Agency and Scale at Fusion

by Marie Bjerede, November 14, 2017

The most interesting conferences surface a mix of the ideas that are new enough to be interesting yet mainstream enough to be actionable with those that are just on the horizon.  I attend a lot of conferences, so it was with particular pleasure I was able to participate in the inaugural Fusion conference, co-hosted by EdSurge and Digital Promise and focused on Personalized Learning.  Not only were both sets of ideas well represented (and the tired, interesting-three-years-ago ideas notably absent), but the conference itself had a fresh take – Personalized Conferencing.

From the “fishbowl panel” where audience members were invited to join panelists on stage to the “popcorn questions” where audience questions drove the final plenary session, the conference was full of ways to make the audience part of the program, not just recipients. One particularly effective technique was to split the attendees into cohorts and give them a structured environment to deeply discuss the areas of personalized learning that were of the most interest. The conversations were very high caliber as the participants took center stage.

What I found most interesting in participating in this conference were the ideas that are just verging on mainstream. Agency and scale are near and dear to my heart, but have been elusive in the past – with this conference they were brought front and center in nearly every cohort discussion and plenary I attended.

Education has struggled with bringing student agency to scale. The good news is that there are many pedagogical approaches that foster and support student agency, including Project Based Learning, Inquiry, Design Thinking, Game Based Learning and more.  The bad news is that when a district tries to implement these approaches at scale, it seldom works.  Usually one of two things happens – either the initiative is ignored as teachers and principals who are burned out by reform after reform just wait out the initiative, or the initiative is co-opted by traditional teaching where the form of the approach is followed without honoring its substance – as when Project Based Learning turns into just doing projects.  (To make matters more confusing, teachers will see some benefit from doing projects and will cite increased engagement and deeper understanding using the same language as those who are doing true Project Based Learning, but they will leave so much of the potential of PBL on the table.)

The fundamental problem is that in most top-down implementations of agentic pedagogical approaches (those that foster student agency), the teachers are treated as cogs in a machine and are not, themselves, given the agency that they are expected to pass on to their students.  

In our practice, we activate student agency by activating teacher agency – simple tools and processes that give teachers control of bottom-up change rather than being the objects of top-down change.  If we truly want agency and scale, it is time to trust teachers.  

It was inspiring to see that the issues of agency and scale are widely becoming top of mind among education leaders who are focused on personalized learning.  Personalized conferencing gave me the opportunity to advance my own thinking on the topic through discussions with insightful education leaders.  I hope to see more of this kind of conferencing in the future.

Related Articles:

What is Agentic Learning and Why is it Important?

Accelerating Disruption in Schools

It’s Time for Student Agency to Take Center Stage

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