Maker culture meets learner agency

Issue: Volume 99, Number 16

Posted: 8 October 2020
Reference #: 1HACPG

A Masterton school has turned teaching and learning inside out with a fresh focus on maker culture, play-based learning and learner agency.

''For us, our definition of agency is around setting goals, making plans, showing initiative, being able to self-monitor, reflect, evaluate, have a growth mindset and be confident to action change,'' says Douglas Park School principal Gareth Sinton, who believes learner agency is a disposition that can be taught.

The key competencies in The New Zealand Curriculum provide rich opportunities for students to develop learner agency. As students build skills in areas such as managing self, they are able to make plans, establish personal goals, manage projects and set high standards. They know when to lead, when to follow, when and how to act independently.

Douglas Park School has seen these capabilities start to flourish among its learners, thanks to a journey it started around five years ago.

“In about 2015, we went through a revisioning process and it started by asking what beliefs teachers would need for our vision to come to life. That’s where our four core beliefs came from: agency, collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity. Then we realised they were actual outcomes that we wanted for our kids,” explains Gareth.

What agency looks like

‘Learner agency’ is an easy-to-throw-around buzzword, says Gareth, but working with Mark Osborne from Leading Learning, staff unpacked the school’s four core beliefs, which include agency.

“We spent several staff sessions actually saying to ourselves, ‘If someone has agency in their learning, what does that actually look like? What would we be able to see? teach? and what would we be able to measure the kids being able to do?’” says Gareth.

In tandem with the work with Mark, the staff explored what agency looked like.

“After each meeting, we would set a goal: what are we going to do in the classroom with agency? How are we providing that opportunity for children to set their own goal, or to make the choice of what type of equipment they are going to use when they are not with the teacher? What things do we have to provide in the environment to expose them to a range of materials?”

Scaffolding alongside freedom

The school has successfully experimented with connecting maker pedagogy with the school’s core beliefs and offering cross-curricular learning opportunities by using technological practices. The ‘maker movement’ is about enabling learners to be creators and solvers of problems using technology.

Early on, when experimenting with play and making, Douglas Park School learned that teacher scaffolding needs to sit alongside children becoming truly agentic.

“You have to put a bit of explicit teaching in behind it; teacher-controlled experiences. If you give kids total freedom and just send them off to do stuff, they will do what they are able to do within the limits of their own knowledge. If they are not exposed to new ideas or techniques, or new technologies or materials, they don’t know what they don’t know.

“If we sent them off to do making, we noticed they weren’t able to push themselves, so we had to come along and say, ‘How about instead of hot glue, we teach you some cardboard engineering tricks so you can join cardboard together without using hot glue?’ Or ‘If you are wanting to prototype an object, instead of using cardboard, how about we use Tinkercad and teach you 3D design skills?’

“Otherwise it’s too easy just to give them a false set of choices, or a kind of false freedom where by default they are going to do what they are exposed to in their own life,” says Gareth.

Agency recognised

The work ramped up in 2018-19 when Douglas Park School was chosen for the Teacher-Led Innovation Fund (TLIF), which provided more freedom to test their ideas. It allowed them to continue working with Mark and to bring in Ben Layborne from Evaluation Associates as the school’s critical friend. It also allowed them to release teachers several times a term.

“We would come together and start to unpack what our classroom culture would look like if you were really valuing the maker movement.”

Once staff got to grips with what learner agency means in the classroom, they began making it visible for children. This includes displays in classrooms, referencing agency in learning criteria and publicly recognising agency.

“We have shields that we give out at assembly every fortnight which recognise children who are showing our four beliefs. Our lead councillors put together a video for the whole school to see with a story that explains how the child is being successful in terms of showing agency, or one of their core beliefs,” says Gareth.

Playful thinking

The school runs a play-based learning environment. Gareth says most tamariki who have come from early learning centres are used to having quite a lot of control and freedom of choice.

“When they come to us, we are building on the great work that our colleagues have done already. Right from five, the kids are still given guidance and instructions just like any other school in the country, but when they are not with a teacher, they are in control of what their learning looks like. We value that time away from the teacher as much as we do the instructional time.

“In our New Entrant class, like any play-based school, there’s a raft of activities, loose parts, story books or provocations for the children to be engaging with. We build on that throughout the school. It looks like play-based learning for our younger kids; for the older students, it looks like maker projects. The key threads that tie them together are our core beliefs and that we are trying to keep playful thinking alive.”

Super-charged learning environment

Learner agency has super-charged the learning play environment because learners now have more sophisticated skills and ability to make and create.

“It’s a return to kids being active and making physical stuff within their learning,” comments Gareth.

“We are now at a point where they are able to use a variety of materials, so they won’t just default to use the cardboard, for example. Our kids are 3D printing, they are getting sewing machines out, hand-sewing kits; all sorts of things just to be able to make their ideas come to life.”

Interwoven with digital technologies

The Digital Technologies and Hangarau Matihiko (DT&HM) curriculum content is interwoven into the school’s approach and helps to facilitate the maker culture and learner agency.

“The children have undoubtedly got a great skill set. Against the progress outcomes, most of our kids out-performed what was expected of them, based on their year level in that new part of the DT&HM curriculum.

“There’s that explicit teaching but because the kids have got a mindset of ‘I can make/create when I’m not with a teacher’, they are able to apply that learning. That whole designing digital outcomes part of the new curriculum is all about a kid creating stuff. It’s more than just teaching kids how to code; I want them to be able to do something with that skill.”

Creative, collaborative learners

Visitors to Douglas Park School have commented on the engagement of students.

“When they’re not with an adult, they are just super-dedicated to their playing and making in the classroom. They have agency – they have that choice and control about what they’re into,” says Gareth.

A total refurbishment of the school in 2017 means there are now four large open learning environments with 70–100 tamariki and three to five teachers in each. The general consensus among staff is they wouldn’t go back to being single cell teachers.

“You will see groups of children working collaboratively. You will probably see some teachers taking small groups for instruction, and you will probably see a teacher who was freed up to facilitate the play or the making.

“You will see tamariki involved in low tech to high tech; someone with a hot glue gun and cardboard, and right next to them someone preparing a 3D print file to go and print their design.

“There are robots in the classroom – Bee-Bots through to M-Bots – and Lego everywhere. You just see a really creative space where the kids are engaged in making and creating their own stuff.”

In their everyday learning, Douglas Park School students are living the national curriculum vision for confident, connected, actively involved and lifelong learners.

Information about play, maker culture and the Teacher-led Innovation Fund.  

Student kōrero

Q: What does a learner with agency do? How does that help you as a learner/person?

Riley, 6: When you have a growth mindset, and set a goal for yourself. It means you can make your own decisions.

Erika, 6: When I am in charge of my learning, and what I choose to do.

Kate, 10: They show initiative, they set goals. When you set a goal, you are putting an expectation on yourself, then trying to meet that. It is good for you.

Rylee, 10: They do stuff independently and take the initiative to get it done. It teaches you how to take care of yourself, and not wait for others to do things for you.

Shaun, 9: They self-monitor and co-construct a goal, a goal you set that you want to reach. When there is a job that needs to be done, you don’t need someone to tell you to do it, you do it.

Q: What do you like most about play-based learning/maker learning? Do you need a teacher?

Riley: That I share my ideas, and other people share ideas and then we make our ideas happen. I don’t always need a teacher, because I know lots of techniques to help me build.

Erika: Creating...I get to be creative and make new things like clothes and jewellery. No, because we have our own ideas, we want to make.

Kate: I like that we get to be creative, and we get the chance to solve problems. Yes, to set the problems or help us find a focus.

Rylee: The time to be doing what we want, especially the free-making weeks when we get to plan our own projects and work on them. They help us when we are stuck – they try to help us, but they also let us do it by ourselves.

Shaun: I like to share our creative ideas with other people, and make what we want from those ideas. No, it is technically self-monitoring, so it is all on us.

Q: Tell me about one thing you have done in maker time/play-based learning time that you are most proud of?

Riley T: My pterodactyl I made. It was hard, especially cutting out the claws. I painted some string green so that you can’t see it on the green screen. When you use the green screen, if you paint things green you can’t see it and it looks more real.

Erika: I made some bracelets and rings when I made jewellery. I had to use wire, beads and twisted the wire together to make them.

Kate: I was really happy with a slideshow my friends and I made about native birds for Conservation Week. We learnt a lot of information about birds

Rylee: A weight challenge...we had to be able to weigh some peanuts, and we had to make the machine. We had to prototype the machine, and fix things when they didn’t work. We learnt about grams, litres and measurement.

Shaun: A tree house model I made with my friends that had a curved slide going around it that we prototyped out of cardboard.

Learner agency and maker movement: catalysts for change

Learner agency is about having the power, combined with choices, to take meaningful action and see the results of your decisions. It can be thought of as a catalyst for change or transformation.

In a school context, learner agency is about shifting the ownership of learning from teachers to students, enabling students to have the understanding, ability, and opportunity to be part of the learning design and to take action to intervene in the learning process, to affect outcomes and become powerful lifelong learners.

The maker movement has grown out of a desire to use technology for active creation rather than passive consumption. Advances in the areas of 3D printing, programming, electronics and robotics enable learners of all ages to be creators and solvers of problems using technology.

The maker movement is also a response to the fact that advances in technology over the last few decades mean that many devices now don’t even let users replace simple things like batteries, which ultimately means learners don’t get to explore and learn how things work.

Another important element in the maker movement is the democratising of learning: where anybody may have the expertise required to complete a project and anyone, in turn, may have the missing piece of someone else’s puzzle.

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 11:23 am, 8 October 2020

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