Agency and Independent inquiry

When reports of the Enhanced PYP began surfacing on the International Baccalaureate Twitter feed, I was elated to see that Agency has been placed boldly at the center of the new model:
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To me, the philosophical implication for this change is that the primary function and goal of education is to build capacity for action. Within the context of the IB, the Learner Profile describes the attributes within which that capacity can increase. For example, a learner may increase agency in the context of historical understanding by becoming more Knowledgeable about history, or increase agency for conflict resolution by taking Principled and Courageous action.
This is more than transformational: It’s revolutionary.

Past & present

Anyone familiar with the industrial model of education (pretty much everyone) should be skeptical about our capacity for this reform. This 180° turn way from standards- and competency-based pedagogy has a few precedents, and I am curious to learn more about classrooms and schools where independence and agency have been assigned top priority.

One school system who fits this paradigm and whose progress I have enjoyed following is High Tech High. Most of what they have shared is related to older students, so I’m curious to see more about their elementary programs.

Agency as the aim of teaching has been gaining momentum since John Dewey at the latest, and can arguably be traced back at least as far as Socrates. Luckily, my teaching experiences have tended to be less traditional and more progressively minded, and the article, How a Focus on Independent Learning Transformed My Most At-Risk Students, certainly reflects my ideas about the importance of independence in learning.

Independent inquiry

One of my approaches to cultivating agency is Independent Inquiry. Since I started the project six years ago, the mission of this project has been to:

Unify learning at school, learning at home, and learning anywhere, anytime.
Empower learners to engage in and reflect on their own inquiry processes.
Encourage interest- and passion-driven learning.
Integrate peers, parents, communities, and global networks into the inquiry process.

While success has varied from year to year, cohort to cohort, I can comfortably claim that the process we use – an online reflection form and weekly meeting in class – helps agency to flourish.

Call to action

Once again, another gem appeared on the IB PYP Twitter feed. The quote below is a perfect call to action for teachers who are serious about promoting Agency – voice, choice, and ownership.

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Making physics physical

One of my favorite units of inquiry in Grade 4 at KIST, in the theme of ‘How the world works’, is titled Force & Motion, and focuses on Newton’s Laws of Motion. The unit resources when I arrived at the school included a few useful tools for demonstrations, but lacked class sets of items and structured experiences that students could use to explore and discuss.

Media

One resource we do have is access to excellent videos and online games. Some of our favorites are published by NASA and other space agencies, like Launchpad: Newton’s Laws On-Board the International Space Station (video), and the Physics Games website.

Twitter once again proved its worth as a tool for learning in the quoted tweet above, a live video of an astronaut playing with and observing a fidget spinner in microgravity. All of the media we have collected are engaging, but can’t compete with a fidget spinner for the attention of nine year olds.

Design & technology challenge

Each year, we have added materials and experiences to make the unit more visceral and fun. To kick off the unit, we introduced an initial provocation in the form of a G4 Water Balloon Drop Challenge. Using the rules outlined in the flyer, students research, design, and build their apparatuses independently outside of class. When we gather on the appointed day, I load each with a water balloon and drop them from the second floor balcony. Those that successfully protect the balloon are taken to the third floor and dropped again. The proud few that survive that are finally dropped from the fourth floor.

We often have visiting administrators and younger classes in the audience, so the event has become a well anticipated and exciting way to get our students thinking about forces and motion.

Get physical

Next, we collaborated with our Physical Education teacher to organize a tug-of-war tournament. Between each round of competition, each team reflected on one of Newton’s Laws of Motion to try to improve their performance.

My hope is that whenever these children think about physics or Newton, they will remember this event. Additionally, by systematically reviewing each of the laws during the tournament, there is definitely higher retention of the vocabulary of Newton’s Laws.

Hands-on exploration

This year, our new addition was a set of Newton’s Cradles. With enough for a pair of students to share one, I wrote a series of questions to add some guidance to their explorations, for example, ‘What happens when you raise and release one of the hanging balls?’.

While it is possible to demonstrate a Newton’s Cradle at the front of the classroom, and that would be better than watching a video, having one that every student could touch, see, and hear, up close, instantly transforms the lesson from passive to active.

Making catapults

Finally, as the culminating Summative Assessment Task for the unit, we ordered 1cm x 1cm x 90cm lengths of wood, nails, hammers, hacksaws, and safety goggles for the purpose of building catapults. The objectives were to expose the students to basic design and construction principles, explore Newton’s Laws of Motion in a practical way, then hold a grand catapult tournament on the main field in the center of the school.

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Having facilitated a Maker Club in the past, I was aware of the need to emphasize safety early on, but also to trust the students to look after their own well being. I find it’s best if my role is mainly to watch out for unsafe practices and intervene as quickly as possible. Fortunately, it happens rarely, leaving a high degree of autonomy for students and plenty of time for me to interact and promote collaboration among the groups.

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Children constantly impress me with their ability to creatively solve problems when they are trusted with the tools and freedom to do so.

There were many expected and unexpected benefits of this engagement. The expected ones were quite predictable, but unexpectedly, some of my less precocious students absolutely sprung to life. Some students who tend to be distracted in typical class activities, or struggle with academic work, were impressively inspired by the task of building a catapult. This phenomenon has caused me to think that the way we tend to use class time is unbalanced.

Reflection

Observing the excited energy and positive experiences of my students interacting with concepts and vocabulary of physics has pushed my pedagogical thinking even further in the direction of Constructionism. The idea that a learner figuratively builds understanding by literally building a physical – or virtual – object gains traction for me every time I see it in action.

In terms of assessment for the catapult challenge, I think it’s appropriate to use the method I employed for our Model UN scrimmage: Every student begins with a baseline ‘proficient’ score. In this case, we start with 90%. Then, as the activity progresses, teachers use structured observation to modify students’ scores on targeted skills. For this activity, we were looking for evidence of Spatial Awareness, Cooperation, and Independence.

And as always, the students complete a comprehensive self-assessment of all elements of task and unit.

Experiences like these remind me that school should be a lot more time spent doing tasks like these, and a lot less about rigid standards within a few disciplines.

Student survey analysis 2017

After a shocking experience last year, which I reflected upon in the post, Student Survey analysis 2016, I began this school year with a plan in place to foster kindness and respect in my class.

behavior data

Despite being a generally well-behaved cohort, this class is extremely critical of themselves. Rather than treating it as a problem to solved, I prefer to approach it as an opportunity for growth.

respect data

Observing the language that my students use with each other, I believe that they are simply too… familiar with each other. Rather than seeing each other as peers, perhaps they feel like siblings and don’t have formal relationships. If they become more aware of each other as individuals, it should be possible to cultivate a more formal classroom culture without losing too much of their sense of intimacy with each other.

Self and peer assessment

Since September, I asked students to complete a daily online IB Learner Profile reflection. To view and complete a copy of the form, click this link: IB Learner Profile reflection 2017-18 copy. The primary purpose of the task is to encourage them to think about how their actions lead to growth and improve our community.

Another reflection form that we starting using later in the school year is a PYP Attitude Certificate nomination form. While the purpose of the Learner Profile reflection is introspective, the Attitude form allows students to nominate each other to receive certificates for demonstrating attitudes such as Commitment, Creativity, and Enthusiasm.

These, and other important forms and information, are organized and embedded on our classroom Moodle page. Many of the students have developed a daily habit of checking that page for their homework assignments, previewing announcements for the next day, and completing their reflections and attitude nominations.

In the Spring, after thousands of self-assessments and peer nominations, my class’ opinion of their behaviors have improved.

 

student survey follow up

Surprise

Strangely, these results reveal an unrelated problem. Only 44% of my students completed the first student survey, administered by the school technology department. That improved to 60% on the follow up survey. As the year has progressed, they have been challenged to consistently complete even the simplest online task. Roughly a third of the class has effective online work habits, a third is irregular, and a third need constant reminders and prodding. Early in the school year, I even needed to make part of our routine to call individual students to a computer to supervise them completing long overdue self assessments or essential surveys.

Planning victory

After last year’s disappointing result (56% usually, 36% sometimes) regarding students being allowed to demonstrate understanding in various ways, I started this year with a focus on improved planning of assessments. Expanded opportunities for choice, along with more explicit explanations of the range of choices available, has had the desired effect of increasing the students’ creativity and sense of ownership of their learning.

various demo data

As a teacher who views unit and lesson planning as Learning Experience Design, student agency – voice and choice – are always at the center of planning. For that reason, this is a particularly satisfying student survey result.