Learner Agency

As a teacher and school leader, I am constantly searching for ways to develop in each individual learner, a strong sense of agency. Wikipedia defines learner agency as the level of control, autonomy, and power that a student/learner experiences in an educational situation. I do believe that the students in our schools today need to be active participants in their own learning process. Learning cannot be done to them, they must take an active role. Many education systems around the world espouse this believe in their mission statements. My own country, New Zealand has as its core vision statement the aim of developing students who are confident, connected, actively involved, lifelong learners.

Here is an example of one of our kindergarteners reflecting upon the progress he is making in learning to write. He comments on his first piece of writing, then on his latest attempt, he talks about what he can now do and what he will work on next time. He has a strong sense of agency; he knows that his teacher is there to help, support and guide him, but his learning is his alone.


Check out this clip from Hampden Street School, in Nelson New Zealand, where learner agency is valued and strategically developed:


Let’s keep working together to ensure that learner agency is developed, encouraged and valued–it’s what matters!


The scary truth about what’s hurting our kids!

Becky Mansfield’s blog post popped into my newsfeed this morning and it is with great interest that I read it and reflected upon CNN’s recent interview of  Dr. Jean Twenge, author of iGen. The title “The scary truth about what’s hurting our kids” certainly made me sit up and take notice.Here is a link to Becky’s post:


My own thoughts about this are mixed. I mean, just the fact that I have a “newsfeed” tells me that my own world and the impact of social media upon it has changed considerably in this past decade. Yes, I agree the world that our kids now function in is completely different to that which we grew up in. The use of social media and online connections is now the norm for many of our children even at elementary school level and most definitely for those attending secondary. I even catch myself whiling away my own leisure time, checking messages and ‘connecting” with those far and wide. While the positives of this are definitely better personal communication with those that are important to me and a much greater feeling of being informed and up to date, the negatives are there as well in the misuse of time and the loss of privacy.

Back to Becky’s post–So now we have adolescence, a time of life that can be traditionally bumpy at the best of times with young people moving away from the security of the family and working out who they are as young adults, becoming an even more complicated and challenging time due to the impact of social media and connectivity. I definitely agree with her thoughts that supporting our children through this time cannot be left to chance.Our young people deserve our help with this, both from parents and teachers.

A reading challenge!

I love to read professional material that pertains to the field of education. I can’t tell you how many books, articles, now blog posts etc that I have read over the years, but all of them have contributed to my own thoughts and ideas about what works for children, parents, teachers and schools. I have usually always gained something from everything I’ve read. However, I don’t think I’ve ever read anything quite as challenging as the book I am almost finished. “The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers” was recommended to be by a colleague and reading it has been an interesting experience!

The book tells the story of “The Michaela Community College”, a free school in Wembley Park, London, founded in 2014 by Katharine Birbalsingh.  The school has very strong approaches to both discipline and the rigorous teaching of content. It has become extremely popular with parents and students alike. There is a zero tolerance policy around poor behavior for both students and parents; there is no group work; children sit in rows and learn by rote and walk in single file between classrooms. The school website says: “Staff at Michaela tend to reject all of the accepted wisdoms of the 21st century.” In fact most of what the school is about is contrary to my own thoughts, experiences and beliefs about what makes a school successful.

However because it is so contrary to popular opinions about education, it is good to read. I have found myself almost agreeing with some of their ideas, while disagreeing with their implementation. Most importantly though, the book is forcing me to think and re-think about what matters. For example silence is expected in each and every classroom, with the rationale being that children need quiet in order that they can think and learn. Maybe this is correct? And my own “ideal” where classroom are buzzy places with students engaged in discussion and interactions is incorrect. Who knows! And maybe it’s a case of what is best for learning in some environments is not best in others. Anyway my whole point is reading material that is “outside our comfort zones” is good for reflection and provocation and for that reason I am pleased to have picked it up.


Instant Gratification?

I read a blog post recently, written by Victoria Prooday, an occupational therapist working in Toronto, Canada. She outlines her beliefs about why some children today find school boring, have little patience and no friends.

The part that really hit home for me was the following, as a possible reason why some children find school such a challenge.

    “I am Hungry!!” “In a sec I will stop at the drive thru” “I am Thirsty!” “Here is a vending machine.” “I am bored!” “Use my phone!”  The ability to delay gratification is one of the key factors for future success. We have the best intentions — to make our children happy — but unfortunately, we make them happy at the moment but miserable in the long term.  To be able to delay gratification means to be able to function under stress. Our children are gradually becoming less equipped to deal with even minor stressors, which eventually become huge obstacles to their success in life.
    The inability to delay gratification is often seen in classrooms, malls, restaurants, and toy stores the moment the child hears “No” because parents have taught their child’s brain to get what it wants right away.

Her blog post reminded me of another book that I have read that referred to “The Marshmallow Affect”. The Stanford marshmallow affect experiment was a series of studies on delayed gratification in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In these studies, a child was offered a choice between one small reward provided immediately or two small rewards (i.e., a larger later reward) if they waited for a short period, approximately 15 minutes, during which the tester left the room and then returned. In follow-up studies, the researchers found that children who were able to wait longer for the preferred rewards tended to have better life outcomes, as measured by SAT scores, educational attainment, body mass index and other life measures.

It is very interesting to me, as this research concludes that there is a link between very young children who can manage themselves into delaying an activity while waiting for a better reward and success later in life. I have to agree with Victoria in that we are seeing more and more young people who do not know how to manage themselves in this way.Instant gratification is becoming more and more the norm in our young people’s lives.  In classrooms, some children who are told “please wait and take your turn” find this extremely difficult. As educators we need to support everyone in providing boundaries for children. “You will get that ice-cream after you have eaten your vegetables” would have been something our grandparents would have stuck to. In the classroom this translates to “You will need to show me evidence that you have done this learning, before we move on” and most importantly when an adult says “no”, we mean no, not just “no, but then I’ll find another way to get what I want”.

Working with small children is hard work whether you are a parent or a teacher, but the effort put in now has such long term effects. Our future citizens deserve nothing less.
Reference: http://deeprootsathome.com/kids-bored-entitled/

We before me!

We Before Me! Our theme for 2017-18

Every year before school starts, our teaching staff (teachers and teachers assistants) meet for three days of professional development and learning. This year was no exception and out of our work this year, we adopted a theme for the year; “We before Me!” Our aim is to focus on being a strong team of educationalists whose focus is the welfare and progress of all of our students and ourselves, from Pre-Kindergarten to Grade 12. We are all collectively responsible for “Opening Doors, Hearts and Minds” in our students and ensuring that they understand their role in supporting each other to do the same.

“We before me” focuses our attention and therefore behaviors on people working together with one common mission and vision. Here at ACST this is an important part of how we function as a school. We try to put aside our own needs, in favor of what is good for the collective whole. “Team work really does make the dream work”. We are team orientated and  supportive of each other.  We have over time developed agreed group norms or ways of behaving as we go about our daily work.  This is of course, not a new idea! Businesses all around the world are looking for team players and re-structuring so that their employees can work best as a collective group.

Schools are just the same! We have moved a long way from the days when a teacher went into a box-shaped classroom at the beginning of the year with his or her students and worked away all year in complete isolation from the rest of the school. We are developing systems here at ACST where teachers “coach” other teachers by providing feedback and where teachers meet to discuss student progress and overall needs. The idea that “it takes a whole village to raise a child” is very much evident at ACST. A child’s welfare, behavior and academic progress is all of our responsibility not just the person standing at the front (or side) of the classroom. However, teams work best if there is a strong common culture of vision and expectations and this is the work we pursued during our professional development time this year.

This theme is equally as important for our students. While it is perfectly normal for very young children to be focused completely on themselves, as children mature through elementary school and on to secondary we want them to learn to think of what is good for the group, as well as what is good for themselves. This is why we emphasize group projects, collaborative seating and have organizations such as the Youth Club, National Honors Society and School Government functioning so well in our school. One of the ACST core values is respect and this plays out in many ways–respect for oneself, respect for the environment and respect for each other. Students are learning how to behave respectfully with each other, how to listen first rather than always speak, how to cooperate and also how to disagree with each other while maintaining a sense of respect for another point of view. It is our mission to teach and model these skills to all of our students. As Michael Jordan quite rightly said “ talent wins games but teamwork and intelligence win championships”.

Turning the page! It’s a new school year!

One of the aspects that I love about working in a school is the sense of timing of the school years. The school year closes in June (or December if you are in the southern hemisphere) in a flurry of “end of the year” activities such as prize-givings, final assemblies, celebrations and farewells. There is always a sense of closure and celebration as we collectively head out the door into our summer vacations. The same goes for the beginning of the school year; it has its own unique feel:- excitement, nervousness and an eagerness to get back to routines and the rhythm of the school year. After all these years, I cannot now imagine working in an environment where this cycle is not present. Today was our first day “meeting and greeting” both our new and returning students and their families and that same sense of freshness was evident once again. It’s like “turning the page” to start again with time to let the new year begin.

Another aspect that I love about working in education is one that I have been reflecting upon a lot over the summer and that is “there are no absolutes in today’s educational world”. Gone are the days where schools were organized around only one way. In year’s gone by schools and indeed teachers, stood for one particular method or strategy.  For example, the mantra of “all children will learn to read through a phonics approach to the teaching of reading” or the opposite of “all children will learn to read via a whole language approach”.  Teachers and schools adopted programs and/or systems that supported one or the other. In today’s world these ideas have been replaced with “some children learn best via this type of instruction, others will learn a different way’ Schools are organizing themselves so much more into places that can truly respond to all needs. This concept spills over into the differences in schools–charter vs public vs private; open plan vs single cell. What I now firmly believe is that there is no one way, no either or, just lots of and….and…. And…

Here’s to a great start in 2017-18!

Why is change so hard?

Someone once told me that the only person who likes change is a wet baby! Yes, this might be true but I would also add to this that the person who is initiating the change also probably quite likes it, they happily join the line up of wet babies wawhy-is-change-so-hard-1-728iting for the change to occur and relishing the ongoing effects of whatever it is that they are moving forward, mainly because it is they who are in control. It is those who are affected by the change or have no power over the change who more than likely do not like it one bit.

After  25+ years of experience working in schools I feel qualified to say that “changing anything in a school is hard”. For some reason schools are institutions that love predictability, order and consistency. Maybe it is because we work with children who are far from any of these three adjectives. Maybe also it is because a school is not just bricks and mortar but people–teachers, staff members, students, leaders, board members and parents. With such a large group of stakeholders it is very challenging to find agreement about change, meaning that there is always going to be some who do not agree and are not happy. I do wonder sometimes though if the surgeons of the world have to discuss their proposed new surgical method at length with their patient, the patient’s parents, the board of the hospital and all of the staff members. I guess they do!

In our international private school setting I believe that change is even harder than it was within a state school in my home country. I am not sure whether this is because there is a constantly revolving door of international teachers, students and parents or maybe it’s because there is such a diverse range of previous experiences of schools and education systems.

We discuss the need for innovation often but very rarely actually do it, allowing much that could be good to sit in the ‘too hard” basket. This is such a dichotomy as innovation is what we are looking for in our global-minded students.

However lessons learned along the way! To effect positive change in any institution we need to enlist the hearts and minds of all of the stakeholders, not just some. While this work is challenging it is hopefully worth it in the end.