Monday, October 14, 2019

Rediscovering student agency

I realised with a shock yesterday how little I've blogged this year! So, I have set a personal challenge for myself, 10 posts in 10 days. It shouldn't be too hard to turn all of my draft posts into complete ones, right? Or post a quick vlog reflecting of my day? Or share a strategy that I have tried? Maybe you're keen to try too?

It seems that not too long ago, everyone was talking about student agency. Many a tweet talked about self managing students, blog posts were written, and there were probably multiple sessions about it at ULean. I know Claire Amos did a great talk about it, and Steve Mouldey did a great presentation. Lately, however, I have found myself looking at these resources in a new light. I have always believed that student agency is a key ingredient for success as it helps students to become self-managing, life-long learners. I still think this a worthy goal for success in a rapidly changing, fast-paced world. However, student agency has taken on a new sense of urgency and importance in my practice of late. Prompted by my Spiral of Inquiry in 2018, I wondered whether student agency might contribute in restoring some of the power to those students and families for whom colonisation and embedded system bias has led to feeling disempowerment?

In schools, command and control models dominate in so many ways. We tell our students where to be, when to be there, and how to act when they get there. We tell our students what to wear, what not to wear, and in some cases, what their hair can and cannot look like. We tell them when they can eat, when they may use the restroom. We tell our students what they should learn, and how they should learn it. Whether inadvertently or not, we decide what our students should value through deciding how they should spend their time, what we assess, and what qualifies as "justified" reasons for missing school. The trouble is, every decision that we make FOR students rather than WITH students is another instance where we are removing agency and power.

Once I began to notice all the ways that I remove agency from my students, I was alarmed to discover that in my own practice, despite priding myself on a student-centred philosophy’ I was constantly enacting my power over the students. I began feeling uncomfortable that 17 and 18-year-old students felt the need to ask permission to go to the toilet. If we cannot even trust young people with going to the toilet, then what kind of messages were we sending about trusting them with their learning? And while we might argue that some students misbehave and cannot be trusted to go and come back in a timely manner, why is it that we feel justified to mistrust the majority because of the actions of a minority?

Building on my learning from 2018, I started this year with a focus on rediscovering, revisiting, refining and kickstarting student agency in my classroom (again). I am hoping to move from the 'false choice' model (where I give students a choice between tasks I designed) to one where the power is truly shared. In framing this thinking, I found Hart's Ladder of Participation really helpful. Below is the description of one of the experiments I tried in my teaching this year in response.

The students and I started the term by unpacking the rubric that would be used to assess their learning in our module called Star Trek. Together, we identified the skills and knowledge we would need to gain by the end of the unit.

Students then split into small groups to design their own lesson (or a small series of lessons) around a learning objective they had written (I had to teach them how to write these first). They researched their chosen area of focus, designed and made activities, made and found resources, as well as identify success criteria, keywords and ideas. Once students had completed their planning, I worked with each group to 'quality assure' their lesson and to allocated badges for each lesson. From here, each lesson was loaded as a mission on our Starfleet Mission Tracker (see image below) aka. kanban board. If you are not familiar with kanban, it's a super simple project management tool that really helps visualise workflow, prioritisation, etc. I 100% recommend using this with team, students and yourself! I created the video below to help my students understand kanban.

Using Trello, we set up a kanban board where each card serves as a mission. A click on each mission reveals the instructions and resources for each lesson. As students completed the various parts of the lesson, they would mark items as done on the To-Do list also included on the mission card.

Expanded view of a mission.

Over the course of the term, students started each class by selecting from the AVAILABLE MISSIONS what they would complete that day and moving it into the TO DO column on their personal mission tracker. As they were completing the lesson, the mission would be in their DOING column, and finally, when they have completed all items on the checklist, they would move the card into the DONE column.

To help students make selections that would support them gaining all the skills towards the rubric, we also created specialisations using the badges that we allocated. Each student thus played an active role in designing the class' lessons, choosing their specialisation and choosing the lessons to help them achieve their specialisation.

So did it work?
It was great to see that students responded well to this teaching strategy. As the teacher of this class, it was remarkable how easy this class became to manage. Every student knew what they were doing and what their next steps were. My stress levels and planning time was significantly reduced! (This was an added bonus, I hadn't planned on this). Students' reported experience of this approach also showed that students really felt that their learning was personalised.

However, what was particularly interesting about this approach was that out of the five Maori and/or Pasifika students in this class who completed the in-class survey, three out of the five students gave themselves the highest possible score for the three indicators in the survey:

  • I feel proud of the work that I did in this class.
  • I feel confident that the work I did in this class is good quality.
  • I did my best in this class.
Interestingly, the other two students still identified in the survey that the learning was new and free (Student A) and that they linked the learning (Student E). 

Forms response chart. Question title: This class was personalised. I was able to make decisions about how I approached it.. Number of responses: 13 responses.

All in all, I think this was a pretty successful experiment and next step for my Spiral of Inquiry. This year I am continuing my focus on "How might we develop assessment that enables success for academically ‘at risk’ students?" I look forward to further experiment with this approach in senior classes next...


  1. This is remarkable use of this tool to assist with the logistics of personalising learning. Thank you for this valuable sharing.

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