Building Student Agency

School pushes hard for wide not deep. It puts maximum pain on us when we’re doing below the standard in things we don’t love, instead of pushing us to even better in the things we do.

Seth Godin – School is still ruining your chances to learn

Here’s an admission: When I was in year 10, four of my friends and I would sneak back into school after all the staff had gone home to continue learning.

Image result for tasmanian devil funnyCan you imagine? We would strategically leave a window unlocked and, when the cleaners clocked off and the teachers were long gone, we would file in through the window into the music room. We attended a small school in rural Tasmania, so there was never any real chance that we would be caught in the act. We had a great music teacher that year who allowed us to enter a high school band competition. Problem was, we weren’t very good and we knew it. So desperate were we to perform well, that we snuck into school for weeks. In our minds, the little school time we were given to practice, was woefully inadequate to satisfy the lofty expectations we put on ourselves.

In hindsight, not the smartest decision of our young lives, but we were that invested in learning and improving our performance. Ever heard of students doing a little break and enter to finish off some worksheets?

So what does ‘student voice for learning’ mean to you?

For me, it is about providing an opportunity for the kind of student agency that was lacking during my middle and high school education. Student agency is defined as the level of control, autonomy, and power that a student experiences in an educational situation. Student agency can be manifested in the choice of the learning environment, subject matter, approach, and/or pace.

When I was finally given agency over subject choice,  I swung the pendulum it’s full length away from the core subjects which by now I had grown to despise, and somewhat regrettably, I only chose the courses I was passionate about. I signed up for music, drama, sports science and HPE based subjects and for the first time in years, I actually enjoyed going to school again. But, the academic weighting of these subjects left me unable to qualify for university and I left school without a plan or pathway. I was utterly unprepared to enter the already scant school-leaver workforce.

So I spent the next five years fitting shoes on bunion-riddled little old lady feet in mind-numbingly boring sales assistant work. I wonder whether I would’ve been better placed to strike a balance between academic needs and wants when it really mattered if I’d been given greater opportunity to make decisions about my learning earlier.

On the upside, these weren’t necessarily wasted years. By the time I worked out what I actually wanted to do with my life and enrolled in university at age 23, I was actually mature enough to do justice to the course. All the HPE courses paid off when I graduated with a bachelor of Human Movement in HPE. The music obsession also culminated in our little band not only playing over 300 gigs but also opening for Bryan Adams at his Tasmanian show in front of family and 7000 of our closest friends. For the North American’s following along, Tasmanians are considered the Newfoundlanders of Australia, so this is the point in the story that my friends usually joke about there being 14,000 heads at the concert… But the jokes on them, Bryan and I have now sold over 100 million albums between us! I offer you a little acoustic number from my close personal friend (obviously), Bry.

Point is, I ended up utilising the skills and passions I had during school. Where might we be now if, as Seth Godin points out, we were pushed at school to do better in pursuit the things that we loved? Even today, if I’m at a PD session and I can’t find a way to apply what I’m listening to/learning about to my practice or life, you better believe I’m still a lousy student.

Image result for prepare students for anythingStudent agency is vital if we are to create a school culture and environment that students are desperate to get into, not get away from. We hear plenty of talk about school preparing students for the real world, so if this is the case, shouldn’t school look more like the real world? A.J. Juliani sums it up pretty well in the accompanying quote.

Our job is not to prepare students for something. Our job is to prepare themselves for anything.

But I have long been a hypocrite in this department. Only in the past few years have I reached a place in my teaching practice that has allowed enough flexibility for students to pursue their passions and interests within our learning framework. Before this, my classroom largely ran as I had been taught. So this year, in my latest attempt to do better, we swung the pendulum again. We attempted to embed greater student voice in our learning alongside a focus on Project Based Learning (PBL), feedback and growth over grades, and slowing down our learning to focus on depth of knowledge and mastery of skills within the general capabilities.

For the past couple of terms, we have been using the TfEL student voice audit action tiles from the Australian Curriculum Learning website. I was inspired by Sarah Millar who had been working with students from my class in a student voice pilot for our partnership. Even though I had only met Sarah a couple of times, Twitter once again proved invaluable:

We have constantly referred back to the voice audit cards to drive the direction and focus for our learning. It was important that we be able to measure and track our progress. The cards are a little wordy and it took some time for students to feel comfortable and confident referring to them. We took a baseline measurement of where we thought we were placed at the beginning of term two and tracked our progress again during term three. We will take one last look at years end and use this data along with student wellbeing feedback from the past two years to compare and track our growth. Below is a video from early term two outlining our process and the results of our first two student voice audits can be found at the bottom of this post.

The student voice audit has forced us to look beyond simply what we are learning, towards the how and why. The first glaring hole we were faced with was Students as Teachers. From the students perspective, this was virtually non-existent. So we created opportunities to become teachers. First, we learnt what it meant to share the wealth of knowledge in the room and truly collaborate effectively. Then, we set about teaching and assessing each other and even students in earlier year levels. One student (the cheeky one – you know him) takes great pleasure in reminding me that I just need to chill out because we are all teachers now and that I am no longer the most important person in the room. Gold.

One afternoon, we spent a couple of hours debating what it meant to be a powerful learner and how we could involve our entire community in such learning. Again, what we were planning to learn was largely unaffected, but the how and why suddenly took on new meaning. I wouldn’t change our approach to introducing the student audit results, but I still question the authenticity of some of our learning. Much of it was fun, engaging, and simulated the real world, but I see other schools and classrooms undertaking projects that truly are transformational and authentic to their schools and communities. This is the impact and standard of student’s voice and PBL that I think we should be aspiring to next.

Some educators advocate that student voice alone is not enough and must be paired with student action to have any chance of being truly authentic. They advocate that a voice without action is counterproductive and akin to be listened to, but not being heard. Websites like OzDLS encourage educators to go beyond student voice and actively take steps to positively affect their communities.

Like most things we have tried this year, I’ve made plenty of mistakes implementing greater student voice into our day to day learning. Our gradual release from a traditional classroom to student-designed flipped learning environments was both booming success and dismal failure. Our self-managed learning was outstanding, but our self-regulated behaviour cratered. Many students loved having the flexibility to timetable their own day without the constraints of fixed lessons, others felt lost at sea. We have suffered a little PBL burnout from the constant battle to keep moving towards LAUNCH of our ideas and products.

But, there is little question that students have been more engaged in their learning. Attendance, whether a result of causation or correlation, has improved. I feel like I have far stronger relationships with students and parents than in the past. Students who experienced our traditional classroom the previous year, unanimously agreed that they preferred the opportunity to drive their own learning rather than potentially revisit past topics and subjects. Looking outside of our four walls and knowing that an audience beyond just the teacher would be reading, viewing, experiencing and enjoying their work has driven many to go beyond just good enough. We won’t turn back, we can’t turn back! It can only be onwards and upwards from here.

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