Updated: Aug 26, 2022
Recently, my College colleagues and I had the pleasure of hosting Ernst & Young for a Professional Learning Tour of our campus. Our sectors continue to collide as more and more industry leaders appeal to the education system to consider what personal assets our school graduates really need to flourish in a complex world.
In recent surveys of our industry partners, it has been made clear that the future recruiters and employers of our graduate students see collaboration, resilience, self-regulation, and flexibility as fundamental to their core business. These attributes are developed alongside Learner Agency, and with over 30% of learning occurring 'on the job' in most industries, it is little wonder it is gaining momentum in the education sector.
There have been myriad of articles published on Learner Agency On the whole, educators concede that this should be a priority in schools, globally. However, there are a few hoops through which we first need to jump. For many of us, fostering learner agency, once we truly understand what it is, means a shift in our focus and practice. This is not easy when we consider our own, personal and historical experiences at school and tertiary levels, all of which have been galvanised by a system that is essentially, driven by exam results.
Charles Leadbeater (2022) asserts, rather worryingly, that "...it is all too easy to marginalise student agency as an add-on, to turn it into a course in design thinking, an entrepreneurship program, or community service" (p.3). So, try as we might, we aren't hitting the hallmark of learner agency if we are simply offering 'voice and choice'. Leadbeater (2022) goes on to say that we need to rethink our role and remake our identity as educators. We should not always be "...instructing from the front of the class, the font of all [content] knowledge, the centre of action, the decisive figure in whom authority is given." (p.8).
My colleague and I, as co-facilitators of a Stage 3 STEM enrichment program, decided that we would assist our students to develop agency, by becoming agents ourselves. We provided the context for the students through an Inquiry Launch whereby our Lead Principal charged the teams with the challenge of designing a sustainable garden on our College rooftop which would supply produce to our VET/TAS students operating our commercial kitchen and cafe. Our college campus is still under construction so access to building plans and experts to provide feedback was readily available. Our students were engaged and we could almost see that fire in their bellies.
In our planning, we prioritised, rather aspirationally, six Science and Technology (NSW Syllabus) outcomes to 'cover' in Term 2:
We provided these outcomes to our learners and asked them, in small groups, to deconstruct them. The students highlighted the key words and begun to discuss what learning might look like, given the context provided by their Principal. To support this process, we provided the groups with a 'clues' approach scaffold to ensure the students included rigour across all three levels of learning complexity (surface, deep and transfer):
With clarity of learning expectations established, the next challenge was TRUST. We needed to trust our students, ourselves and the process. Central to this was what Petersen et al, (2020) have identified as a "...major challenge of pedagogy [being] how to help students acquire the knowledge, understanding, skills, and habits of mind that are characteristic of a field of knowledge." (p. 1). We understand that the more 'traditional' lecture style, or predominant direct instruction has come under increasing criticism. This is probably in the wake of Covid-19 where our students showed us that they are quite capable of sourcing and understanding 'content' knowledge with or without the help of a teacher. Indeed, some would argue that students tend to view eduction now as more of a gym membership; come when it suits, and use what is needed to meet goals and get results.
As part of this project, we availed our students with Kookaberry Microcontrollers as a tool to assist them in meeting the Digital Technologies strand outcomes whilst prototyping design solutions for the automated care of the produce. This required a workshop which utilised direct instruction. And that was it. We did not provide any direct instruction on the environmental impacts, nor the growth and survival of living things. We totally removed ourselves from the previously held belief that we needed to cover all of the content BEFORE students could start solving a 'real world' problem. This shift from content coverage to student learning was instrumental in our students' abilities to retain facts about living things, understand core concepts concerning human and environmental impacts on living things and, importantly, building complex competencies such as:
critical and creative thinking;
Students began to understand themselves as learners and independently source the content knowledge they needed about growth and survival of living things in order to inform their design choices. Some students researched YouTube tutorials to learn how to use Tinkercad to design 3D models of vertical garden systems that they could 3D print and prototype.
We invited the students to submit a minimum of two work samples against which they would like to be assessed for this project. They were provided with an exemplar of a work sample whereby annotations were aligned with the co-constructed success criteria. With the students now in control of their assessment, it became evident that the juncture of purpose was intersected by the 'why' and the 'how'.
My colleague and I met each week and planned how we would pivot in response to our students' needs. Our planning included resourcing, questions, modelling, opportunities for collaboration, and optional workshops. We were strategic in our intent and constantly reflecting on the conversations we were having with students about their learning.
At the conclusion of this unit, the fire remained in my belly; thirsty for more co-agency with learners. I was reminded of a story about the fate of 13 smoke jumpers whom, in 1949, tragically lost their lives when they failed to 'down their tools' when outrunning a wild fire as it engulfed Mann Gulch in Montana. Teachers are a lot like smoke jumpers. We see our tools as part of our identity. Downing the tools upon which we have relied for so long takes courage and TRUST.
Time to 'down tools':
Leadbeater, C. (2022), Learning on purpose. Centre for Strategic Education, East Melbourne: VIC
Petersen, C., Baepler, P, & Ors. (2020). The tyranny of content: Content coverage as a barrier to evidence-based teaching approaches and ways to overcome it. CBE Life Sciences, Vol. 19 (2).