Looking back to look forward - reflections on learning about 'agency'

It’s 1974.  I am in Grade 5. I know all the words to 'Seasons in the Sun' and I am in love wth David Cassidy. I have very few memories, but I do remember Miss McNab’s shiny, white leather boots, mini skirt and turtle-neck sweater.  I remember a painful week of inexplicable ostracism by my supposed ‘best friends’ andI remember the weekly program, posted each Monday, to help us figure out how to use our time. And when I say ‘posted’ I certainly don't mean in the digital sense.  This was a large, yellow sheet of card with a carefully hand-written menu of a variety of tasks to be completed by the end of the week.  I still remember that feeling of delight and the novelty of having choice and control. We could decide when to do the tasks on the chart. I can’t recall what happened if we finished them ahead of time, or if we didn't finish them…but I remember the essence of it. Choice and ownership.

It’s 1981. I have just turned 18 and have a penchant for exceptionally large earrings. I play Pat Benatar very loud on my new stereo system.  I am also beginning my teacher training at Melbourne State College. Amongst the many texts I read in that year is A.S. Niell’s Summerhill, published in 1960, 3 years before I was born.  Having experienced (apart from grade 5) typically conservative schooling for the previous 12 years, I am taken into a completely new world and way of thinking about children, learning and teaching. I am unsettled - and insatiably curious: 

‘In our school freedom means doing what you like so long as you do not interfere with the freedom of others. That is the outer meaning, but deeper down we strive to see that children are free internally, free from fear, from hypocrisy, from hate, from intolerance’. (AS Niell Summerhill 1960) 

It’s 1983 and I am on a practice-teaching placement at a school in Melbourne’s Western suburbs. I drive to school in my 2 door Honda civic and listen to Mark Knoffler's theme from 'Local Hero'.  The classrooms have been designed to house larger groups of students and teams of teachers.  There are lamps, couches, nooks for quiet reading or individual learning tasks, plenty of space to sprawl on the floor, cushions and a range of furniture types.  I watch a skilled group of teachers run a writers’ workshop and having devoured Donald Graves’ work, I am thrilled to be seeing in in action.  Kids are signing up for 'clinics' offered to address identified needs. Some kids are in small group conferences, others in the art room working on illustrating their soon to be published books. There is choice, trust, independence, movement and a flexible space in which to do it all. I love the experience and vow to make my future classrooms a place that feels like this. 

It’s 1986 and I am teaching grade 4. My hair is horrifically permed.  My colleague and I (having both moved from prep/kinder teaching) have a hunch that even at grade 4, our kids need to play, to explore, and experience more hands on learning.  We change the structure of our day. Our kids begin each day choosing from a bunch of making-oriented experiences – they paint, they design, they cook, they write, they problem solve.  The energy changes and we all agree  this choosing time is the best time of day. 

It's 1992 and I am back studying again. I'm listening to Frente and laughing condescendingly at Enya.  I discover  - and devour - the work of the late, great Garth Boomer. His work challenges me again: 

We looked closely at so-called ‘child-centred’ progressive teaching techniques, where teachers purport to take a largely facilitative role. Here, teachers who still retain the significant, ultimate powers often pretend to divest themselves of power by giving limited decision-making opportunities to the children. For example, children may be free to choose one of several options without having the option to reject the options. Moreover, many attractive learning packages in schools demand little creative, individual, teacher and learner contributions. A crucial question arises: ‘Are schools dedicated to the promotion of the child’s power to learn, and ultimately to learn independently of instruction and guidance?’ 

I find myself reflecting on the way I provide choice to my students and think more deeply about true ownership and what it means to really partner with students in their learning.  Inquiry as an approach to teaching and learning becomes even more important in my thinking. 

It’s 2004. The only music I seem to listen to is the Wiggles and I've ditched the big earrings. I am introduced to Peter Johnson’s book ‘Choice Words’  - a book I revisit often.   I read his term ‘agency’ and it describes what it is I believe I am trying to cultivate in the children I work with. My thinking takes a much deeper dive and I am more acutely aware of the power of my language in the classroom. This word ‘agency’ begins to mean so much more than freedom or choice or voice.  Agency becomes something I need to nurture every day, every moment in my language and in my very way of being. 

‘Having a sense of agency then, is fundamental.  Our well-being depends on it…Teacher's conversations with children help the children build the bridges between action and consequence that develop their sense of agency.’(Johnston, 2004, p. 30).

It’s 2007 and my music has become my kids' music too. We are singing along to Tegan and Sara and Fiest as I drive them to primary school.  One day, I am in the audience at a conference watching, in awe, as Sugata Mitra shares his bold ‘hole in the wall’ experiment in the Indian slums.  It stays with me for weeks – this powerful reminder of what young learners can do if we give them time, space and belief.  And if we get out of their way.  

‘If children know there is someone standing over them who has all the answers they are less inclined to want to find the answers for themselves’

It’s 2018. And I am in conversation with hundreds of teachers about their efforts to help students own their learning -  only this time, the teachers are from all over the globe and we are communicating in a digital space rather than face to face. Later in the week,  I am sitting with a group of enthusiastic inquiry teachers in Canberra, Australia.  We are viewing a clip of students and teachers at work in the International School of Ho Chi Min City and considering how their work is aligning with ours and what we can learn from their efforts.  We know that, if we need to, we can connect with these teachers and others like them whenever we need to get clarity, share ideas, build understanding and explore new thinking.  While we are many miles away, we are just as committed to rethinking school as a place where students truly own their learning.   

As Sam Sherratt said in a recent post on the powerful work being done in Studio 5 in ISHMC, the quest to promote student agency is far from a new one: https://timespaceeducation.wordpress.com/2018/04/03/studio-5-it-took-more-than-7-days/

For those of us like myself who (all of a sudden it seems) mostly find themselves the oldest teacher in room, there is a strange sense of déjà vu about the flurry of excitement around agency. The challenge to rethink the way we ‘do’ teaching and learning and the desire to wrench schools from the transmission/factory-inspired model of the past has burned brightly within so many educators for a long time.  It is not a new idea and therefore, not one to be dismissed as a fad or ‘the latest buzz word’. And this is far from another proverbial 'pendulum swing'.   I am eternally grateful to those who have gone before. Those who have believed strongly that learning is not something that gets done TO us - it is something we do for ourselves.  It is so exciting to see a globally respected organisation such as the IBO place learner agency at the centre of its enhanced program. There is something palpably different about the new rise of ‘learner agency ‘ in the contemporary landscape.

The power of social media to connect like-minded educators around the world has given this current wave of interest in agency a real opportunity to get traction.  Reading the abundance of posts on the excellent site:  https://ibeducatorvoices.wordpress.com created after the  conference in Singapore last month has warmed my heart. Rather than isolated pockets of teachers or schools attempting to make significant change in the way we do things, here is a veritable army of educators sharing, connecting, inspiring and creating from all around the world.  The support for each other and the preparedness to share what works and what is challenging and the inquiring disposition brought to the conversation is an inspiration in itself.

Imagine if Miss McNab, as she challenged us to manage our weeks more independently way back in 1974, had been given the chance to share her efforts with hundreds of other educators daring to do the same thing?  

Perhaps year 5 would not have been the only year in my entire schooling where I recall being given a voice. 

How are you nurturing agency in your setting? Are you using the power of a digital, professional learning network to strengthen your efforts?  

Just wondering…