Agency by Design

Image: Derek Wenmoth

Helping students learn at high levels while developing social and emotional sills is part of our school’s vision and mission. We ensure equity and eliminate barriers to learning by providing opportunities for students to experience personalised learning by addressing each student’s individual academic and social and emotional needs while embracing student voice and student choice and student interests. This is incredibly important work.

Shelly Poage, Principal, John Tyson Elementary School

This week I had the privilege of presenting a workshop at the Aurora Institute’s Virtual Symposium with a group of colleagues from the US. Our collaboration all stems from a visit to NZ in 2017 by a group of US educators from North West Arkansas that I helped facilitate. I’ve continued to work with the group over the past three years, both online and visiting them to work in person in the US on two occasions.

All of that led to me working with Dr. Marsha Jones (former Deputy Superintendent, Springdale Schools, AR), and Joe DiMartino (Center for Secondary School Redesign Inc.) to write a paper on Learner Agency that has just been published by the Aurora Institute, which was the focus of our online workshop.

Our paper gives emphasis to the idea that developing learner agency isn’t simply a case of ‘handing control’ to the learner, or even of only giving them more choice in what they do. It requires a more intentional approach to the way we design for learning to occur across all aspects of our classroom or school programmes – thus its title, Agency by Design.

One of the principals who visited NZ is Shelly Poage who leads the team at John Tyson Elementary in the Springdale School District. Over the past three years she has led her school through a journey of transformation, ‘flipping the script’ to ensure learners are truly at the centre of what happens in her school and creating the conditions and opportunities for her staff and students to experience agency in all areas of their learning.

At her school, Shelly and her staff have achieved some truly inspirational changes – a great example of ‘teaching as inquiry‘ – as they sought to interpret the things seen and experienced on the NZ visit for the context of NW Arkansas.

We invited Shelly to be a part of our Aurora presentation so that instead of simply providing a summary of what was in our paper we could bring it to life through the voices from the school. Shelly invited two of her students to participate, Miller, a 5th grader and Jevin, a 6th grader. They did a really great job of helping illustrate the principles in our paper with practical illustrations of their approach to learning at JTE where they are given agency to pursue learning activities in ways that truly engage and lead to powerful learning outcomes.

The video below was prepared by Shelly and her team prior to the event and captures the story so well. It begins with Shelly explaining where the motivation for this approach came from, and then you hear from the students themselves, describing the development of their school’s podcast over three seasons, and how they took it up a level to address the needs they saw during the COVID-19 lockdown. (Their podcasts are available on Spotify if you care to listen).

Producing Tiger Talks has helped us realise that our voices matter. Podcasting allows us to speak up about what is happening in our school and our community. What we say on our show really matters.

(Carolyn, grade 5 student)

The video features Jevin and Miller speaking about the podcasting project and has a really terrific segment where Jevin’s mother, Helen, explains the impact she see’s this approach has had on her son (at around 3 minutes in), followed by 5th graders Miller and Carolyn explaining in their own words what they learned from the experience.

Working on the podcast… is one of the experiences that really changed the track of my son’s dreams for the future

Karen, Jevin’s mum

This is such a great example of what can be achieved at so many levels – and so good to hear from the students themselves. Of course, the video provides only a snapshot of the story – there’s a lot of ‘behind the scenes’ work that the teachers at the school have put into creating the conditions that enable this sort of thing to happen, and to ensure that students are provided with the appropriate learning scaffolds to enable them to be self-managing and self-directed in their learning to this extent. You can see more of the story on the JTE website here.

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