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March 22, 2018

I Drive What I Learn: Enabling Learner Agency

Colleen Broderick, VP of Pedagogy

In this series of blog posts, AltSchool’s VP of Pedagogy, Colleen Broderick, takes us through five elements of learner-centric education and shares how each element guides AltSchool’s pedagogical vision and development of practices and software. This is the second installment of five.

Read part one: I Learn According to My Needs: Enabling Competency-Based Education
And part three: I Develop a Strong Sense of Self: Making Learning Personalized, Relevant, and Contextualized

Learner Agency Is the Power to Act

Learner agency is not a new idea in education, but it is becoming increasingly relevant as humanity’s progress accelerates and the skills students will need in the future are less clear. Automation and globalization, as well as a widening opportunity gap in postsecondary attainment, leave many open questions about what the graduates of 2030 and beyond will need to be successful and happy contributors to society. As learners develop the ability to drive what they learn, enabling them to continue learning beyond the classroom, they can face the unknown future armed with the flexibility to succeed.

Read more from Colleen Broderick: Amplifying Goal-Setting with Technology

Learner agency is the power to act. Learners with agency develop the ability to articulate their own learning needs, create their own learning experiences, and assess and reflect on their own work. They develop a passion for learning and a sense of confidence and self-worth that stays with them beyond their formal education, enabling them to direct their own learning for life.

Like any other skill, learner agency develops over time, with much practice and guidance. It’s not about the mere presence of choice or simply handing control over to the learner; developing learner agency requires intentional creation of the conditions where learners are actively involved. In addition to these practical opportunities to practice agency, educators must help learners develop an agency mindset: that their behavior and the approach to learning that they take will make a difference. Ultimately, this practice and mindset culminates in students who are motivated to become lifelong learners.

Cultivating Agency

‍Competence as defined by the MyWays Student Success Series.

Next Generation Learning Challenges explored this topic in their MyWays report. Agency is presented as a component of competencies, rather than something to be developed separately. As students develop capabilities, such as knowledge and understanding, they must also develop agency to make use of these capabilities. For example, a student may have considerable agency in foreign language skills with the confidence to understand and communicate, but not feel that same agency with math or peer interactions. A teacher’s role in this case is to help students develop agency alongside capability in different academic and non-academic subject areas, which together result in competence.

Students practice agency just as they would practice any other skill. Educators may set up opportunities for students such as student-led family conferences, choice in a project, or goal-setting structures where students take an increasingly lead role in cultivating and communicating their learning needs and experiences. Over time, these practice opportunities prepare students to learn beyond the classroom.

Discover 5 ways goal-setting can be a powerful driver for learner agency.
‍The Personalizing Sound Board from Orchestrating the Move to Student Learning.

In Orchestrating the Move to Student Learning, education thought leaders Bena Kallick and Allison Zmuda present the movement to student-driven learning as a set of controls, much like the controls on an audio sound board. For each component, the teacher slides the volume up or down, amplifying student agency as teachers and learners begin to feel more comfortable with self-direction. Teachers adjust the sliders based on student readiness to take control of the different components; they also consider learning objectives and student and teacher abilities to cover the intended material depending on who is in control. By adjusting these components and introducing more and more opportunities for student-driven instruction, a teacher can gradually grow students’ agency.

Practicing Agency at AltSchool

At our Fort Mason campus, our Upper Elementary students have eagerly taken on more and more agency as they learn. Students learned about geography, culture, and natural resources through the lens of Brazil, which culminated in each student developing expertise in a specific topic and “publishing” a book about it.

Throughout, teachers adjusted the sliders of personalization. They guided students to capture a pre-assessment in both writing and reading, allowing them to self-assess their competencies and identify where they wanted to make informational reading and writing progress throughout the unit. After an initial exploration period, students selected an area of focus like plants, animals, or natural resources for their final project, driving their own exploration.

See another example of how we create whole-child learning arcs at AltSchool.

For some parts of the unit, teachers drove the instructional plan, leading the class in a group exercise about why rainforests are located in the tropics followed by a set of comprehension questions. For other parts of the unit, students drove their own inquiry. One student chose to become an expert in deforestation and conducted independent research about this topic. Another focused on the animals of the rainforest, dividing her research into mammals, birds, and insects. Students kept teachers informed about their progress through check-ins, both in-person and guided by their individual Playlists.

Teachers scaffolded student book creation by providing students with a general structure, and students developed engaging content for their readers within this structure. Throughout the process, teachers gave students feedback, both in-person and on the Playlist. Teachers also created opportunities for peer feedback and self-reflection. Finally, the whole community came together to produce and share the books at the Learning Exhibition. For the Learning Exhibition itself, students took on many leadership roles, including writing and giving introduction speeches, creating a rainforest display, and helping craft the program. Throughout the trimester, teachers balanced the sliders of personalization, giving students appropriately scaffolded opportunities to practice learner agency and develop the mindsets that will prepare them for an unknown future.

Read part one: I Learn According to My Needs: Enabling Competency-Based Education
And part three: 
I Develop a Strong Sense of Self: Making Learning Personalized, Relevant, and Contextualized
Learn more about our lab schools and our partner school program.

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