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Imagination, Inquiry, and Agency

Finish this sentence…

“Imagine a place where students could…”

Is that place your school? What would it take for that place to be a reality for your students?

What do you think school could, and should be?

That question is the focus of thousands of conversations in school communities across America and the rest of the world today. It’s a sign of the concern, the angst, and for some even the desperation to better understand how we can more relevantly prepare our students for the rapidly changing modern world we all now live in.

It’s no longer a world of certainty and stability, but rather one of unpredictability and exponential change. It’s no longer a world where students in schools should be asked to go to a set class, at a set time, to be given set content, predetermined by tradition, habit and largely guesswork as to whether it will ever be relevant to them.

On the contrary, we now live in a world where our young people can access whatever they need to, whenever and wherever it is needed, from whoever they want to, for whatever purpose is relevant, meaningful or important to them.

And all of that without any intervention by a teacher. Is that possible in your school?

Most importantly, the extent to which they can self-manage, self-direct or self-determine the what, where and how they learn is a life-skill and discipline that will largely predetermine their ability to successfully navigate the modern world.

Is there anything more important than that?

The public debate around what our schools could and should be has finally reached a tipping point.  It’s a tipping point where talk becomes action, a point when the need for change becomes so overwhelming that school leaders across the country are now urgently wanting to be better informed about the choices they now have and critically, the pathways to get there.

To be honest, both you and I have to admit that at times the overwhelming pace of change in our personal lives can inhibit our ability to reflect on the consequences for our professional lives. Too often it causes us to hesitate or postpone making the necessary commitment to make changes in our practice and in our schools. However, amongst all of this chatter, clutter and noise around change and the confusion that accompanies it, two powerful shifts demand a response from us right now.

Shift One:  learner agency – who owns the learning?

The 2015 Harvard University Achievement Gap Initiative states that student agency is “the capacity and propensity to take purposeful initiative,” and students who possess a high level of agency are not passive participants in their learning but rather active participants engaged in seeking experiences, meaning, and purpose that helps them achieve the accomplishments they desire. In our modern world where our students can decide what they want to learn, when they want to learn, how they want to learn, and who they want to learn from, we are simply kidding ourselves if we don’t think we need to rethink our current practice and our existing industrial models of schooling.

Gary Stager reminds us that “schools will not continue to enjoy their current monopoly on children’s time.” Learning in powerful ways is leaving the building.

While we might not like the idea of students taking agency over their learning and we might be fearful of losing control this is is a shift we cannot avoid. It’s not a fad or an “innovation du jour.” This shift is here to stay. And it means that we need to invest time to gain a deeper understanding of what agency means for our role in schools and our current practice.
As Seymour Papert rather bluntly put it, “I think it’s an exaggeration, but that there’s a lot of truth in saying that when you go to school, the trauma is that you must stop learning and you must now accept being taught.

Are you ready to let go of the legacy practices that infringe on the liberty that agency offers our students, and ensure they have the freedom to learn?

Alfie Kohn probably says it best when he states that “it is not “utopian” or “naive” to think that learners can make responsible decisions about their own learning.” …as they do every day about so many things they really care about!

Shift Two: From being told about the known to discovering the unknown.

And so, it is agency that gives rise to the second shift which has its roots in every child’s innate curiosity. It’s a shift from being told about the known to discovering the unknown. It’s about nurturing inquiring minds so that they will seek out their own paths to discover those things that matter and have real meaning in their lives.

So, what are the answers?

Well, we are not so pretentious as to suggest we have them all, but what we do know, is through the work that Will and I have done with the team at Modern Learners over the past seven years we have been fortunate enough to have helped hundreds of schools across America and around the globe better understand the implications of this massive shift in our schools and what it means for them.

Even more significantly, we have been able to work with educators to develop their capacity to respond to these shifts in ways that are relevant and impactful within their own school communities. That is why we created Modern Learners Labs. They provide time and space for you to dig deeply into the real issues, challenges and opportunities that agency offers for educators like you.

Our Labs bring together small, focused groups that explore the reality of inquiry and agency and how they can completely reshape the learning landscape, offering both students and teachers unprecedented opportunities to be active contributors in the modern world.

So, following an incredibly successful series in 2018, we are continuing to do more labs around the world in 2019. With the grateful assistance of our partner schools, we are very pleased to offer the following dates and venues.

April 1-2 Fort Lauderdale, FL
April 4-5 Houston, TX
April 9-10 San Diego, CA You’ll find all the details about the day at each of the links and you can register below or on the specific lab page, but please don’t wait too long. As I said, we like to keep our Lab groups small, intimate and focused, so numbers are genuinely limited.
We know you know just how important this work is, and we’d love to have you join us.

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7 thoughts on “Imagination, Inquiry, and Agency”

    1. Bruce Dixon

      Let me know when we could discuss further.

      1. Mark Brown, Founding Principal

        Hi Bruce – I believe you can see my email address at your end? If not, the main address on our website – will connect you and the contact field there works so we can connect via email.

    1. Bruce Dixon

      Excellent Mark, look forward to receiving it

      1. Sam matukas

        Hi Bruce I am from the school Headwaters Academy. I was wondering what you are hearing from people about student centre learning and how are the outcomes measured?

        Also how do other schools structure their classrooms so students have choice and are developing new knowledge?

  1. Here is a link to a description of a group of students that does just what you described. It is an overview of a unique psychologically safe learning environment a.k.a. “The Idea Hive” where ideas turn to action. Here students are given the freedom and support to use their talents to change society. One educator who was introduced to this was quoted as “this is High Tech High on steroids”
    Check out the post I wrote entitled “What Happens When Students Own Their Learning?” about the class Creative Leadership: Opportunities for Social Innovation
    Please don’t hesitate to reach out as we would love to connect, collaborate and/or share our story in hopes of helping and learning from others.

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