I recently had the pleasure of hosting a panel discussion entitled Making Choices, Shaping Voices, and Owning Learning, which was focused on learner agency. I was joined at the round table with 3 fellow PYP coordinators who are passionate about inquiry and fostering the skills, dispositions, and support needed for students to truly become responsible for their own learning.
Judy Imamudeen is a committed and passionate PYP curriculum coordinator at the American School of Belo Horizonte, Brazil. Cultivating communities, leveraging learning, and championing change are Judy's passion in her role. One question keeps her driven, purposeful, and passionate every day: How can we create a world that works for everyone?
Nancy Macharia is the incoming PYP coordinator at Chadwick International School. She is also an IB Educators' Network (IBEN) workshop leader who has led a variety of workshops, including 'Evidencing Learning.' She is highly collaborative, passionate, and knowledgeable about education so I feel lucky that she joined our panel.
Michael Lucchesi identifies himself as a third-culture adult. As an international educator and leader, he brings creative passions to the classroom and believes the curriculum should be as aspirational as the dreams of our students. As the PYP coordinator at Seoul Foreign School and a proud member of IBEN, he enjoys partnering with schools and educators to see how we can better serve our communities.
In this series of 3 posts, I will be reflecting on our conversation and sharing our thinking. Today, I will zoom into Making Choices, in which we were guided by the question 'How do we purposefully develop a student-teacher partnership in learning?'
The first choice we can make as educators is to be intentional with our focus on learner agency. We began by defining what learner agency means to us. While we all highlighted different aspects of learner agency, I really connected with Judy's thought that it is an understanding that students have an innate sense of curiosity about the world around us and that it is our job to develop the skills and dispositions that support that curiosity. Michael added to that, saying that in order to do so, we have to think about how we "measure" agency. How do we make this tangible? That made me think about how the PYP enhancements have a large focus on "voice, choice, and ownership," which actually is our end goal, our backwards by design. We all agreed that a major value in the PYP is the focus on process over product, so in order to reach "voice, choice, and ownership," there needed to be purposeful planning and implementation.
This process involves truly knowing our students, and this does not occur by happenstance. Rather, we must make the choice to be dedicate our time and attention on this. In order to understand the learner, Nancy noted, we have to learn their dispositions, their fears, their passions. Once we know the person rather than the student, then we can understand how to be equitable in their teaching and learning. When do we teach them from the front, leading and guiding them? When do we teach from the side, nudging them along? When we do teach from the back, supporting them if needed?
Learner agency often is thought about as learner independence. While we do build independence in our students, I think it is important to note that collaboration is an essential element in developing agency. Students must develop collaboration skills in order to best utilize their own strengths and knowledge in conjunction with others'. When they do so, they are truly seeing the bigger picture of how to take action with their learning. As educators, we support the students in this by deliberately providing opportunities to make decisions, resolve conflict, and problem-solve together.
Michael reflected as well that inquiry is a shared experience. In our role as educators, we support students by slow-releasing from guided inquiry to free inquiry. However, free inquiry can also be stressful if we do not make purposeful choices along the way. Judy referenced Trevor MacKenzie's pool metaphor of student inquiry, in which we move from structured to controlled to guided to free inquiry. That moment of free inquiry is when learner agency is at its highest. Students have the know-how and the confidence to succeed, but if you notice in the metaphor, the teacher is still present and there to give feedback and support.
So, how do we move from structured to free inquiry without overwhelming students and having them drown? We all agreed that this is where differentiation and truly personalizing learning comes in. All students must understand vocabulary, content, and concepts in order to develop, but no two students will have the exact same entry point. When we think about equality, all students should be given high expectations and criteria for success. What that success looks like, however, differs from student to student. This means equity is far more valuable than equality when moving towards free inquiry.
As a programme, each school must also make choices to support this development. As I have written about in previous posts, it is important for schools to develop an approaches to learning continuum that works for their community and culture. These approaches to learning allow for equity within the curriculum, because the same skill can be applied to different contexts in different ways. Then, all students can access the same skill in their own way.
When educators make choices that allow for authentic agency to develop, they are being purposeful about planning and implementing teaching practice. They also make intentional decisions about the learning environment, which I will focus on in part 2 of our discussion: Shaping Voices.
MacKenzie, T. (2018). Types of student inquiry. Tmac. https://www.trevormackenzie.com/elevate-resource
Climate change. Gender equality. Animal rights. Waste. Mental wellbeing.
We can all name the groups that seem to always get formed during PYP exhibition, and we have watched students grow in their knowledge and understanding of these very large, important issues. It is astounding to watch 11-year-olds develop awareness through research and then find ways to take action on such a global problem. After mentoring and then facilitating the exhibition for many years, however, the same issues came up again and again. This led me to question:
Is this really what fifth graders are passionate about? Or are we somehow guiding them to think that this is what their exhibition needs to be?
We decided to take a step back and really reflect on our own journeys. What were we interested in when we were that age? For me, it was painting my nails, playing with my friends, and singing. For my colleague, he remembered having a one-track mind for soccer. For our students, we noticed how they didn't sit around chatting about how to make sustainable changes to reduce their carbon footprint. Instead, they made up games, watched DIY videos on YouTube, played sports and video games, and talked about clothes.
We reflected on how amazing it was that our students were so knowledgeable on world-wide issues (or even aware of them at all...5th grade Beth didn't know anything about any of these things!), but that perhaps their real interests and passions lie elsewhere. Students could, however, dig in deeper into their interests by researching, gaining a wider perspective, experimenting, and developing further knowledge on them. This created an opportunity for authentic learning rather than a global issue that might lead to inauthentic action .
With that in mind, we thought further about taking action. With the students, we talked about what responsible action looks like, and the idea of sustainability was really important to them. This did not necessarily mean sustainable in the "save the earth" sense, but rather thinking about it as, "If we take this action and then leave, will it continue to help others without us?" Our students created criteria for responsible action based on their research and discussions.
...happen because we are passionate about them and we care about them.
...are sustainable, going on even if we are not a part of them anymore.
...have a positive impact on us and on others.
...require collaborating with an open mind in order to best combine our own and others’ skills.
...are well-researched, well-planned, and well-organized.
Our students developed an "algorithm" for responsible action as well.
Personal passion/interest + Skills/knowledge + Collaboration = Responsible action
This became the crux of our exhibition. We realized we needed to start with the PERSONAL. Why do we always start exhibition in groups? Why not let the groups naturally form after each individual furthers their knowledge and skills in their own passion? Students brainstormed their own passions and interests, and then found connections that allowed them to dig in deeper.
Example 1: Student A loved to snowboard. He also loved science and had a lot of questions about science. He chose to deepen his love of snowboarding by learning about the science behind the sport. He researched G-force, board materials, friction, and so on.
Example 2: When brainstorming, Student B listed singing, acting, and dancing multiple times. When we conferenced, he said he wanted his exhibition to be on climate change. When I asked him why, he said he thought it was important. When I pointed out how many times he wrote down drama and music, he said, "Huh." Through our discussion, he decided he wanted to learn all about how musicals are developed. "I can do that for my exhibition??" he asked. This proved to me that we were really on the right track.
After students researched independently, they started seeking out people they wanted to collaborate with. We discussed how we often collaborate with people who have different skills and knowledge than our own in order to meet the needs we have when taking action.
Example 1: Student C had independently researched how board games are created. He knew he wanted to take action by creating his own board game, but he was missing the content for what his game would be about. So, he teamed up with Student A in order to develop a game that used the scientific principles of snowboarding. Together, they conducted experiments in the science lab and collaborated with an expert mentor who was a big gamer. They then created a board and card game in our Makerspace that used the results of their experiments in the rules and the points. They also developed a commercial and a jingle that would advertise their game as a great way to spend indoor recess.
Example 2: Student B decided that he would write his own musical after researching the various roles and responsibilities that are required. He, too, was missing content for what his play would be about. Student D had a passion for pop music and he volunteered to write the music and lyrics for the play. Student E had researched computer viruses, so together, they decided that the musical would use his research as the content. I personally struggled to imagine a musical about computer viruses, but they collaborated with the drama team as mentors to plan and write the script. They wrote a musical that was set inside a computer and the characters were all the icons at the bottom of the screen being attacked by a virus. They designed and created the set, costumes, and props, composed the music, auditioned actors and singers, and led the rehearsals. Our classes voted to continue developing the musical in order to perform it at their promotion ceremony.
In reflecting on their journey, students and their collaborative action groups realized that perhaps their actions weren't fully sustainable. However, they all agreed that they truly cared about their exhibition and that they had created opportunity for change within themselves, our classrooms, and our school. They were able to distinguish local and global changes, and many of them commented on how their actions might appear local, but that the impact that would carry on inside of them would extend further than just that exhibition.
As a facilitator, I saw a major shift in the excitement of the PYP exhibition. These students were EXCITED every day about learning, planning, researching, making, creating, doing. I felt that the actions were authentic to THEM, and that they were totally original. If we had done the exhibition as we had in the past, would we have grouped together someone interested in computer viruses and someone who has a passion for drama? Would we even have known that those were their greatest interests? Or would we have accidentally misled them into a group focused on something that they thought they should have been learning?