The Key to Learner Agency is Ownership.

One of the central themes rolling through my mind over the last few years has been the difference between learning and schooling.  The simple truth is that they AREN’T the same thing.  Learning, I think, depends on agency.  It happens when WE own the answers to the five questions that drive every experience:

Learning > Schooling

But here’s the hitch:  In schools, students RARELY own the answers to these questions.

Instead, teachers determine student groups and the curriculum determines the topics to be studied and the order in which those topics will be tackled.  There’s often no clear connection between student interest and required topics — and demonstrations of mastery are defined in advance, designed to do nothing more than make assessing and comparing student progress easier.

That’s schooling, y’all — and it is destroying the kids who sit in our classrooms.

When we strip away ownership over every learning experience and create highly scripted spaces where kids are never given the chance to set their own direction or examine their own interests or answer their own questions, we create passive students who are dependent on others for direction instead of active learners who are developing the skills and dispositions necessary to be the change agents that our world needs them to be.

Students have no real capacity to act when faced with unexpected situations because while they may know a ton, they’ve never been expected to take action independently.  Learners, on the other hand, are comfortable in uncomfortable situations because they have been setting their own direction over and over again.

Any of this make sense?  More importantly, what are YOU doing to introduce elements of ownership and agency into your day-to-day instruction?

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Related Radical Reads:

What Kind of Students is Your School Producing?

Here’s What We Have to Stop Pretending

Where Have All the Beautiful Questions Gone?

What if Schools Created a Culture of DO instead of a Culture of KNOW?

 

6 thoughts on “The Key to Learner Agency is Ownership.

  1. Matt Townsley

    Preach it, Bill. You said, “Learners, on the other hand, are comfortable in uncomfortable situations because they have been setting their own direction over and over again.”

    I have been thinking a lot about the way I enjoy learning. Through informal contexts such as evening browsing leading into various internet rabbit holes, I set the direction. In my current graduate program of study, the instructors sometimes provide us with open ended tasks such that we can control some or most of the direction. This is in contrast to K-12 schooling in which the standards are often set in stone. I don’t have any quick answers, but wanted to drop by and let you know I think you’re on to something.

    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      Hey Matt,

      First, good to hear from you and hope you are well!

      Second, there really are no quick answers to this one. It’s my next post!

      The challenge is that agency is slow, right? You may spend hours down one rabbit hole that leads you in three or four new directions. All the while, you are making connections, being introduce to new directions, and answering questions that you didn’t know you had. That’s learning AND agency in action.

      But we don’t have time for that in schools because we have a predetermined curriculum that takes MORE than one school year to teach already AND we have high stakes tests that reward coverage of that curriculum instead of the process that learners took to get to that point.

      When coverage of an absolutely monstrous curriculum is a priority, agency dies.

      Any of this make sense?
      Bill

  2. Dean Shareski (@shareski)

    Spot on. Here are a couple of thoughts I might add. I’ve been advocating for a long while now and you’ve been supportive of my belief that true ownership comes when students own the assessment as well. This is certainly a challenging idea but unless they have some control and say in how their work is judged and viewed, they’re still working for somebody else and thus not true owners of their learning.

    The other idea is I’d love to see us generate more concrete examples of what we mean by ownership. I know that part of this conversation and list must include the less desirable aspects of ownership. For anyone who’s gone from renting to owning a home, it’s both a liberating and generally positive experience but it also means added responsibility and not all our students are ready or interested in that part.

    Definitely a conversation worth having.

    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      Dean wrote:

      For anyone who’s gone from renting to owning a home, it’s both a liberating and generally positive experience but it also means added responsibility and not all our students are ready or interested in that part.

      ——————-

      This is a super interesting point, Dean — and I dig the analogy of going from renting a home to buying a home. Buying brings on a whole new set of responsibilities for homeowners just like agency and ownership bring on a whole new set of responsibilites for learners that they may not be ready to accept.

      And there’s a vicious cycle going on here, too. Teachers aren’t convinced that students are interested in and/or able to accept the new responsibilities that come along with agency and ownership, so they don’t invest the time in helping students to develop those skills. Learning spaces remain teacher centered. And students are never expected to actually own their own learning, so they get no real chance to demonstrate the interest and/or ability that might leave teachers convinced that this work is worthwhile.

      The only way to break the cycle is to start creating chances — no matter how uncomfortable and slow they may seem – for students to practice.

      Any of this make sense?
      Bill

  3. whatedsaid

    Yes! Our 2016 school focus has been on student ownership, heightening teachers’ awareness of increasing learner agency and students’ awareness of themselves as active learners. This ranges from small things, like increasing student choice, to learners following their passions https://whatedsaid.wordpress.com/2016/10/22/what-if-education-was-about-improving-the-world/ and students leading workshops at a conference https://thespaceofjeans.wordpress.com/2016/09/20/passions-matter-a-day-for-students/ It starts right down in our early years program with 3 year olds! http://blogs.scopus.vic.edu.au/tlc/2016/08/03/can-three-year-olds-collaborate/ For years (and, in many places, still today)school has been about teachers controlling learning. Why? Whose leaning is it anyway?

    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      What Ed Said wrote:

      For years (and, in many places, still today)school has been about teachers controlling learning. Why? Whose leaning is it anyway?

      ———————

      I think the quick reply, Ed Said, is that at least here in the States, the stakes are too high to encourage learner agency. The truth is that we are judged solely by performance on standardized tests, which rewards covering the ENTIRE required curriculum and hoping that your kids remember the small handful of facts covered in that curriculum that appear on the exam. Not completing the entire curriculum is a gamble because the things that you missed might be the exact things that appear on the exam — and because there is no clarity around what will and/or won’t be emphasized on the test, coverage takes priority.

      So combine super high stakes with the fact that agency is often a slow process of discovery and turning over learning in a meaningful way to students becomes less and less likely.

      That’s not an excuse to ignore agency completely — but it is at least an explanation for why agency isn’t as prevelent in classrooms as we would like it to be.

      Does this make sense?
      Bill

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