“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! 

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Assessment done with students, not to students

This year I have tried to approach assessment differently. I wanted my students to feel that assessment is something I do with them… not to them.

I have made many shifts in my assessment practices to try and accomplish this goal:

Discussions about assessment

As a class we discussed the difficulty of trying to measure a human’s learning and I shared that there are many different approaches to trying to figure out what a student has learned in school. We discussed a handful of approaches for measuring learning and then we tried each of them out within the context of our unit.

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Co-constructed success criteria

Instead of teachers sitting behind closed doors, deciding what ought to be learned by the end of a unit, I made those decisions collaborative with my students. I used the structure of growing definition where first students brainstorm on their own, then they combine ideas with a partner, then they merge thinking with another set of partners, then a foursome with a foursome and so on until the whole class builds a list together. Once their student list was created, I consulted our school curriculum documented and added any knowledge or concepts they might have left out. This list then became our success criteria that we used throughout the unit.

Student chosen summatives

Teachers and teaching teams spend hours, upon hours, discussing and trying to figure out how students can best show their learning at the end of a unit. This year, instead of choosing that choice for them, I handed that decision over to my students. When we approached the end of the unit, I would ask “How best can you share your learning from this unit?” Some students who felt most comfortable expressing themselves orally would submit a vlog or request a one-on-one conference, other students who felt they best expressed themselves in writing would submit a written text, and others who felt they could best express themselves visually would produce a mind map, or concept map or cartoon – some sort of visual to convey their new thinking and new knowledge.

Triangulation of perspectives

Oftentimes as teachers we are the only – and ultimate – voice of assessment. Sometimes we tokenistically invite self and peer assessment, but rarely are those assessments equally valued. So this year I wanted to take a flatter, more democratic approach to assessment. Whether it was diagnostic, formative or summative, we always followed the same three steps: first the student would assess themselves, next they would find a peer to offer their perspective, then purposefully last, I as the teacher would share my perspective. What they end up with, is three different perspectives… all equally valued.

  

Interchangeability of diagnostic, formatives and summatives

Instead of approaching diagnostic, formative and summative assessments as assessments that you do at the beginning, middle and end of a unit – I took a much more fluid approach. If a student did a diagnostic and demonstrated all the knowledge and skills that were expected they could decide to use that as their summative and then either choose to extend themselves in this area of continue with a personal inquiry of their choice – thus the diagnostic becomes the summative. If partway through the unit a student demonstrates the required knowledge and skills, then that formative can then become their summative and they would have the same choice of extending or free learning. And finally, on the “last day” of the unit if a student completed a summative and had not yet demonstrated the necessary knowledge and skills they could choose to continue to learn, and therefore turn that summative into a formative and re-take the summative at a later time when they felt ready.

Decision making conferences

When it came time to enter “final marks” into the report card, I would sit with each student individually and have a conversation about where they thought they were in their learning. They would look back at the assessment data and tools and share where they thought they were and then I would do the same. Together we would agree on a mark that we both felt comfortable putting on the report card.

Taking it to the next level…

All in all, it was a great change in practice! I think my students felt empowered to have a voice in their learning and in the measurement of their learning. I think students felt their perspectives were respected and valued. And on a personal level, it felt much more humane and much more like a partnership in supporting their learning journey!

Upon reflections from this year and visions for next year, here are a few ways that I would like to take the approach of ‘doing assessment with students’ even further:

Individualized success criteria 

I enjoyed the process of co-constructing success criteria with my students, but to take that further I would love to personalize that process even more and have students design their own individual success criteria. Flipping the question “What should we learn but the end of the unit?” more towards “What should I (or do I want to) learn by the end of the unit?” This would open up some great conversations with students about choosing how they might know they have been successful at learning something or acquiring new skills. Here is a blog post with an example of how one teacher approached this.

Beyond triangulation of perspectives

This year I think I did a pretty good job shifting the assessment power away from myself as a teacher, and equally distributing it between myself, the student and a peer. However, I would like to push that model further and perhaps figure out a way to include the perspective of parents, industry experts or community members. I don’t think it would have to be all 6 sources every time. I think there could be a lot of authentic learning in having students decide which assessment perspective is most helpful in a specific situation.

Student written report cards

The only part of the assessment process my students were kept out of this year was reporting. Moving forward I would love to see students take a more equal role in writing their own report cards. Here is a great blog post with some suggestions I hope to be able to follow in the future.

How do you ensure assessment is something done “with students” not “to students” in your classroom or school?

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?

What if?

I started this year with a dream to build a fair, free, democratic classroom where students have agency over their own learning… and to be completely honest, it has been quite difficult. Most days I feel like I am trying to jam a round peg into a square hole. There are so many constraints and structures that run deep within the current system of school, that it has been difficult to circumvent them.

This year I have tried to change my practice to fit within the system, but I’m beginning to wonder if those goals are fully achievable without changing the system itself.

So I have begun to wonder…

What if curriculum, instead of being multiple pages with hundreds of bullets, was simply “find out where students are and help them move along”?

What if assessment, instead of being focused on achievement, measured and celebrated the amount of progress made by a student?

What if school goals, instead of being focused on an percentage increase of reading scores, focused on a percentage increase of love of reading?

What if reports, instead of being written solely by the teacher, were written collaboratively by the student, their family and the teacher?

What if timelines, instead of being based on pre-determined start and finish dates, were driven by students’ learning needs and interests?

What if grades, instead of ranking and labelling with letters, numbers and words, changed exclusively into feedback that advised students about how to improve and where to go next?

What if day plans, instead of being written by the teacher, were written by each student?

What if standardized tests, instead of measuring skills and knowledge, measured how much students enjoy school and find it beneficial to their life?

Sir Ken Robinson urges us that reform of the current system is not enough – it’s a complete learning revolution that is needed. Based on my experience this year I would have to agree. I think that making small shifts within the system is not enough, we as educators need to continue (or for some of us begin)  critically looking at and discussing what parts of the school system are harmful to or a hindrance of student learning. It’s time to stop talking about how best to jam a round peg in a square hole, and time to start talking about how to change the whole itself.

What revolutionary, systemic “what ifs” would you add to the list?

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.

Noticing, naming and not allowing “ready-made knowledge” in the classroom

The first time I came across the term “ready-made knowledge” was when I read the following quote by Seymour Papert:

“The role of the teacher is to create the conditions for invention rather than provide ready-made knowledge” – Papert

Ever since reading that quote I can’t get this notion of providing students with “ready-made knowledge” out of my head. It got me reflecting on my years in the classroom and I realized that like many teachers, I am guilt of providing my students with an endless supply of ready-made knowledge… and not much else. Worksheets, workbooks, textbooks, readers…. Knowledge that has been decontextualized, oversimplified and often sterilized.

Our students deserve better.

This notion of ready-made knowledge reminds me of a picture I came across recently on Twitter.

orange in packaging

Like selling peeled oranges in plastic containers, I am beginning to think that pre-packaging knowledge for students is silly, time-consuming and above all else – completely unnecessary.

This year I aim to shift my search for resources away from pre-packaged, made for school, sources of knowledge. This may have you nervously wondering “Then what will students use to learn?” To answer that I ask you in return (as I have asked myself while reflecting on this idea) “What do the rest of us use to learn?” Answer – tweets, YouTube videos, TedTalks, podcasts, news articles, blog posts, research journals, interviews, documentaries… and the list goes on.

So I’ve begun to curate a list of potential learning resources that could be helpful to support our Units of Inquiry this upcoming year. I started a Google Doc and listed the main concepts for our six UOIs and anytime I come across a tweet, a video, an article, or a podcast this summer that relates to one of our concepts I added a link to the doc. I will continue to do this throughout the year. This way when it comes time for a new UOI I will have a collection of sources of knowledge  to chose from that have not been ready-made for student consumption.

Here is what it looks like so far:

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Are these sources free of bias and error? Absolutely not! But that makes them even more valuable. They provide opportunities for discussions about critical thinking, critical literacy, perspective, sourcing, citations and the like. These are essential skills to be developed because these are the types of sources of knowledge students will be encountering in their real life that they will need to be able to decode, deconstruct, analyze and make informed decisions about… not worksheets and workbooks.

I look forward to letting go of years-worth collections of school-land learning resources and instead replacing them with the same sources of knowledge that people are exposed to in their daily lives. I also look forward to sharing this Google Doc with my students so they can add resources they come across during their inquires too!

What sources of ready-made knowledge have you used in your own teaching?

How do you avoid pre-packaged knowledge in your classroom?

What questions or suggestions do you have for me to stretch my thinking further?

Who should be writing the day plans?

In most classrooms, the writing of the day plans is a job done exclusively by the teacher. Each afternoon, after the students leave, teachers around the world sit at their desk and decide what their students should learn the next day and how their students are going to learn it.

In my opinion, handing over the writing of the day plants to our students is one of the best ways we as teachers can tap into student voice, student choice, student agency, student autonomy and student ownership of learning.

Here is how I envision it happening:

  1. Let them in behind the scenes – if you are lucky enough to work at a school where students are trusted to choose what they want to learn about and when, you have the luxury of ignoring this first step! For the majority of us though, we have standardized curricula, collaboratively created units of inquiry and reporting timelines to consider. Why consider them alone? Invite students to inquire into their curriculum and what the powers that be have decided they should be able to know and do by the end of the grade. Share with them the learning outcomes that have been pre-decided for a specific unit. Be transparent about what knowledge and skills will need to be reported on and by when.
  2. Discuss ‘learning’ – If students are going to be making choices about what they learn, when they learn and how they learn, it is probably a good idea to help them make informed decisions. Conduct a class inquiry into learning. Look at the different ways human learn. Discuss the different things humans learn about and learn to do. Brainstorm lists of approaches to learning that can be posted and referred to somewhere in the classroom.
  3. Come up with shared expectations – As a class, decide what is reasonable when planning a day. Should reading, writing, listening and speaking appear everyday? What about math? Should there be a minimum time spent on each? How will breaks work? Can you make changes to your plan throughout the day? Is play a respected part of the day?
  4. Share your template – At the end of every day, carve out a chunk of time where students can plan their own upcoming day. For students who prefer paper, make a copy of your empty day plan (with specialist classes already blocked out) and for students who prefer to work electronically, push out an excel version or Google Sheet.
  5. Offer optional workshops  – Figure out the needs of your class and in response to those needs, offer optional workshops and collaborative inquiries. Post the purpose, content and time of the workshops and inquiries when students are planning their day so students who are interested in participating can account for the workshops on their day plans.
  6. Offer optional conference times – When you are not offering optional workshops and inquiries, make yourself available for individual conferences. Conferences could be requested for a number of reasons – for reading, writing, math, inquiry guidance, personal reasons or even to play together! Post the times when you will be available for conferences when students are planning their day so they can make a note of when they would like to reach out to you.
  7. Provide support – For the first few times that students are creating their own day plans, offer guidance. Perhaps invite any students looking for help to participate in a shared approach. Then, with the students who self-select for assistance, go through the day plan block by block and help them plan what they are going to, how they are going to do it – and most importantly why they are going to do it.
  8. Provide feedback –  Take the time you would have spent writing your day plans, and invest that time in providing feedback for your students’ day plans. Either on the shared document or the paper copy, jot down questions that will help students clarify and improve their own plans. An hour is a long time to write, have you planned for a break? I noticed you have not built anytime for independent reading, why is that? You have noted that you want to practice your times tables, how do you plan on doing that? 
  9. Reflect – build in time and model the value of reflecting on day plans each and every day. Help students think about what went well, what they enjoyed, along with what did not go well and perhaps why that is. Encourage risk-taking, by guiding students to try something different or check out how a classmate structured their day of learning.
  10. Back off – If you are going to say you trust your students to know what they want and need to learn about and how best to go about it, then you need to actually trust them. You can offer guidance, advice, probing questions… but at the end of the day you have to respect their decisions and truly believe that they know what is best for themselves.

I’m imaging a classroom where some students are reading, some students are writing, some are practicing math, some are playing games, some are talking to one another, some are painting or building, some are attending a optional teacher-led workshop… but all are learning. Learning in their own way, at their own pace, and on their own schedule. Doesn’t it sound wonderful?

I have never tried this before, but I plan to this year as I head back into the classroom! As always, I would love to hear your feedback and suggestions about this idea!

How can I improve this plan?

What obstacles might I encounter?

How do you involve your students in planning the day?