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Innovative learning environments and student agency

06/11/18

Rob Posthumus.

Rob Posthumus, principal of Hurupaki School, shares the findings of her recent sabbatical where she investigated systems of innovative learning environments (ILE) that maximise student agency and self regulation. Rob describes four pedagogical approaches that help to support student agency. They are:

Download Rob’s full sabbatical report.  

Purpose

The purpose of my sabbatical was to visit New Zealand schools to investigate systems in innovative learning environments (ILE) that maximise student agency and self regulation, where the learning environment recognises the learners as its core participants. This is how I see schools responding to the demands of a rapidly changing world, and the changed expectations of people. Children need to develop a wide range of skills that will enable them to thrive in a complex and uncertain world.

School visit findings

Systems that support learner agency and self-regulation were observed in varying degrees in the New Zealand ILE schools I visited. Therefore, the following findings may not necessarily be fully attributed to all of the schools I visited, however aspects were identified in all of them.

Collaboration

Collaboration graphic.

Collaboration and trust is key. Having the support of colleagues and management to be creative and try different approaches is important. There was a high level of collaboration about learning between teachers, between teachers and students, and between students and peers. Collaborative learning environments have allowed teachers to work more effectively alongside priority learners with accelerated progress being achieved. Teachers co-plan, co-assess, co-teach, co-report and analyse data. They do regular quick check-ins with each other and make time for regular reflection on data and the impact of teaching to see whether the teaching structures are having the desired impact.

I saw teachers working collaboratively and seamlessly in teams of two to five. All teachers were engaged with learners in supporting, discussing, or conferencing about their progress and next steps. There was a shared responsibility for all of the learners in the space. The level of teacher and student interactions was extremely high. There was evidence of teachers interacting with individuals or groups of learners at all times either in direct instructional settings, guide on the side, mentor or coach.

Learning matrices

Learning matrices.

Students have a clear learning pathway to follow in the form of school-wide learning progressions, some called it a learning framework or a learning map. In most schools this was guided by the teacher, monitored by students, teachers, peers and then shared with parents. The learning progressions/framework/map/pathway are provided to clarify the learning for students, teachers, and parents in a format that is visible and tangible. The learning is not a secret held in the teacher’s head, it is a journey that the children can be initiators of and that parents can be involved in.

Leaders and teachers identified that to have agency, students must understand their learning progress, be able to recognise what they have mastered, and know what to do next. So, they broke the curriculum into bite sized pieces and then introduced learning pathways for use in reading, writing, and mathematics. Students monitored and reflected on their learning. They were able to hold deep conversations about their learning based on their progress against learning progressions.

In schools that had learning pathways as part of their student management systems (SMS), students post evidence of learning under particular learning progressions and the teacher shares their decision about achievement, and next steps if required. Each child’s achievement and progress was visible and could be discussed, analysed and monitored by the class teachers and leaders. One school had created their own very impressive SMS with all of these features.

Some schools had been mapping the learning in learning journals for a few years and they could look back and see how they were going. Using the pathways, the children identified and then highlighted what they had accomplished in one colour, and used another colour to highlight their next steps. The learning journals were used to inform teacher report writing, student led conferences or three-way interviews. Students reported that the learning journals helped them to make decisions about their learning and to identify things that they were getting stuck on. They liked having the freedom to choose what they could work on. They felt they had more control. The pathways let them know what they were strong at and what to work on. They could go back and see what they needed to work on.

Student initiated learning

Student initiated learning.

In true agentic learning situations, where children were involved in interest based learning, the teacher was freed to focus on deliberate acts of teaching with those children who required or requested it in a timely manner. Scaffolds were in place to support learners, which gave them the freedom to pick up the pace of their learning and achieve far more than would have been possible in a traditional classroom. Examples were seen in writing activities, inquiry learning, genius hour, discovery time, filmed school news shows, and a variety of other activities that children were engaged in. Some classes had the activities or workshop timetable posted on a wall. Some schools handed out a weekly programme to students, which communicated ‘must do’ and ‘can do’ activities and often included time for personalised interest based inquiries. This allowed students to choose when they would complete tasks outside of their teacher workshop times.

In classrooms, I saw children working independently, in pairs, in small groups, and with the teacher. I also saw them working in this way in a variety of places throughout the school grounds. Systems were in place to monitor the level of freedom students were given, in response to their demonstrated level of responsibility. Students were allowed to remove themselves from the main learning space to do their work in places of their own choice. They wanted to be in control of their own learning.

Inquiry learning was a common element in all schools; using a process that had been adapted to their school. A mixture of teacher or school decided concepts and student decided concepts was present with deep learning being a focus. Students requiring more scaffolding with self-regulation and self-direction were identified and supports put in place to ensure they were successful with their inquiry learning. Discovery learning was a play-based inquiry approach commonly used with juniors. Some schools attempted to use an inquiry approach in all curriculum areas and others utilised an integrated curriculum approach. Genius hour was another personalised learning approach, that enabled students to develop an area of interest or passion. 20% of the learning time was given to self-directed learning through discovery time for juniors and personalised inquiry in the form of genius hour for the older students.

Visual scaffolds were provided by teachers to support students with successfully completing a task. Students were given a scaffolded choice of contexts/topics, next learning steps, and different ways to practice or embed the learning. Students were often working at their own pace and teachers were getting out of the way. This removed the ceiling for students and supported them to accelerate their learning. Students were encouraged to try working in the next level up without having to wait for the teacher and being rewarded for working hard. Examples or models of work at the higher level were provided.

Choice boards were present, with a small number of deliberately selected activities or resources being provided by teachers in junior classes to activate decision making, curiosity, co-operation, imagination, challenge, creativity and a love of learning. The physical classroom environments were deliberately arranged to enable a variety of activities to take place and for students to find a space that suited their needs.

There was a focus on deliberate teaching of foundational skills and learning behaviours for successful, personalised learning through the development of learner qualities, growth mindset, and knowledge of how to get out of the ‘learning pit’. Learning from mistakes was celebrated and there was a lot of talk about consolidation and embedding the learning.

One school was following the Deep Learning approach as introduced to them by Michael Fullan in order to provide a more relevant education and enable students to flourish.

It is a move “…away from set knowledge to the skills of entrepreneurship, creativity, and problem solving …

Deep learning:

  • Increases self and others’ expectations for more learning and achievement by providing a process
  • Increases student engagement in the learning through personalisation and ownership
  • Connects students to the ‘real world,’ which is often more reflective of their own reality and cultural identity, which can be particularly important for students from other cultures
  • Resonates with spiritual values that link to vast numbers of the population whether secular or religious
  • Builds skills, knowledge, self-confidence, and self-efficacy through inquiry
  • Builds new relationships with and between the learner, their family, their communities and their teachers
  • Deepens human desire to connect with others to do good.” (Fullan, Quinn, & McEachen, 2018, p. 9).

Deep learning is defined as the process of acquiring six global competencies: character, citizenship, collaboration, communication, creativity and critical thinking. Each of the competencies has a set of indicators.

One school was using the OECD seven principles of learning from the 7 + 3 framework to transform teaching practice and learning in their school (OECD, 2015). A rubric was being used, which outlined indicators for pedagogical action, and this was linked to teacher appraisal.

In many schools, students had opportunities to share what they currently like and don’t like about their learning, and teachers modified their learning plans to reflect this feedback. Students were given the opportunity to have a say in their timetable and their learning activities. Strong pedagogy was evident with teachers asking themselves – what are the benefits to the students?

School leaders shared that boys have responded well to a more agentic approach, and to having clear co-constructed success criteria. The level of curiosity has increased. They also shared that achievement data has increased. A lot more of the middle “at” children have moved to being “above” through use of an inquiry learning approach.

Horizontal connectedness

Horizontal connectedness.

Some schools had student management systems, such as LINC-ED, which enabled students, teachers, principal, and parents to monitor learning on a day to day basis. They had online learning pathways that enabled clear formative assessment, clear monitoring, and reporting of learning. One school had created their own student management system with all of these features.

The comment was made that technology enables us to better provide personalised learning pathways and to provide continuous feedback to students about their success habits or learner qualities. Students could go to online sites to find their learning activities. Students were sharing learning with their families and peers using Seesaw in many of the schools. They were taught about what a professional and personal digital profile looks like and how we should be seen online.

Conclusion

The professional reading and school visits I engaged in during my sabbatical leave have affirmed the direction we are headed as a school, and I can clearly see the next steps. Creating an ILE that supports 21st century pedagogies, and the wellbeing and empowerment of learners, is still the goal.

It is our strongest desire that every child experience educational success through personalising the learning to meet their individual needs and interests, and to prepare them for their future.

Visit the Educational Leaders website to download and view Rob’s complete report.

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Learner agency blog
This blog post unpacks learner agency and offers ideas on how we can support students to be active participants in their learning.

Planning an innovative learning environment
This guide provides strategies and suggestions for developing innovative learning environments (ILE) that work for all learners. It focuses on supporting schools that are planning a new build or building modifications.

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