Student Agency: The Canary in the Coal Mine

by Marie Bjerede, January 10, 2018

This post was initially published on Getting Smart on January 2nd, 2018.

How do you know if your personalized learning initiative is working? What you measure can have a profound impact on the outcomes you see.

The challenge with implementing personalized learning is that it can be done authentically, with substance, or inauthentically, with only the form. Advocates for personalized learning emphasize that it is about the whole child and a new way of teaching. There are many definitions of personalized learning, but in one example, The System [Re]Design for Personalized Learning Report identifies the following essential elements:

  • Flexible, Anytime/Everywhere Learning
  • Redefine Teacher Role and Expand “Teacher”
  • Project-Based, Authentic Learning
  • Student-Driven Learning Path
  • Mastery/Competency-Based Progression/Pace

All of these can become co-opted by traditional teaching methods in the implementation.

Flexible, Anytime/Anywhere Learning means students using devices with access to their school content and learning network whether they are at school, at home, or anywhere in between. This is a remarkably expensive model to implement and it is beyond most communities where there is a high rate of poverty. Students without Internet at home suffer from the homework gap – they are unable to complete their digital homework unless they go to a coffee shop or library or public business that offers Internet at night. The most disadvantaged have to deal with the added burden of driving the family to a place with internet access – every night – when they are the most likely to already be dealing with working multiple jobs and may not have a car.

Redefine Teacher Role and Expand “Teacher” means shifting the teacher role from a deliverer of content to a coach in learning. This requires a tremendously difficult shift in mindset on the part of the teacher and can easily be co-opted by traditional teaching. The teacher may follow the form of the innovation by spending less time lecturing and giving students questions to investigate, but when the students start asking questions about what to do the teacher gives prescriptive instructions such as “Find 3 articles about this on the internet and write a 400 word paper about it that answers the questions, shows the pros and cons, and finishes with your own perspective” instead of guiding the student to authentic research by saying something like “What do you already know about this question? What do you want/need to find out? Where can you find that?”

Project-Based, Authentic Learning means that students solve an authentic problem. Again, it requires a shift in mindset for the teacher to let go of control of the student outcomes and let the students own their learning. All too often, the teacher makes the process so prescriptive that the students end up with projects that all look the same – similar powerpoints presented to the class come to one of a handful of conclusions. The teacher is having the class “do projects” instead of engaging with real project-based learning.

Student-Driven Learning Path provides learning opportunities tailored to the expressed learning interests and abilities, whole child factors, schedule, and goals of the students. It not only allows students to determine the content they study, but the way they learn it – seminars, lecture, tutoring, online courses, etc. In practice, the resources don’t exist to offer this kind of learning path so most schools may simply offer electives, or online courses or differentiated courses to give students some amount of choice. The best that is available right now are adaptive software packages that support students in following the path of their choice through the material, but good adaptive software is not available for most subjects.

Mastery/Competency-Based Progression/Pace means that students can move through content at their own pace, but that they are not allowed to progress until they have mastered the current content. Unfortunately, offering self-paced study is not feasible for most teachers with large class sizes so the task must be offloaded to self-paced learning software or textbooks. Students have the content delivered to them via a screen or a page, then take a test. This sort of independent study is not conducive to deeper learning – the students are more likely to memorize facts, formulas, and high level procedures in order to pass the test than they are to understand the underlying concepts. Students who are not engaged are also likely to set their self-pace to “very slow” and fall behind. Teachers must then help the students to learn concepts and to catch up, but don’t have the hours in the day to do this individually for each student, and so must rely on group instruction – which means the students can no longer move at their own pace, but must move forward with their group.

This is just one set of elements in one definition of personalization. There are many, many more. But what they all have in common is that they require a significant shift in teacher mindset and a giving up of control to students so that they can take ownership of their learning, learn deeply, and be intrinsically motivated. And they are all subject to being co-opted by traditional teaching methods in ways similar to those described above.

So how do you know if your personalized learning initiative is working? You could focus on test scores, but there is a problem with that being the metric that is measured. When you focus on test scores as the thing that is measured, teachers will receive feedback on their success/failure based on the test scores. This will incentivize them to move away from a path and a new mindset that feels risky to one that is comfortable – teaching to the test. They may maintain the “form” of personalized learning, but the “substance” will be lost. The implementation moves into a negative spiral of increased pressure to increasing test scores leading to inauthentic implementation of PL, leading to less improvement in test scores.

But there is another metric that drives a positive cycle: student agency. When personalized learning is implemented authentically, student agency is one of the positive outcomes. When it is implemented inauthentically, there is essentially no student agency. Measuring student agency and giving feedback to teachers on that measurement will incentivize teachers to double down on those scary, difficult, new approaches and mindsets as their best hope for achieving their goals. And you can expect test scores to increase as a side effect.

Student agency is the canary in the coal mine – when student agency is dead, student learning is stagnant and inauthentic. When student agency thrives, so do students and their learning.

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