young girl and boy in lab

The Antithesis of Agency

shifting-conversations-logoQ: “In five years, what will be different about your business?”

A: “The way we serve our end customer. We will be able to provide a highly personalized experience for our learners and customers that’s informed by data and delivered via a global learning and technology platform. It will be delivering a highly personalized education experience to the end user of ours, the end student, that’s delivered on a global platform.” ~Albert Hitchcock, Pearson

Bruce and I will be attending the annual ISTE conference in Denver next month, and I’m sure at some point, most likely after steeling ourselves with a couple of drinks, we’ll make our way to the vendor floor. For those of you who haven’t ever been to the vendor floor of a large ed tech conference, just imagine a football field (at least) jammed full of corporate high rise booths with some mom and pop size stuff sprinkled in, auctioneer like demonstrations of the newest gizmos and software, well dressed (for the most part) sales folks seeping into the alleys trying to entice you into conversation with offerings of Tootsie Rolls or, wait for it, gaudy styrofoam fingers branded with their products, and heavily laden conference goers snatching up every free thing they can find and jamming them into overstuffed neon-colored bags to lug home on the plane. It can overwhelm the senses pretty quickly.

WisCEL_classroom12_8095Equally overwhelming, however, is how little of what’s being hawked on the vendor floor actually has anything to do with student learning. And by that I mean even the stuff with “learning” in the name. If you don’t believe me, next time you’re at a vendor booth, go up to one of the reps and ask “How does your product increase the agency that kids have over their own learning?” I’ve done this the last few years at various conferences, and I bet you can guess the number one response: “Um, well, what do you mean by that?”

It usually goes downhill from there.

School budgets are dwindling, yet the vendors seem to be prospering in selling things that no child in their right mind would use in their own lives for learning or anything else. I’ve never seen a kid with a Promethian board in their bedroom. You? Over 90% of what I’ll find at ISTE this year, I’m sure, will be aimed at helping people do school better than they are right now. Almost all of it will be aimed at data collection or security or assessment or curriculum or, as the Pearson rep above suggests, delivering a “highly personalized education experience” to the end users. (Don’t you love it when people call your students “end users”? That right there should make you walk away.)

So why is that? Why is it that most of what school CIOs or CTOsare buying has little to do with kids and learning? Well, one problem is this: a lot of those same CIOs would tell you those SmartBoards and clickers and data collection tools ARE about student learning, or at least “student learning” as it’s currently defined. The one that aligns with the Pearson definition.

Recently I was working with a room full of leaders at a large urban district, and the conversation turned to technology and outcomes. Not surprisingly, one of those in attendance started pushing back, saying that technology in the hands of kids was more of a distraction to learning than a help. In defense, one of the other leaders chimed in and said: “I think what he’s saying is that if we can teach our students differently with technology we can make great gains.”

While I appreciated her support, I had to ask “And just so we’re clear, what do you mean by ‘great gains?’ Better test scores?”

“Well, that’s part of it,” she said.

“And the other part is…” I responded.

“Um, well…”

We don’t include the most important stuff about learning and learners in the “great gains” mix because we don’t measure the most important stuff to see if kids are gaining at it or not. You think Pearson is collecting data on curiosity, on creativity, on persistence and motivation, etc? You think anyone on the vendor floor is driven by making “great gains” in those things?

To be fair, there has been an uptick in that kind of learning at conferences of late. At BETT this year, I saw a number of booths supporting inquiry-based and real world project based type of learning environments. And at last year’s ISTE, there were a number of maker oriented products and services that were, in fact, able to answer the “How does your product transfer agency?” question.

But that’s still the minority by a long shot.

The vision for learning that still permeates the conversation so deeply is the one articulated by Mr. Hitchcock above. Learning is about what we deliver to you and how we deliver it to you. It doesn’t really matter if you want to know it. It doesn’t really matter if you can apply it or have some use for it outside the classroom. All that matters now is that we have this great new data-driven technology that can help you learn what we want you to learn when we want you to learn it and in the way that we deem best for you to learn it.

If you haven’t already figured it out, that’s the antithesis of agency.

(Image credit: Wisc Cel)

2 thoughts on “The Antithesis of Agency”

  1. Philip W

    Hi Will
    Thank you for this article. This is such a pressing issue with data driven learning being the mantra of education as well as pseudo-personalised learning being spruiked at every corner. We need to find a clarity and focus in how we build pedagogical practice focussed on student agency so we can make informed and discerning decisions about the edtech we bring into the learning environment.

  2. Terry D

    About 20 years ago we started a program called “The Breakfast Club.” Ten 8th grade teachers joined together during first period to eat breakfast once a week. Reason, because we could. We ended up asking kids to come up with topics they wanted to learn about. We compiled their list, got a student to be sponsor for the topic. Students went around talking to the sponsors and eventually signed up to work and learn in that group. teachers divided up which groups to be responsible for overseeing.

    Some samples of the topics: salt water fish tank, war games, crotchet, BASIC, video editing. there was a total of 35 topics. Kids did that once a week. I surveyed the students after nine weeks and many said it was the best thing they ever did in middle school. Only one out of 300 did not like it. We were never allowed to do it again, because period one was shortened and we could no longer bank the classroom time for real learning.

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