Student Agency, Change and Pushing Boundaries

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It seems each year there is a new buzzword in education. You will be familiar with words such as differentiation, flipped learning, growth mindset, grit, innovation and more recently student agency. With each new concept there is an expectancy of implementing and mastering the concept quickly, often without really understanding what the buzzword actually means. Defined by Grace on the Knewton blog:

‘Student agency refers to the level of control, autonomy, and power that a student experiences in an educational situation. Student agency can be manifested in the choice of learning environment, subject matter, approach, and/or pace.’

I personally love to learn new things and challenge myself to push professionally and implement new ideas. In doing so I  follow incredible educators on twitter, read blogs and keep up to date with others’ teaching and learning. One resource I follow is #ibrebelience an idea that was started at the IB seminar in Singapore a few months ago. The goal of #ibrebelience is to provide a powerful network of educators (teachers and administrators) who can find comfort, support and inspiration from each other when trying new concepts and ideas. These educators, like myself thrive in this atmosphere, but are school faculties made up of just this type of educator?

What about the other teachers?

I often compare real life to my classroom, and when I do I often think of these questions:

  • How would a classroom work if every student thrived off disruption and change?
  • During a time of implementation or change, why is it important for others to be involved?
  • Finally if you are a teacher who thrives on being challenged and trying new things, why is it important to hear feedback from other teachers?

The answer is quite simple; if one teacher is trying to implement a new idea it can never be successful if other teachers aren’t on board. Without the support of other teachers any new idea, change or innovation will fall flat.

I am so incredibly lucky that I work on a team that is not only innovative, but also supportive and positive.  Therefore as a team we push and implement new ideas for the benefit of our students.

Recently the grade level that I teach, Prep, (also known as Year 1) went on an amazing field trip to Kennedy Town (a community of Hong Kong). This is the second year in a row that this field trip was organised, and the truth is that the second year was a hundred times better than the first year. Why? Mostly based the feedback from the teachers from the first year was heard and respected, and changes were made to relieve any anxiety or fear.

Both trips were planned and organised with the aim of exploring student agency. The trips were planned around giving students’ a choice over where they would like to explore within the community. At the beginning of this year’s unit each class brainstormed what being ‘part of a community is’.  Through their ideas a list of 9 venues were presented to the students. They were then given the opportunity to choose 1 out of the 9 venues to visit to learn about the needs and interests of a community. These venues were a doctors office, a dentist, the fire station, the MTR, a pet shop, a temple, a grocery store, a fruit market and a retirement home. The information gathered was brought back to the homeroom classes by each student and shared with the others as a summative assessment task. Between the first year and second year we made significant changes to the trip based on the feedback below.

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(The pictures above are of the 9 different groups of venues that the students were able to choose from.)

Feedback #1: Some teachers felt anxious over the idea that the groups had students from different classes under their charge and they may not know some students personally.  (compared to the traditional field trip group where you go as a class).

Solution: #1: We switched our units around through the year so this unit was towards the end of the year (May) instead of last year (October). This gave teachers more time to know other students from other classes.

Solution #2:  We had multiple experiences through the year for students to work with other teachers and to practice student agency at school. For example, within the unit How We Express Ourselves, we had 8 parent volunteers that offered to read in their home language and the students chose a language that interested them.  Each parent was accompanied by a teacher within a classroom to encourage student choice and have the students (and teachers) become familiar with groups of students from different classes.

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(The picture above is the wonderful parent volunteers that came to read a book in their home language.)

Solution #3: We also planned designated time with the group of students from our prescribed venue allowing them to introduce themselves and for them to interact with each other prior to the field trip. This intro allowed the teachers to understand their group dynamic.

Feedback #2: Trip groups were too big.

Solution: Last year we had 5 venues and each venue had approximately 20-30 students.  However as you can see this year we expanded the amount of venues to 9 and the maximum was 15 in any group.

Feedback #3: Nervousness around going to an area they had never been to.

Solution #1: A group of teachers went on a recce a few months ago around the area to understand the dynamic of the neighbourhood. This was not only a great bonding experience, but it gave the teachers a good understanding how close venues were to each other.

Solution #2:  I printed out a map from Google that marked the exact route they would take from the bus drop off point to the venue. Being able to visualize where they were going gave teachers a sense of security.

What was the result?

          123 students

  • 17 staff
  • 52 parent volunteers
  • 9 venues

= And an incredible learning experience for the students!

If you are an educator that thrives on new challenges, surround yourself with a team that is willing to support you.  However make it easy on yourself by listening to those around you and adapting accordingly. Remember your success of implementing a new idea is completely dependent on the other educators around you!


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