Transform the Classroom With Tools That Focus on Agency

Founder, CEO & Chief Data Wizard at Schoolrunner

You wouldn’t go rock climbing without the right gear, would you? So why do we come up with these great top-down, transformational ideas for schools without a clear understanding of what tools are required to get there?

Is your school or district moving to “personalized learning”? A “competency-based” model? Do you have the tools to actually implement those? If not, it’s like saying, “Our goal is to get to the top of that sheer rock face and our strategy is…we’re all going to try really hard.” I don’t care what kind of great leader you are or how smart the people on your team are–it’s not going to happen.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how this relates to the concept of agency, which we can define as “the capacity to exert power.”

Educational Change Requires Mastery & Motivation

This great 2015 study from Harvard showed that a student’s sense of agency is both something that teachers can impact and something that they should be focused on boosting. Intuitively this makes sense, as helping students develop the “capacity to exert power” over their lives seems like a pre-condition for having successful educational and life outcomes.

However, the real key to understanding the report is that reaching a high level of agency requires both achieving academic mastery as well as having the vision and motivation for future success. In other words, capacity means having both the vision and the tools to execute on that vision.

Too often students are given the goal but not the tools to get themselves there. For example, a friend of mine is the head of his school’s PTO and showed me how he could access his daughter’s grades on his phone. But when I asked him what her strengths were and what skills she needed to work on, he didn’t have any more detail. Without the right tools, he had no agency, no capacity, to step in and help.

Give Teachers the Tools They Need

Similarly, many parents only hear about their child’s behavior in school when something really bad happens, like a fight. But developing the non-academic skills that lead to success in life is a function of daily habits and conditions, not just the exceptional moments. How can I have agency as a student (or as a parent) without a much clearer vision of what habits of success look like and opportunities to practice those skills with consistent feedback?

We ask a lot of teachers, especially when we try to transform their classrooms with new ideas about how education can work. But without a clear vision for success as well as the tools to monitor progress towards those goals, how can we expect teachers to truly have the capacity to exert power? It’s not a question of them being motivated or having the skills to execute the job, it’s a question of equipping them with the right gear.

Hat tip to Ben Wilkoff, program director for personalized learning at Aurora Public Schools in Colorado for the discussion about agency in their personalized learning rollout.


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