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Sunday, 1 March 2015

Teacher Agency - Who Owns the Professional Learning?

This morning it feels as though my brain is going to explode. Actually, it feels like that most days lately.

In September I took a secondment with the Student Achievement Division on the Capacity Building Team at the Ministry of Education. In the past six months I've had the opportunity to learn from so many deep thinkers in education. I've been participating in wonderful reflections, discussions, and heated debates on teaching and learning and most of the time, my head is spinning and moving in so many directions that is difficult to tease all of that learning apart into specific threads.

But one of the threads that I keep coming back to is the notion of "agency". In January, they posed a question on the OSSEMOOC blog that I follow: "What is your #oneword for 2015?" Without hesitation, my immediate thought was "agency".

I first came across that word about a year ago, and I brought it up at one of our recent planning meetings at work. This word alone has inspired great on-going discussion and led to shifts in our current thinking on learning.

Agency ... is an individual’s sense of what they can do and what they think they can do. Duggins, Shaun D., "The Development of Sense of Agency." Thesis, Georgia State University, 2011. http://scholarworks.gsu.edu/psych_theses/88

Agency is the power of the individual to choose what happens next. (Lindgren, R., & McDaniel, R. (2012). Transforming Online Learning through Narrative and Student Agency. Educational, Technology & Society, 15 (4), 344–355.)

I first became intrigued by the notion of student agency when I saw these images on Twitter.

Images courtesy of flickr user Bill Ferriter

These images can be found on Bill Ferriter's blog The Tempered Radical where he distinguishes between the notions of engagement vs empowerment. I believe that "agency" is more than just being engaged in the learning; having a sense of agency is about being empowered to doggedly choose to pursue learning.

I've also been inspired by the work of Alan November and his book "Who Owns the Learning". Alan November explains that with the advent of educational technology we are living in the
"Age of the Empowered Learner". I have written a fair bit on how using blended learning in a grade six classroom really empowered my students and helped them to take ownership for their learning.

But in my current role I am not working directly with students. I support the learning of adults. To be specific, I support PROFESSIONAL LEARNING. I've been interested in professional learning for a long time. It is actually a rather elusive term for me. We tend to call any event where we pull educators away from their regular work to tell them something new "professional learning", but I often have my doubts that much "learning" is actually taking place. In fact, I wrote a blog post about the difference between professional learning communities and professional learning networks because I have sometimes been frustrated by the PLC's that I've been involved in (which you can find here). 

I believe we need to start considering the term "agency" more deeply when it comes to teacher learning. This question was posted recently on the OSSEMOOC blog:

"How does shift occur from a mindset where learning is provided to a culture where learning is sought?"

As I ponder the idea of teacher agency and reflect on our current professional learning practices I end up with so many more questions:
  • Millions of dollars are spent each year on professional learning in the province of Ontario, how do we know what impact it has on changes in teacher practice and student learning? 
  • How do we differentiate the learning of our teachers since we know that they all have different experiences, skills, strengths, interests, and most importantly - students with different needs?
  • How do we provide system level and school level professional learning and yet still provide teachers with voice and choice in their learning? 
  • How can we leverage the use of technology to empower our teachers to be innovative learners?
My friend Regan and I have had frequent conversations about professional learning. We often question our own beliefs about learning and teachers' motivation to learn. There is an expression in education that is "Go with the Goers". Some teachers are seen as "Goers" - they exhibit a learning stance, believe they can and should be constantly improving their practice, and seek out new learning on their own. I often wonder why it is we should go with the Goers if they are going to get there anyway? Isn't it the slow starters we should be focusing our attention on? 

This in turn leads to more questions:
  • Can we help teachers develop an inquiry stance about their teaching practice if they currently don't have one? If so, how do we do that? 
  • Can we impact teachers' motivation to learn? 
  • Can we develop in teachers a sense of agency? If so, how do we do that? 
  • How does our current professional learning practice either foster or inhibit a sense of agency in our teachers?
These questions are really important because research indicates that teacher efficacy directly impacts student learning, and teacher efficacy is tied closely to teacher agency. 

"Teachers who set high goals, who persist, who try another strategy when one approach is found wanting—in other words, teachers who have a high sense of efficacy and act on it—are more likely to have students who learn (Shaughnessy, 2004)" ~ as quoted in "Teacher Efficacy and Why Does It Matter".

I realized as I reflected on these questions that I had a fixed mindset about this topic. I believed that some people are more motivated to learn than others, some educators have a learning stance, and others don't. In fact, teacher agency is often defined as an innate quality.

Teacher agency is typically viewed as a quality within educators, a matter of personal capacity to act (Priestly et al., 2012) usually in response to stimuli within their pedagogical environment. It describes an educator who has both the ability and opportunity to act upon a set of circumstances that presents itself within that individual’s leadership, curricular or instructional roles. The educator described would then draw from acquired knowledge and experience to intercede appropriately and effectively. Agency is increasingly rare in the educational world of prescriptive improvement, and the term is too “often utilized as a slogan to support school-based reform” (Priestley, Biesta & Robinson, 2012, p. 3). Teacher Agency in America and Finland By Roger Wilson, GVSU Faculty

As I've been exposed more and more to the work of Carol Dweck, however, I realize that the definition above is very much a fixed mindset. Do we believe that all educators are capable, competent and curious? If so, then the old adage "Education is not the filling of a bucket, but the lighting of a fire" by Yeats is as true for educators as it is for students. So the question for educational leaders becomes not "What should professional learning look like?" so much as "How do we light a fire in our teachers?"

How, then, do we (in the words of Lucy West) create a multi-generational learning culture in which educators - including ourselves - and students become learners in the company of one another?

Kristen Swanson poses the following question on her blogpost #HackPD:

What if the only PD ever offered by a school was "How to Learn Something When You Want to Know Something?"

It is time to re-think professional learning, to look closely at its impact on students and teachers, and perhaps to redefine it. We need to be thinking about why teachers need to own their professional learning and what that will look like at both the school and system level. We need to start thinking about how we are going to develop agency in our teachers and think less about what content, skills and strategies we need to be teaching them.