• Beth Overby

A PYP coordinators' panel discussion on learner agency: Part 1

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.

Trevor MacKenzie's Types of Student Inquiry metaphor (2018)

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

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