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How to Personalize Learning Part 1: Learner Agency

The new book How to Personalize Learning by Barbara Bray and Kathleen McClaskey is a rich book which builds on their previous work Make Learning Personal.  The book can serve as a great introduction to getting started with personalizing learning in the classroom in addition to being a work which will help educators dive deeper into empowering learners within the classroom.

There is a lot I took away from the book. But to better guide my reflections, I would like to focus on these four topics in separate posts:

  1. The Elements of Learner Agency
  2. Learners Knowing How They Learn
  3. Knowing How a Classroom Learns
  4. Designing Lessons for all Learners

This post will focus on Learner Agency

Before we can begin the journey to create an environment in which passive students become learners who can take control of their own learning, we need to understand the facets of what a learner with agency looks like. We cannot begin the journey without knowing where we are going.  The great thing about the models provided by the Barbara Bray and Kathleen McClaskey is that they provide a steps to follow on the journey.  This journey is one in which we can see where we are on our path.  There are visible steps in the process for educators and learners to see where they are in their current practice and what the next step in the progression looks like.

There are different elements that we must be cognizant of when developing learner agency.

  1. Voice
  2. Choice
  3. Engagement
  4. Motivation
  5. Ownership
  6. Purpose
  7. Self-Efficacy

To visually illustrate the continuum of each element, Barbara and Kathleen enlisted the artistic skill of Sylvia Duckworth to take their words and concepts and lay them out into a useful poster. Each shows how we can move from a teacher centered to learner empowered environment.


Continuum of Voice: What it Means for the Learner

Voice gives learners a chance to share their opinions about something they believe in. We adapted the Continuum of Voice chart we used from research from Toshalis and Nakkula at the Students at the Center in our post Learner Voice Demonstrates Commitment to Building Agency.

It seems so often educators use voice and choice in the same breath.  But, these are very different elements. Voice deals with a student’s ability to share thoughts and opinions. The continuum shows how learners move from a role of speaking from their seats and stating answers to questions posed by their teacher to leading the discussions and actively making decisions about what learning looks like in their classroom.

When I think about where I am in my current practice of allowing voice, it varies from day to day. I really believe in the power of student voice in allowing them to identify what works best for them in terms of the materials they are able to access and how they choose to engage with the content and express their understanding.  But, when we are engaged in large group instruction, many times their voice is heard simply in response to questions I pose to them.  On a larger scale, we have a term long project in which they have chosen their own problem that they hope to address.


Choice is More than a Menu of Options

The teacher or a computer program provides a menu of options for learners. These options are choices for learners to learn content through images, videos, text-based resources, audio, hands-on activities, or interactions with peers. These options allow learners to access information, engage with content, and express what they know and understand.

The continuum of choice illustrates how students can be offered different spheres of choice.  A first step is to offer learners a choice in how to access, engage, or express their work for a task all students are asked to complete.  So while they may have a choice on how to attack it, all students are focused on the same problem. On the other end of the continuum, students have choice in what task or problem they are working on based on their interests and passions. So while there is choice, that choice will affect not simply how they learn but what they learn.

Offering choice in expression of mastery was one of the very first steps I took in terms of trying to give students more ownership over their learning in my classroom. During the time I have with my students, I attempt to show them the different avenues that are available for them to express their understanding.  In many ways, I am still introducing them to the many ways they can communicate with an audience. Many of my learners are new to being provided with this choice and may default to the few options I show them.  As time passes and the learners who enter my classroom will have had more experiences in learner centered environments, I believe they will enter our classroom with a better sense of who they are as learners and embrace choice beyond what I may identify for them.  I look forward to this day.  


Continuum of Engagement: From Compliant to Flow

The Continuum of Engagement provides the characteristics of a learner as they move from being passive about learning to being in the flow. How do we know learners are engaged? Step up the ladder to see how a learner moves from compliant to flow so you can picture what it looks and sounds like in a classroom when learners start engaging in the learning process.
A willing student is a compliant student.  But, as the challenge of the task and the skill level of the student increase in synchronicity, this builds a sense of flow. This occurs when the task is not to easy that it results in boredom or the task is so beyond the skill of the student that is results in anxiety. Another important factor in engagement is student interest.  As students find a sense of purpose in what they are doing, they move from simply being compliant to being actively engaged leaders.

To be honest, students in my high school tend to be in compliant mode and feel very comfortable there. When teachers do reach out and provide opportunities, they are willing to commit to taking on more responsibility as co-designers with teachers. In my classroom, though, I have found it very tough to get prolonged sense of flow on long term projects. In many instances this is due to the fact that students haven’t chosen a topic that they are truly passionate about. They reach a point where they are not longer focused on what they are learning about. Helping students realize what they care about at the outset is key to keeping them truly engaged in the task at hand. On given days for given activities, students are able to be in flow.  It is an amazing thing to witness.  Of course students will fluctuate in and out fo flow. But, I hope to find ways to help students stay in flow from day to day.


Continuum of Motivation: Moving from Extrinsic to Intrinsic

Motivation has a great impact on the learning process. While some people learn more by outside influences, others may achieve more by their personal aspirations. Whatever the situation, everyone involved in any learning process should know how motivation affects learning.

As learners become more more empowered, they center of motivation moves. It moves from elements that are extrinsic rewards such as grades to intrinsic feelings and desires. This is where learners are seeing the “why” of learning.  Is it because I have to, because that’s what others are doing, or because I want to.  Lifelong learners are those who no longer need that extrinsic motivation to learn something new.  They learn because they are curious and enjoy the feeling of accomplishment that comes with learning something new.

In my classroom, most days students are still finding the “why” of learning to be for extrinsic reasons. At our school, these include grades and what their peers are doing. When we engage in hands-on activities, that’s when I see motivation move to a more intrinsic locus. There is a desire to achieve a goal that is tangible and the push to accomplish comes from the feelings of success they know they will have upon completion. These tend to be the experiences learners remember the most. These are the activities in which they find flow. As a teacher, my challenge is to allow students the opportunity to find more experiences where they feel this sense of accomplishment that tie directly to the learning in the classroom. I must allow them to find this joy in learning something new.


Continuum of Ownership: Developing Autonomy At first, I thought of this as ownership over products.  But, it is really ownership over learning.  As the authors say, this is development of autonomy.  Who owns the learning process? Moving from extrinsic checks and feedback structures to internal reflection and self-assessment to drive learning. Who is designing the destination and roadmap for learning. And on the journey, who is checking progress.

The first day of my class, students begin designing their Learner Profile with my guidance. The goal of my choice in expression of mastery is for students to determine how they can best demonstrate what they understand. So while They are are all reaching the same destination, I’m asking them to plot their own course. At the end of each unit, I have students contribute an artifact to a portfolio of their learning that they maintain over the length of our course. In many ways, though, the portfolio still feels like something I am asking them to complete. I am asking them to complete these tasks such as updating their Learner Profile. So while they demonstrate understandings of how they learn best, I feel like our learning environment has not evolved to a place where learners are taking action without my lead.  The learning is still something that I am leading. But, the balance is tipping as students engage in their term project, they are the ones choosing the destination and I am helping check their progress. I may be able to help them reroute their journey, but it’s their own destination.


Continuum of Purpose: Fostering a Meaningful Life
As learners gain a sense of purpose, they learn their place in the world.  More appropriately, they learn how they can play a role in shaping the world. Students move from seeing the world as a place that acts on them, to their world being a place that they can experiment and change.  At the far end of the continuum, students are able to see the world beyond their normal sphere and see how they can affect change in that larger world. It may sound corny but we hope to move learners from the simply seeing the purpose of schooling and conforming to the classroom rules to finding their purpose in life.

One great way I was able to push beyond simple conformity in my classroom was an idea from John Spencer.  The idea is something called “wonder days”. On these days, students are asked to grab onto a question they are curious about and follow it to an answer. The student that conforms too often doesn’t take the time during the school day to ask their own questions about the world.  This is a quick and easy way to allow students to learn that their questions have value. It also gives them a chance to learn more about what they are interested in.  Sometimes a single question will take them down a rabbithole to discover something new. Ultimately in our term-long passion project, students are given the space to learn more about their interests.  In terms of a larger purpose, though, they are not affecting much change in the bigger world.  Days when students get to have this impact in my physics class are when we collaborate with elementary schools in our district and students are able to share their learning with younger students. It is powerful to see the sense of responsibility and pride my students take on when we do this.


Continuum of Self-Efficacy: Path to Perseverance

Self-efficacy holds significant implications both for learners and educators in the journey to nurture high levels of skill and knowledge. The most difficult and challenging learner to teach is the learner who believes he or she cannot succeed. Continuum of Self-EfficacyTM by Barbara Bray and Kathleen McClaskey is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Looking at the continuum, we see how students can move from being cautious to fearless learners.  It’s more than simply confidence in abilities.  It is about understanding that risk taking and failing are a part of succeeding and meeting their personal goals. More than just trying something new, it is about failing and not giving up. Learning is the process of being challenged, failing, learning from those failures, and applying what was learned to succeed. The less stigma is attached to failing and the more commonplace we make it, the more risk they will be willing to take.

I find that on day one of my class students are across the spectrum of self-efficacy in school and science. As we progress through the year, it is my goal to create an environment where students aren’t afraid to take risks in their learning.  But, this is easier said than done. Although, I may be able to build these safe relationships with most students, it’s harder for me to make all students take these risks in front of their peers. As we look at their Learner Profile, many students don’t feel safe presenting/speaking in public.  I hope to find ways to have students set goals for themselves outside of content acquisition and in areas of success skills.

In a sense these continuums aren’t simply to be viewed as the progression of a single classroom.  They are the progression of a learner through his/her schooling. Perhaps, we should be looking at these continuums not as classrooms in isolation, but as districts.  How do we provide this journey for students. Helping them identify where they are on the continuum and help move them along.

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