Agency and teacher workload

Image: Derek Wenmoth

The interest in learner agency isn’t diminishing among educators I am interacting with. In fact it’s the opposite. Learner agency continues to be high on the demand of requests to work with schools that come my way. Amid the increasing emphasis on meeting the needs of individual learners and on addressing concerns around levels of engagement in learning, schools are looking in creative ways at how they can shift the ownership of learning to enable more agentic participation in learning.

All too often, as we begin to look at what is involved and the opportunities we might explore, we are confronted by the myths and assumptions that convince some teachers that this will involve an awfully huge extra amount of work and responsibility.

Of course, anything involving change will, in the short term at least, involve a certain amount of extra effort and time as old practices are displaced by new. As we begin to look at learner agency, and concepts such as student self-management, self-direct and self-regulation for example, alongside the personalisation of learning, some teachers express their concerns about what this will mean in terms of increased workload as they become responsible now for planning for 25 individual students where in the past they were planning for the while class, or perhaps groups within a class.

On top of that are concerns about classroom management and how the idea of ‘shifting ownership’ of learning might result in exacerbating the current issues they face with low levels of engagement and subsequent behaviour concerns that manifest.

There’s not simple answer to this. It simply becomes a case of being open to honestly inquiring into our own practice, and to be prepared to change the things that are simply not working any more. It takes time, and the challenges can be confronting – but they are worth it, for our students at least.

I’ve been working with the staff of an intermediate school since the beginning of the year on the topic of learner agency. We began the year with a face-to-face teacher only day during which we did all sorts of activities to wrestle with and identify our beliefs and associated practices when it comes to how we give learners agency in their learning (or not as the case may be). Since that time I’ve worked with the senior leadership team on a regular basis to mentor them in the things they can do to follow this up in their leadership roles within the school, and every month or so I lead a whole staff session using Zoom to beam into their staffroom.

It’s been fun. The group are really amazing people to work with, and the school has some excellent processes in place to encourage and recognise staff growth and development.

During the past few months we traversed a lot of ground, more recently working together to deeply understand ways we can design learning experiences where the learning and the assessment are bound more tightly together, and not separated out as we’ve come to accept in our current educational paradigm.

This has led us down the track of finding ways to share the whole assessment process with learners from the beginning, using rubrics to give transparency to what is being focused on, and shifting the focus of the learning activity from the ‘delivery’ of knowledge to the active construction of knowledge that can then be provided as evidence of progress and achievement against the rubric indicators.

Last week, during one of these whole staff sessions, the staff had been working in groups to discuss a question I’d put to them and were reporting back to the whole group (including to me, sitting at my desk at home via Zoom).

A young teacher from one of the groups got up in front of the staff to report back from his group. It turned out he was a first year teacher, who’d only been teaching since the beginning of the year. He explained that before presenting his group’s feedback, he wanted to add a personal story. His story went something along the lines of…

I’ve just spent three years being trained as a teacher, and everyone at the university, and every teacher I encountered on teaching practice repeated the advice that the thing I needed to focus on is managing the class and student behaviour, and that if I do that everything else will fall into place. Over the past three months with you guys I’ve learned that that isn’t what’s most important! I’ve discovered that if I focus on providing the learners with engaging, authentic experiences, where there is transparency about the ‘why’ of what’s happening and how it will be assessed, then I don’t have to worry as much about managing them at all – they manage to do that themselves! I can shift my focus to the design of the learning experiences and to my role as guide/facilitator/mentor etc. I’ve discovered a whole new way of working with my students – and it’s great!”

That’s not precisely what he said – but it’s close enough. I just wish I’d recorded his version as it was so much better. The impact was incredible on the other staff – a truly ‘light bulb moment for many in the room.

It was certainly a valuable ‘aha’ moment for me also. It reminded me that this focus on learner agency simply isn’t just another fad or ‘flavour of the moment’ PLD experience. It’s transformative. It changes the experience of our learners – and of teachers. It doesn’t ‘add’ to what we’re already doing – it changes it, transforms it, empowers it. It releases teachers to operate in different, deeper and more meaningful ways with learners. And it provides learners with the opportunity to discover who they are as learners, what empowers and enables them, and prepares them in more meaningful ways to thrive and flourish as citizens in the future.

In light of this experience, and of subsequent requests I’ve had to share some of the ideas and resources I use in this work, I’ve added a Learner Agency page to my FutureMakers website where these things can now be found. (find it under the resources menu)

I’ll be adding more resources to this page over time, so do keep an eye out. And please let me know if you’ve got some favourite resources you think would be worth adding here.

5 thoughts on “Agency and teacher workload

  1. kia ora Derek
    This is a very timely reminder that learning design can make or break students’ learning experiences, including how much they reflect on how well they’ve done, what they (students) need to do next and what support from peers or the teacher they need to get there. IN my experience students benefit from reminders about reflecting on their own progress and need to be given time specifically to do this within the learning activities.
    You may like to check out which has some clues about using prompts and questions to help with this.

    Conner, L. (2005). Helping students to use metacognition. New Zealand Council for Educational Research SET, 3, 54-58.

    Nga Mihi
    Lindsey Conner

  2. Great paraphrased “quote” from the beginning teacher- and certainly consistent with my now very dated classroom teaching experience.

  3. Kia ora Derek
    One of THE issues of the moment. I would suggest that your BT still has it wrong, The number of times I’ve heard this mantra that if you offer interesting lessons you’ll have no behaviour problems, only to see people fall flat on their faces, is huge. The error lies in positing this as a binary situation. It’s like suggesting the solution to the transmission of colds and flues is either hand hygiene, or masks. It is BOTH and a whole lot more. Similarly here. Agency is vital. So too are good behaviour management skills. We deal with many damaged young people with whom relationships are the single most important thing we can offer in order to start the learning process. Indeed without positive relationships no learning of any significance will happen anyway for many of our most vulnerable children.

    It’s not binary, and it’s not simple. Behaviour management and strong relationships are necessary but not sufficient. Without a good foundation of behaviour management that supports strong relationships for learning, NONE of the rest of this has any chance. To suggest otherwise is at best naive, at worst destructive of teachers and learners alike.
    Kia tau te mauri

    1. Hi Robin – totally agree re the binarisation of things – huge concern to me at all levels. Re the BT – I have to defend him and say he has got it right. He isn’t making a binary choice – you’ll note I was careful to reflect this in the phrasing I used in the quote; “then I don’t have to worry as much about managing them…” It was the ‘as much’ that struck me here. Dealing with classroom management issues will always be required – but the problem the BT was addressing and where his epiphany came was realising the problem with the binary solution he’d been presented with throughout his training – that it’s simply a case of becoming skilled in managing students – the rest follows.

      The transformation in his practice has been huge – he’s enjoying it more, his kids are too and the amount of straight behaviour management has reduced (but not disappeared).

      I’m actually working closely in another, secondary school at present, with a teacher who has also been working on the ‘management is the solution’ argument – and so has been looking for an every increasing range of management solutions and advice to the problems he’s been facing with the students he teaches. Loss of motivation, lack of engagement, defiance in some cases. As we’ve worked on things and really dug deep the issue is really about motivation. Without a shred of purpose or motivation it’s difficult to apply any form of management strategy (at least, nothing that doesn’t involve a cattle prod I guess). Where we’ve focused is on changing the whole approach of his approach to planning and teaching – less direct, imposed activity, and introducing levels of transparency around the expectations and assessment of outcomes etc. The result has been a significant turn around for many of the students – meaning he’s now able to focus any management strategies on those who need it most.

      As you note – nothings binary! My post was merely to reinforce what happens when we move from a binary position.

  4. A great article and selection of resources Derek. Many thanks. This will be useful and supportive of our change makers! Ka pai.

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