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What’s New and Different: Learner Agency in the PYP

Until a couple of years ago I’d never used the word agency, and it took a bit of getting used to.  This was definitely a new word in my PYP vocabulary, but I used it all the time now, so let’s first think about what it means.  According to the section on Learner Agency in PYP: From Principles into Practice agency “enables people to play a part in their self-development, adaptation and self-renewal with changing times” (Bandura).  Specifically as this applies to the learner it means that students “use their initiative and will, and take responsibility and ownership of their learning.”  Being able to do this means students must have self-efficacy:  a belief in their ability to succeed.

Although this post is about learner agency, I think it’s important to point out that ALL of us have agency.  For example a school needs to think about its own unique context.  What may be good for one PYP school may not be such a good fit for another.  In the same way teachers also have agency.  Just because there may be many teachers in a grade level who collaboratively plan the units of inquiry, it does not mean that inquiry will look the same in all classes.  Teachers will be tailoring the inquiries to the needs and curiosities of their own students – and one class may look very different from another.  There is now much more student voice and choice: whereas previously when planning teachers chose both the resources, strategies, and the way that students would learn and show their understanding, now students can play more of a role in planning, resource acquisition and writing their own inquiries. 

[They] take initiative, express interest and wonderings, make choices and are aware of learning goals.  They are actively engaged, and monitor and adjust their learning as needed.  Students offer feedback to others and consult on decisions that affect them.  In school, students take responsibility for their learning and collaborate with teachers and other students to plan, present and assess learning needs.

As mentioned before, this is only possible when students are confident in their abilities to make choices and decisions, and teachers recognise this by showing students that they are partners in the learning process.  Students need to be encouraged to ask questions, make choices and express their opinions so the role of the teacher is vitally important in encouraging and finding opportunities for students to develop these skills.  The role of the teacher in an agentic classroom is to:

  • create shared classroom agreements and routines so that there is a culture of respect and trust and where all students feel welcome and safe
  • ask for student input into the design of the learning space
  • involve students in decisions about what, why and how they learn
  • personalise learning, drawing on each student’s capabilities, needs and interests
  • listen to students’ wonderings and perspectives and respond in a way that extends each student’s thinking
  • give open ended tasks so that students can explore their own interests
  • give opportunities for students to try new things and to develop creativity
  • make time for student action
  • monitor learning and reflect on when students need help and when they do not
Students learn by doing, so it’s important to intentionally teach the ATL skills that students need to be successful.  It’s also important that students are given opportunities to demonstrate the attributes of the learner profile.  Build in time for reflection, so that students can plan for their own next steps.  Also encourage students to give feedback to their peers, which may well involve grouping and regrouping students in different ways.
Remember that agency and action are closely linked.  Agency is the power to take meaningful and intentional action, while acknowledging the rights and responsibilities of everyone in the community.  It is not a case of teachers “giving” agency to the students, but in setting the conditions where it can be supported and grow.

Photo Credit: Joe Shlabotnik Flickr via Compfight cc

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