“I tried giving my students some agency two years ago and it didn’t work”

Basalt

A couple of months ago I keynoted a STEM conference in Syracuse, New York. I talked a lot about the power of student agency and tried to give numerous, concrete examples of student-directed project- and inquiry-based learning in practice. We discussed the idea that the global innovation economy is pushing the skill sets of creativity, communication, critical thinking, and collaborative problem-solving much deeper into the labor pool than ever before. I also shared that the research on motivation and engagement from Deci & Ryan, Hallie, and others shows quite clearly that autonomy and self-direction are fundamental human needs that we violate to the detriment of both our students and our proclaimed academic goals.

During one of our conversation periods a secondary science teacher said to me, “I tried giving my students some agency two years ago and it didn’t work.” I did my best to quash my initial reaction of dismay that students lacked more opportunities for autonomy in his classroom and instead asked some follow-up questions. He shared with me that he taught earth science, that there was a mandatory segment of the curriculum on rock identification that was a significant component of the state exam, and that every year students were less than enthused about the unit (to be charitable). Two years ago he apparently had tried to give his students some choice in terms of both how they learned the material and their final work products but apparently student disinterest in the unit topic and/or how he framed the work were enough to overcome his early attempts at giving his students some agency and it went miserably. So he shut it down, returned to a very traditional structure of presentation and examination, and now was very skeptical of claims by myself or others that giving kids some voice and choice in their learning could be productive.

I couldn’t help but feel sad for this teacher. He took a small risk and it didn’t go well so he retreated back to his age-old practices, frustrated and resentful of others who preached something different. Numerous questions and concerns flashed through my mind as we interacted, few of which could be addressed in that venue at that time.

As school leaders, we must provide much greater support to our teachers as we ask them to initiate new instructional practices and ’transform school.’ I hear repeatedly from principals and superintendents that they supposedly have given their educators permission to be risk-takers. But it is not enough for school leaders to just give encouragement or permission. Our teachers deserve specific, concrete instructional (re)design strategies and techniques; short-cycle feedback loops; ongoing conversation with teaching peers about successes and failures; and long-term, follow-up activities that ensure implementation success. We also have to create organizational systems that foster ongoing innovation cultures rather than momentary risk-taking, including educator resilience and learning from failure. And we have to continually and critically interrogate our own internal culture, climate, messaging, reward systems, and other leadership practices that reinforce the status quo and mitigate our alleged ‘permission to take risks.’ During my short conversation with this teacher, it became clear that very few of these were in place in his school, which meant that from the start he was almost certain to fail. None of that was his fault, of course; it was the fault of the system in which he was embedded and the leaders of that system.

That science teacher in New York – the one who didn’t really know how to implement what he was trying and also didn’t have enough resilience to learn from his attempt and try again – represents countless other teachers all across the country. We have well-meaning educators everywhere who want to do right by kids and who want to innovate but lack the essential supports necessary to move their practice forward in ways that we are asking of them. Combine this lack of leadership and organizational support with compulsory topics of study (rock identification!) and compulsory exams (accountability!) that often don’t intersect with students’ interests or passions and it’s no wonder that we see so little innovation in our classrooms.

Dr. Richard Elmore, Gregory R. Anrig Research Professor at Harvard University, has written extensively about the concept of reciprocal accountability. Essentially, the idea is that for every increment of performance that school leaders and policymakers demand from teachers, they have at least an equal responsibility to provide them with the capacity to meet that expectation. We violate this capacity requirement daily in our school systems, piling mandate upon expectation upon wishful thinking without ever creating the concurrent support systems. Until we leaders take seriously our obligations of reciprocal accountability and capacity-building, we’re never going to see wide scale implementation of the changes so desperately needed in our classrooms and school systems.

Image credit: Basalt, David Ellis

8 Responses to ““I tried giving my students some agency two years ago and it didn’t work””

  1. Scott
    I so appreciate your perspective on education, I’m wondering if you were given (one) coaching session with this teacher or an opportunity to send him some resources that would support his attempt at giving student agency, what would be the best resources you could give HIM personally to support his taking another shot at it.

    I found myself years ago frustrated that a new colleague who replaced me as I moved to a different position was unable to continue the culture of student agency that was prevalent in my program. I soon realized that he needed less of my telling him why he needed to give students agency, and more of me giving him concrete strategies for making the shifts — especially as a new teacher who was trying to wrap his head around the standards he was accountable to teach. I’m wondering what specific resources you would provide to your science teacher if you had just ONE shot at supporting him giving it another shot.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Lucie, but I guess I’d refuse to accept your stipulations. Because this is an ongoing conversation, right? We can start with something like the trudacot discussion protocol (bit.ly/trudacot), narrow in on some areas of focus, brainstorm possibilities, implement a few, and engage in an ongoing learning dialogue about what’s working and what’s not, all with a desired end goal in mind. But none of that is inherent in a ‘ONE shot’ coaching session, which flies in the face of what we know about adult learning (e.g., should be rooted in learner-driven goals, should progress over time, should include follow-up learning and conversation).

      I would argue that the ‘one moment in time’ concept is one of the biggest problems plaguing how we approach our educators’ professional learning…

  2. Can accept that response.
    Sorry if it sounded like I was thinking there was a silver bullet – certainly not what I was thinking – I think that as folks (who don’t have the support you described in the original post– would there be a place where they can dig deeper in their own journey. If they don’t have the benefit of a community of learners with whom to go through Trudacot – which we just used at our last ISTE affilate meeting. I was seeking perhaps some book as companion to his pondering your keynote. I see the such equity gaps when it comes to PD or local support for growth… sometimes that additional resource or two is a step in the right direction, especially for rural educators.

    But I can accept your response above. Happy Holidays, Scott!

  3. You bolded, “it is not enough for school leaders to just give encouragement or permission”, and I’d add that it is also important for teachers to get time and space to try new teaching techniques and activities in a risk-free environment.

  4. Thanks, Scott, for leading the way. Your statements, “Our teachers deserve specific, concrete instructional (re)design strategies and techniques; short-cycle feedback loops; ongoing conversation with teaching peers about successes and failures; and long-term, follow-up activities that ensure implementation success. We also have to create organizational systems that foster ongoing innovation cultures rather than momentary risk-taking, including educator resilience and learning from failure.” are precisely why we created SABIER to provide allof what you’re calling for to support teachers in their innovations with OER. Here’s a blog post about that https://thejournal.com/Articles/2016/12/12/Conversation-with-Dan-McGuire.aspx?Page=1

  5. “Student agency” is a loaded term that looks different in various context. That’s what the support is for. Student agency can still take place in traditional classrooms but it might require some deeper thought and implementation.
    Thanks again for sharing the Elmore quote which to me is the quintessential posture schools need to deploy.

  6. I could easily be that teacher.

    I wonder what he meant by “didn’t work”. If I had to guess I’d reckon it was all the things I’ve struggled with too.

    Trudacot sounds great in principle but I can’t work out where I’d start it. Where are the ‘realistic, real work’ tasks for learners who don’t yet have any skills. How do I convince learners there’s more value in doing something lifelike but which actual experts have already done better, than there is in an artificial “worksheet”

    Or where do I find the ‘realistic real world tasks’ that CAN be done meaningfully by people still developing their knowledge and skills?

  7. Scott,

    Thanks – I find this interesting because I’m often encouraged to become a school administrator. Teachers are almost always solely held accountable for student success, when in fact school leaders have direct effects on classrooms as well. I think there is a sort of trickle down effect in schools, where the teachers – no matter how impressive – will offer students about as much as is offered to them. Of course there will always be exceptions, but school leaders must understand that the more support they give their teachers, the more successful these teachers’ classrooms will be.

    -H

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