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A call to adventure: Learner Agency in the traditional school

In my CORE Education e-fellowship this year I have been investigating learner agency, this blog post summarises the first steps I took during term one on my ongoing journey to enlightenment (I’m still not there yet).  I have employed an action research method for the investigation, and to help unfold the narrative of my experiences I’m going to use Joseph Campbell's traditional 'monomyth' outline as it fits well with the developments and cycles in this research process; this blog post is the introduction, the first part of the story where everyone is just milling about and life is carrying on as normal, but then something disrupts the status quo and there is no turning back.   To contextualise the media reference further, it is a bit like when Luke Skywalker is on Tatooine staying with uncle Owen and aunt Beru wishing he was somewhere else, he find’s a message in R2-D2 with Old Ben (Obi-Wan Kenobi) and before he knows it he is jumping on the Millennium falcon with Han Solo to rescue princess Leia - Luke’s decision to follow Ben was the call to adventure!

(Lucasfilm Ltd, 2014)

Anyway, back to agency in a galaxy a little closer to home…..

The concept of learner agency has been part of ‘bigger picture’ thinking in education for quite some time, but has blossomed recently through many blogs, forums and video sites - for an excellent
summary have a look at  +Derek Wenmoth's  (Obi-wan!!) description here.  Many contemporary pedagogical theorists believe that learner agency is the cornerstone of initiating authentic and meaningful learning - leading to the concept of the lifelong learner, as prescribed in the NZ curriculum document.  There is not much in the way of contemporary research concerning the links specifically between agency and e-learning, indicating it is still somewhat of an emerging idea, however many examples we are given regarding future focussed learning and innovative pedagogical models occur in fresh new institutions or well resourced schools, with forward thinking senior leaders and malleable staff.  In my investigation I wanted to discover what I could do in my school for the students in my classroom to allow a greater sense of agency - traditional learning environments are generally not that conducive to learner agency.  The action research attempts to demonstrate to educators in the secondary sector who struggle to make change in traditional schools that there are still applicable methods that can allow a transformational approach to the socially constructed view of what teaching and learning is.  

Lewin’s cyclic model, redrawn (Graham, 2014)

The foundations of agency transpire in the work of Dewey, Vygotsky and Piaget, as well as the critical pedagogical theorists such as Freire and Illich.  Much of the literature in ECE also supports the concept of agency and underpins many of the alternative models from this sector.  As a teacher I wanted my learners to understand what agency involved so the first step in this journey was to co-construct the concept of agency as a class.  In order for it to be successful I didn’t think it was appropriate for me to dictate to them what my vision of agency was, the whole concept of agency is that it is a two way process, it could be seen to encompass the concept of ako in that the teacher is also a learner and constantly reflecting on the learning process.  As a class we turned to good old A3 sheets and some coloured pens and discussed what student agency involved, and what responsibilities the students had in forming this concept as well as what we needed to do for it to be beneficial for everyone.  As part of this process we talked about how we would like to record our learning and interact for the year - social media was a common theme and we decided to create our own learning community on Google+, thoughts and reasons behind using a Google+ community can be found at this previous blog post.

I uploaded pictures of the work to the online learning community so the students could continue the conversation and share further ideas and interesting links from their mobile phones, laptops or desktops in the school library (and even when they were in other lessons or at home).  This is where the learning was transformed and amplified from a run of the mill think-pair-share mind map lesson, to producing well thought out and comprehensive responses from all of the students, e-learning was the vehicle (Millennium falcon!) that allowed a greater level of interaction and depth of understanding.  As I was checking the posts to the community I was excited to read the thoughts of the quiet students who were often too shy or self conscious to speak out verbally in a formal class setting, it was also amazing to see the boys supporting and challenging each other in their ideas and therefore allowing thorough cognition.  This was a real transformative moment and by discussing agency and allowing agency we managed to elucidate deeper understanding from sometimes reluctant learners.  Students were getting excited about posting videos from Suli Breaks as well as relevant blog posts from 2008 E-fellow +Nick Rate , this learning was also recorded and could be searched or referred to anytime from the community, we have referred back to it several time this year to remind ourselves of the original goals.

After our revelationary experience of using agency to co-construct our concept of agency we had to come back to reality and look at our constraints.  The boys particularly focussed on the limitations of a rigid and traditional timetable as well as pressure from assessment and other subjects.  We decided to work around this in several ways, we couldn’t change the time of the lesson - 4x1hr lessons a week, each staggered a period later each day - the final lesson of the week was on a Thursday and just before lunch so we decided that this would be a practical session so we could carry on for a maximum of 1:45 - the students had read about the creative use of time at Google in 20% time and deemed that this would be a good time to explore that luxury - however, as we only have 4 lessons a week it turned out to be 25% time!  Traditionally I had sometimes used senior after school detentions as a 'motivator' for students to complete work, but this year I thought I’d let the students decide on the consequences, we came to the agreement that if quality work was produced then 25% time would be used to pursue anything they liked - as long as they justified it in our learning community with a couple of pictures and brief description -  A carrot rather than a stick!  The assessment was a bigger barrier, and one I will hope to explore in the next blog post - so at this stage in the year my students felt like they were flying away from the Mos-Eisley Cantina, dodging laser fire and heading off into the unknown on an amazing adventure, I was at the controls as much as they were and was just as excited - what could go wrong!

To read about what happened next look at this post!

Graham, B. (2014). Method: Session 3 van der Lem. [online] Available at: [Accessed 11 Aug. 2014].

Lucasfilm Ltd, (2014). Help me Obi-Wan Kenobi. [online] Star Wars. Available at: [Accessed 11 Aug. 2014].


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