way because they could see the progress they made over the course of the unit.

How do you help your students focus on progress and growth?

We tuned in!

Before our Units of Inquiry started, grade-level teams inquired into “tuning in” (with the help of  this post from Kath Murdoch). Many teachers walked away with a new, or deeper, understanding of the purpose behind the “tuning in” phase of inquiry. Teachers were excited to put their new learning into practice… here is how it turned out in our Grade 1 to 5 classes:

Grade 1: Peaceful relationships are created through mutual understanding and respect.

Students tuned in to problems and solutions:

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Students tuned in to the concept of numbers:

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Grade 2: Citizens build communities.

Students tuned in to the concepts of “community” and “citizenship”:

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Grade 3: Decisions impact conseqeunces.

Students tuned in to “decisions” and “consequences”:

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Students shared important decisions they made in their life:

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Students tuned in to decisions made by readers:

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Students tuned in to the decisions they make as mathematicians:

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Students tuned in to the number of decisions they make:

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Teachers tuned in to the type of decisions they make:

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Grade 4: Relationships are affected by learning about people’s perspectives and communicating our own. 

Students tuned in to the concepts of perspective and relationships:

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Students tuned in to different representations of numbers:

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Grade 5: Relationships among human body systems contribute to health and survival. 

Students (and teachers) tuned in to the concept of systems:

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Students tuned in to what they think they know about body systems:

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I love that the students’ thinking is front and centre!

I love that the students’ thinking is visible!

I love that students were able to demonstrate their thinking in a variety of ways!

I love that teachers tuned into conceptual understandings, not just topic knowledge! 

I love that transdisciplinarity is evident!

I love that teachers were acting as inquiries themselves… doing reconnaissance to find out about what their students bring to a Unit of Inquiry!

The feedback from teachers about “tuning in” has been great! Teachers are excited because they have learned about their students’ prior knowledge, their misconceptions, their interests and their questions. It has not only provided them with diagnostic assessment data, but also a road map that illuminates “where to next?” based on students’ needs and interests! I can’t wait to see where these inquires lead!

How do you “tune in” to your students’ thinking?

Report Cards for Teachers: Are we afraid to ask?

Should teachers get report cards? A place to communicate what teachers have done well and what they can work on?

I think so!

But not a report card from their administrators…

A report card from their students!

As teachers we spend tons of time working on report cards to communicate strengths, areas for growth and next steps for our students. But if we are truly learners first and teachers second, shouldn’t we want to hear what our strengths, areas for growth and next steps are as teachers? And who better to tell us, than our students themselves!?

My first year in the classroom, I asked my students to write me report cards at the end of the year. Their feedback was so useful, that I was upset I couldn’t use their suggestions until the new school year! So my second year in the classroom, I had my students do a mid-way report card to let me know how I was doing and this time I was able to take their feedback and use it to become a better teacher for the remainder of the year. From there, I got into the habit of having my students write me a report card every time I wrote them a report card.

Here is the template I used with my Grade 2s:

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The feedback alone was worth it. It helped me realize how my students saw me. It helped me understand what helped them learn. It helped me reflect on what I need to change and develop in order to serve them better.

More than that, it created an amazing shared purpose. I was responsible for helping them to become better students and they were responsible for helping me to become a better teacher. We were all teachers and we were all learners.

Some teachers might be apprehensive to give their students a chance to do this.

But why?

Who better to help us grow professionally than the people we are trying to serve? Who better to know what our students need than.. our students? What better way can we create a community of learners than to invite students’ feedback to help us grow?

What are we afraid of reading on those report cards?

And more importantly… 

If we are nervous to see what feedback our students may have for us, then that might be a warning bell that we need to re-evaluate some of our classroom practices and approaches to teaching and learning.

Let’s aim to be the type of teachers who can confidently and openly invite constructive feedback from our students.

After all, they are the reason we do what we do. So let’s listen to what they have to say.