We all understand that having the independence to make choices, take risks, and learn from outcomes is foundational to becoming well-engaged members of society. That said, there are elements of our school system that make it hard for us to truly focus on building learner agency, in other words, helping students of all ages see the role they can play in their own learning and provide them with the opportunities to prove this to themselves. Cultivating agency is much more about the people and the process than any discipline-specific product. When we look to build learner agency, we are looking to give up some of the control and structure that many of us find so comforting. After all, when we paddle the boat together, there is the chance that we may end up somewhere we hadn’t planned. And, there is also the opportunity to end up somewhere we had never imagined.
What can we do to help cultivate agency in those we serve? Here are three small steps we can take to move towards making a large difference for our learners.
Get to know yourself. It might sound silly, but building agency in others first requires us to be learning agents ourselves. If we would rather be directed in our learning and would rather deny ourselves the opportunity to chart our own course, then we are missing out on chances to serve as agents of learning for those we serve. This doesn’t mean that we have to become “Type A” personalities or mega risk-takers. However, it does mean that we have to take the time to reflect on what pushes each of us to try new things, and what supports we need in order to take charge of our own growth, successes and failures all-in. For me, I need to know that I have a number of outlets for support when I fail, and even more when I fail hard. I also have to know that there are some boundaries around me, as I can get too broad in my thinking and derail myself before I begin. With these two requirements in place, there is a lot that I can accomplish. Knowing ourselves is a pre-requisite to knowing others, and is a key step to giving others the lead in learning that we know we all need.
Get to know others. As mentioned earlier, building agency is about people and process, and to address these two “P’s” we have to be willing to take the time to learn who the people are that we encounter on a daily basis. There are two aspects to this: How to prime for building relationships, and how to actually build them. One consideration is to make sure that we provide opportunities to get to know our learners. This might be scheduled “five-question” sessions with students early in the year, regular check-ins as the year continues, or a simple joining of students for lunch every so often. Before we get to know others, we have to chart the course to show we’re interested. And when we’ve primed the way? Then it requires us to engage in effective listening skills. We must be genuinely interested in what our learners have to say, and we must show the visual and audio signs of this (nodding, leaning in, asking follow-up questions, etc.). We also have to turn our memories on. In today’s fast-paced world it can be challenging to embed anything in short-term memory, let alone long-term. However, if we want to truly know others, then we must be sure to remember what it is that they tell us, and connect what they tell us to what they want to learn.
Get to know options. Agency is one-third “know ourselves” and one-third “know others.”. The other third? Know where to go. The scary part of building independence and voice in learning is simply how big the world of learning can be. Just like traveling alone in a new place can be scary, so too can figuring out how to connect our interests with the myriad of pathways that exist “out there.” By knowing a wide variety of resources (including people, text, tools, etc.), we can provide students with the materials necessary to build a bridge from interest to interest as their lives continue. Notice that “we” don’t serve as the bridge in this case; we are simply helping learners see the tools they have available to them, so they can build the bridge (and eventually bridges) themselves. Since the gaps from interest to interest are always different, the bridges need to be too. Therefore, the resources learners need have to constantly be varied. At our best, we have enough knowledge, skills, and connections to help students follow the paths we choose, and through that, experience all that success and failure have to offer.
In an effort to support learners, we sometimes lean too far towards the structured side of things. Closed classes, a regular bell schedule, “standard” homework, assessments that feel very much the same each time we take them. What’s so interesting about learner agency is that if we promote it, we are forced to abandon some elements of the traditional structure that has shaped schools for years and that we are often so comfortable with. And in so doing, we right a wrong that we are all aware of: Learning can never take hold if we are always just random passengers. Most times, we have to be the drivers, and we have to be traveling along with those who know themselves, know us and can help us figure out how to get to where we want (and need) to go.
Fred Ende (@fredende) is the assistant director of Curriculum and Instructional Services for Putnam/Northern Westchester BOCES in Yorktown Heights, N.Y. Fred blogs at www.fredende.blogspot.com, Edutopia, ASCD EDge and SmartBrief Education. His book,Professional Development That Sticks is available from ASCD. Visit his website:www.fredende.com.
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