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Learner Agency part II: descending into the abyss....

In this second instalment of the adventure Han Solo, Chewie, Luke and the droids have escaped Tatowiine and are embarking on a mission to Aldaraan to rescue Princess Leia….to keep in with the monomyth plot we are now entering the road of trials, where things will test us and many challenges await.  To read the first part of the adventure have a look at this post.

This is how my brain works when I’m mapping out what has happened this year….Illustration: Andrew DeGraff 

This enquiry has been a cyclical process, and at this stage as a class we have been successful in co-constructing agency, investigating metacognition, and exploring how we learn as a class - but as on
the quest to rescue Princess Leia, the Millennium Falcon arrives at where Alderaan should be but finds nothing, only a big black dark empty space,  and the reality dawns on us as a class that we actually have to earn some credits and jump through the NCEA hoops.  We are slowly getting sucked into the death star and our first real challenge…..                      

When I first came to teach in NZ I was confused and in dismay at what I thought was ambiguity in the internal NCEA assessments for PE.  I found them really hard to mark as there was no apparent structure apart from the transition from achieved to excellent defined by the words ‘understanding, in-depth understanding and comprehensive understanding’ and being used to the comparatively rigid structure of the GCSE system I was lost - it was almost as if I had to use 'the force' to find a grade!  Since embarking on this explorative adventure it has become evident that this flexibility is in fact our friend, and is a major player in engaging and motivating our learners.  Learner agency is characterised by a pedagogy that builds on the passions of learners as well as activities that have real world relevance - and with the malleability of the internal assessments they can be modified, and should be modified to motivate and engage learners in authentic and active learning experiences.

Part of the process enabling agency

At this stage in the enquiry (end of term 1) the class were engaging in some healthy ‘curriculum hacking’.  Student’s had access to all of the NCEA internal standards via a shared google folder, then commenting on what they would/could change, we would then rewrite them.  A handy mechanism to do this was through using our curriculum site with a link to all the standards and a form where the students could post summaries or adaptations to the standard, the form results were then embedded on that page so we could work on this collaboratively, much like the collaborative lit review I wrote about last year. 

"To be transformative, personalising learning has to involve learners and teachers working together to co-construct “bespoke” curricula that are specifically designed to meet the identified learning needs of individual students."(Bolstad et al. p.162)

This makes perfect sense and supports the notion of engagement through agency, you will want to be part of it if you have had your part in planning it.  An older but perhaps more direct statement, not from Yoda but from one of the founding fathers of the USA, Alexander Hamilton, solidifies these feelings;

“Men often oppose a thing merely because they have no agency in planning it, or because it may have been planned by those whom they dislike.” Alexander Hamilton

Now hopefully my students don’t dislike me, but perhaps they dislike the system, or school in general - so having their part to play in planning it gives them ownership and a voice in their own learning, and therefore an enhancement in agency.  The boys had the opportunity to design the assessments around the categories* that the internal PE assessments are based on and made it work for them around their interests and ideas creating assessments that were relevant and authentic to groups or individuals that were designed to be engaging.

This is what we came up with, follow this link for the full version.

For example in internal assessment 2.1 (significance of physical activity in the lives of young people) we had a Google hangout with +Libby Schumacher-Knight from in Wellington and +G Thurlow  from south Auckland to find out what sport was like in other schools, and how it compared to our school, in the same learning area but for a different internal assessment a small group of students decided they wanted to survey other schools to find out the impact of our Wednesday sport initiative, they had to present their findings in an official report to the local governing sport body, allowing for some pressure and plenty of authenticity.  We came up with internal assessments around safety in hunting, surfing, biking and IRB training, with accompanying videos and presentations - the output was constructed in ways the boys were comfortable and confident in.

Illustration by Magali Villeneuve

However, like Obi wan when he needed to shut down the forcefield to enable the Millennium Falcon to escape from the Death Star - he needed the plans so he could find it.  R2D2 hacked into the internal computer and found the route to the force field generator so they could complete the mission.  My head was spinning with the idea of students working on different standards at different times, how would the students know what to do and where they were going?  As we all know learning is messy, but there needs to be some structure to enable effectiveness and rigour.  Through the utility of our curriculum site I embedded a flow chart that would guide the students through each internal assessment.  I divided the year into 4 modules and within each module the boys had the choice of attempting 4 personalised internal assessments.  Some students could even work on two internals simultaneously if they were motivated to do so.  Through the combination of the internal assessment outline, flow chart and google forms the students constructed their own learning maps for the year and a step closer to the IEP which is hard to apply in diverse and assessment driven traditional secondary classroom.

So at this point we felt like we had a mini-victory!  Princess Leia had been rescued from the clutches of the evil empire and we were dashing through the corridors of the death star to the safety of the Millenium Falcon, while Obi-Wan was shutting down the generator to aid in our escape - only to take a wrong turn and end up being stuck in a garbage compactor, with only some unfriendly tentacled beasts for company and impending doom bearing down on us.

Image credit:
Many educators, and adults in general worry that when given the freedom to do what they wish, children, and especially teenagers will waste time.  I believe that young people are capable for much more than we give them credit for but as we approached the co-constructed submission time for some of the internals some of these nodding and happy students, who seemed to be eagerly going on their way and directing their own learning had quite large gaps in their knowledge and not much to show for a couple of weeks work.  One of the key attributes of the agentic learner is their realisation of the self-regulation, and at this stage I was quite sure that some of the boys had missed this point, even though it had been re-enforced and discussed at length.  We needed something to enable us to climb out of this gap that some of the boys had found themselves in and I needed to find out why they were in it, and what I had done wrong to create it...and so the third stage of my enquiry began.

* Categories for L2 NCEA PE: Role and significance of physical activity, How and why biophysical principles relate to the learning of physical skills, Application of biophysical principles to training for physical activity, Practical Performance, Examine the significance for self, others and society of a sporting event, Evaluate leadership strategies that contribute to the effective functioning of a group, Risk management in an  outdoor activity, Social responsibility, Examine the implementation and outcome(s) of a physical activity, Analyse group processes in physical activity.


Bolstad, R., Gilbert, J., McDowall, S., & Bull, A. (2012). Supporting future-oriented learning & teaching — a New Zealand perspective. Retrieved from School/becoming_a_new_school/Resources/Bolstad_Gilbert_FutureOriented.pdf


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