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April 2, 2018

Planning a Path to Personalized Learning and Student Agency

Photo by stem.T4L on Unsplash

I've seen education-interlock mentioned in a few articles lately, relating to the fact that the education system has become dependant on its own structure and changing parts is becoming more and more difficult. In Heather Stacker's blog post, Give students back their agency, she alludes to the fact that the interdependency between subjects and content in today's schools might be one of the factors making it hard to move towards truly individual education programs. Two other factors she mentions are the uncertainty on how to accomplish true agency and how certain adults have a bias and might not believe some students have the ability to build their own sense of agency. But her overall conclusion is that student agency is not something to strive for, but essential. That allowing students to develop their ability to make choices and allow them to make mistakes is the proper way to get them to learn to make better choices.

I too would love a world where students can actually learn the proper skills to manage themselves, and transform the world around them. But I cannot help but feel there is still a great tendency to push back on their ability to take control until much later in life, and when this happens, we expect them to be able to do it correctly.

The Harvard Institute of the Developing Child has been saying it for years: the skills upon which we rely to make choices, set goals and take control of our actions are essential. Executive function skills, which are the ones which control all these mechanisms, are also not innate. They must be developed and can be developed by anyone. But this has to be done purposefully.

If we are pushing for a world where students follow individualized paths, and take control of their own decisions in the process, we must give them not only the chance to build the skills to manage it all themselves, but we must actively teach them these skills.

There might be ways to do this without completely overhauling the current system. What it takes is a plan.

Building a plan for student agency and autonomy

Over the course of the last two decades, we have reduced the amount of time we spend as educators showing students how to manage themselves. Where there used to be more time spent on teaching students how to study, how to track their work and time and how to plan ahead, we are now focusing on the ability teachers have gained in posting directly to various platforms to inform students and parents of deadlines and assessment dates. Where have the study skills classes gone? Some remain today of course, in schools still very much focused on supporting their development. But many schools have dropped them, or rely on a single teacher to support students and even then, perhaps only at the beginning of the year.

Some schools have preserved this focus and have a school-wide philosophy to build this skillset. They teach students about the brain and how it learns, they spend some time on organizational and study skills, not only at the beginning of the year, but offer a variety of occasions for students to get support and even give support to other students.

It doesn't take a lot of work to build a cohesive plan to improve student agency:

  1. Define your philosophy as a team as well as what students should learn to do to build proper habits
  2. Build simple resources to help improve habits (short tutorials, reminders, quarterly workshops)
  3. Measure your students' confidence in their planning skills through self-assesment a few times during the year.

By spending a few hours defining your thinking, building resources to lighten the load on teachers, yet allow them to infuse this in their classes and measuring the results, you can go a long way in helping your students become more independent and autonomous. Do less in their place, yet, show them what and how to think about their workload and you should see improvements.

Without a doubt, changing the role students play in their learning to a more active one has great potential. Ultimately, as we move towards more and more individual learning, the student's role will be transformed and offer more flexibility, be closer to their passions, be more relevant and motivate and engage them by following their personal rhythm while building up the skills that are the best indicator of future success.

Interested in Student Agency? This webinar recording might be of interest.