Saturday 9 March 2019
IB approaches to learning are at the heart of student agency
I have just returned from chairing a multi-programme IB evaluation visit to the American International School of Mozambique (AISM), a school that prides itself on developing student agency.
Student agency refers to the level of control, autonomy, and power that a student experiences in their school. As we arrived on our first day the IB team were met by representatives of student leadership who led a welcome assembly in the grounds of their school, teachers in attendance but not organising this event nor taking a role within it. After we had all introduced ourselves an MYP 1 student asked to take the microphone to remind us all of our responsibility to all animate life – hundreds of small frogs had appeared on the grounds that day making it essential that we all watched where we were putting our feet. Here was a young student feeling empowered to speak out on an environmental issue close to his heart, inviting his fellow students, teachers and visitors to be responsible. Student agency in action. Later in the week I visited classrooms in which the teacher had carefully structured the learning experience, established the inquiry but then allowed students to work at their own pace on different aspects of the work. Within this learning environment students collaboratively helped each other whilst the teacher remained the facilitator and provocateur of learning.
My visit to AISM has encouraged me to reflect on the importance of student agency.
What is student agency?
Student agency is about learning through activities that are meaningful and relevant to the learners.
Agency is the capacity and propensity to take purposeful initiative—the opposite of helplessness. Young people with high levels of agency do not respond passively to their circumstances; they tend to seek meaning and act with purpose to achieve the conditions they desire in their own and others’ lives. (Getting Smart)
Student agency is a cluster of academic mindsets and learning strategies that have been demonstrated to advance learning and achievement. Academic mindsets are more evident in students who feel a sense of belonging in a certain subject, class or school; believe that they have the capacity to learn, and see value in their participation. Learning strategies include study skills, meta-cognition and goal-setting, competencies that help individuals persist when learning becomes challenging.(Raikes Foundation)
In her article ‘Attaining Equity Through Agency: Creating the Future We All Hope For’ Mona Stuart, makes the case for focusing on developing student agency: “I believe we have a systematic issue that is rooted at the foundation of our current educational model which was created in the industrial era. The industrial education system was designed with the intent of sorting and selecting human beings into classes for the purpose of employment. The sort and select ethos, created at the turn of the 20th century, is still a driver in virtually every aspect of schooling. Examples of these practices are abundant and range from grading practices based on the evaluation of specific skills which can include grade point average, rankings, percentile rank, etc., to the enrollment structures of schools where students are batched by birthdate as if they are Toyota cars, to the architecture of schools where students are housed in buildings that resemble factories to be held captive for the time specified in the schedule, the list could go on and on. Let's face it, schools were designed to prepare a generation for the industrial workplace where some would be leaders, others would be managers, and the rest would be taught to follow directions and be compliant to the rules as they labored and toiled for the school, I mean company….It created a system that made schools look like factories on steroids. Has there ever been a more contradictory approach to human development?”
At its heart agency is about the student taking control over their own learning in both cognitive and affective ways. The affective skills at the heart of the IB approaches to learning (metacognition, self-management) are central to a learner’s expression of agency. They are at the heart of developing as life-long learners.
If we are to develop student agency we need to recognise that students’ are not empty vessels waiting to be filled. Instead, they come with a wealth of experiences, interests and passions that need to be recognised and built upon (an essential aspect of the IB’s definition of differentiation). There is a danger to think that learning only takes place or primarily takes place at school, whereas in fact it takes place everywhere and all the time. As Mona Stuart says “learning takes place within the mind of the learner and everywhere that mind travels so does learning. Agency empowers the learner to build meaning by connecting new knowledge and understandings to their prior understandings.” We must help our students by making connections between the academic disciplines we are immersing them in and their relevance to their world and understandings.
In his article ‘Are we teaching for activism or compliance?’ Adrian Von Wrede-Jervis (October 2019) provides a model of education that focuses on living out the mission of the IB “to develop internationally minded people who recognize their common humanity and shared guardianship of the planet. Central to this aim is international-mindedness.” It seeks to articulate what that call actually means, using four inspirations:
- To Think in a way that leads to Global understanding
- To Act in a way that leads to Global engagement
- To Become such that we pursue Global values
- To Care for causes that arise from Global awareness
I like this model because it provides the reason (the WHY?) for students to take charge of their own learning - to become agentic.
- Focus on the learning (not the teaching)
- Recognise that education is done with the learner (not to the learner)
- Value prior knowledge
- Make relevant connections
- Encourage inquiry
- Nurture trans-disciplinary thinking
- Make learning coherent - show big picture
- Customize | personalize -allowing students to go at their own pace
- Respect student perspectives whilst keeping focused on instructional goals
- Set learning goals that require students to use reasoning and exercise agency in solving problems
- Require persistance
- Accept open walls – learning happens through rich experiences both within and beyond the school walls
However, student agency is not studens just doing what they want (or nothing)! Agency has to be carefully facilitated and structured by teachers.