Learner agency in school’s DNA

Issue: Volume 99, Number 16

Posted: 8 October 2020
Reference #: 1HACPN

Albany Senior High School has been developing a range of skills and mindsets, including learner agency, since the school opened in 2009, but a new strategy and Covid-19 have accelerated the process, says principal Claire Amos.

This year, the Auckland school instigated a three-phase learner agency strategy to equip its students with skills including adaptability and self-directed learning. For the past 10 years, the school’s Impact Projects, where each week students work on real world projects with mentors and partners, has been a mechanism for developing learner agency at Albany Senior High.

“The Impact Projects aim to build the personal agency needed to tackle life and the world’s challenges, so has always been part of the Albany DNA,” says Claire.

She believes learner agency is at the heart of what 21st century learning needs to look like in terms of the changing world of work, the integration of technology and the opportunities that young people have.

Remote learning 2.0

The impact of Covid-19 Alert Levels 3 and 4 accentuated the need to take a flexible and agile approach to teaching and learning.

“I just think now more than ever, we need to design an education system end-to-end that can cope with us moving in and out of school spaces. The flipside of that is we need to be equipping our young people with skills so they can cope with that; because if you throw young people into a more self-directed context where there’s learner agency and they don’t have those skills, they are going to struggle,” she says.

When the country moved into Alert Level 4 in March, Albany Senior High School was well set up with 1:1 devices and classroom learning supported by Google Classroom. The school timetable offers a mix of timetabled classes in core subjects and tutorial groups which focus on independent learning.

“We had the foundations to be able to move the learning online. After the first week of lockdown, we had school holidays and we gathered a whole lot of voice around what was, and what wasn’t, working from students, teachers and the community.

“After the holidays, we developed our 2.0 version of lockdown. We recognised there was going to be a need for supporting more learner agency and more self-direction and that we had a really neat timetable to support this,” explains Claire.

Structure and flexibility

Learner agency requires a framework of planning along with structured teaching and learning sitting behind it so that conditions can be set up for students to work more independently, explains Claire.

“How do we achieve this structure? We talk very explicitly about teachers having to really articulate clearly to students to outline what they are learning, how they are going to achieve success, outline their learning activities, give them clear timelines and make sure they have all the resources and opportunities to engage with those resources.”

During Alert Levels 3 and 4, students enjoyed being able to manage and prioritise their own learning at home. Feedback was that they enjoyed the mixture of structure and flexibility.

“We set up the expectations explicitly that teachers were expected to frame up the learning for the week on a Monday and Tuesday and really focus on any direct instruction and explicit explanation of learning activities and tasks in the first session of the week. That would mean they could then focus on being available for more one-on-one support for students in the second session of the week, or the students could get on and complete the work independently if that suited them,” says Claire.

Ultimately, the last two days of the week should be the busiest time of the week for teachers, she says.

“This isn’t about teachers stepping back and letting kids get on with it. It’s saying that ‘I have given the student what they need to continue on with their teaching and learning and that frees me up to be on the floor alongside students, really coaching them through’.

“It’s really working with students to make sure they know what they are learning, what their assessment opportunities are and helping them to prioritise,” says Claire.

Three-phase approach 

Albany Senior High School is implementing its learner agency strategy in a slow and steady manner. By the end of Term 3, they were moving into Phase 2. Phases 1 and 2 see teachers increasingly framing up the learning for each subject at the beginning of each week and students encouraged to become more agentic and self-directed in their learning in the second tutorial session of the week.

“Phase 3 is where it gets exciting but you need to step into this really carefully. In the first half of the week, the students will all be in their timetabled classes. In the second half of the week, they have the power to negotiate where they might be working. Many of them may just stick to their timetable teacher and focus on their timetable subject. But there is the power for students to negotiate and potentially prioritise moving into a different space because, for example, they need to spend more time on maths, or art, or whatever it might be.”

At the end of Term 2, the school held ‘Sprint’ workshops, which in essence were a Phase 3 trial. A schedule was created where students let their tutor teachers know where they were going to be for the two days. Eighty five per cent of students reported: ‘that was so good, so useful’.

“They had to go and see their tutor teacher in the morning, have their roll taken, confirm where they were going to be working and then at the end of the school day, they were checked out by their tutor teacher and they did a little reflection exercise on how they had gone.

“This all relies on a level of trust in our young people and a level of forward planning from our teachers,” says Claire.

PLD necessary

While Claire says she has been an advocate for flexibility and self-directed learning for a long time, she acknowledges that it’s a highly skilled approach and that she may have underestimated the amount of PLD required for teachers.

“Just as we have to get alongside each learner and understand them and how we can help them, I’m really starting to recognise it’s the same for our teachers. Because for some teachers it makes complete sense and it’s in their teaching DNA, so they’re fine. For others, there’s a real sense of a loss of control in the classroom and it’s trying to understand where that’s coming from and supporting them as well.”

Key competencies

Claire says that learner agency is bringing key competencies to life.

“We talk about managing self and in a secondary school context, competencies have been the poor cousins; we are so focused on the subjects and the learning areas, that we have often done so at the expense of developing those key competencies.

“To me, it’s about weaving the two together because in managing self and relating to others, there are so many elements of the key competencies that are about developing learner agency and supporting them to manage their own learning and themselves more effectively. The curriculum enables this to be our way of working – it’s actually living out the curriculum.”

Lifetime of learning

It has been an interesting year to introduce a new strategy because while the school is seeing increased levels of learner agency, Claire says they are not going to see the wins because of the Covid-19 disruptions.

“There’s no question that Covid is going to negatively impact their results and while we shouldn’t worry about that, because what matters is their health and wellbeing and our community at this point, my sadness is that we won’t necessarily see it reflected in their academic outcomes this year.

“But we can’t underestimate the amount of learning that is coming out of living through a lockdown and we also can’t afford to lose sight of the fact that this is one moment in time in what is going to be a lifetime of learning for these young people.

“Everything has been accelerated because of lockdown. We have increased the focus on learner agency, but I make no bones about it, this is going to be a long-term journey. It’s not something that you can flick the switch and everyone is doing it really effectively,” says Claire.

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero, reporter@edgazette.govt.nz

Posted: 10:43 am, 8 October 2020

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