Laura K Spencer, Ed.D.

I spent a year digging deeply into the concept of student agency with teacher teams. We tried to define what agency looked like for a particular grade level, and then how to use that definition to create a classroom culture that provided opportunities for students to develop and exhibit agency.

Lately, as I work on creating learning experiences for virtual learners, I’ve been thinking a lot about the agency work. How do students who aren’t in a classroom develop and exhibit agency? Do they have to already have agency in order to be a successful virtual learner? Is this a chicken or the egg debate?

Executive Function

The other day I stumbled upon a webinar by Sucheta Kamath, founder and CEO of EXQ, called The Back-to-school Brain: Developing Executive Function Skills to Shape a Successful School Year. Kamath dove into the importance of Executive Function skills for students. According to Kamath, executive function is the ability
to serve the self (goals),
done by oneself,
by managing self
…and if one can’t, it’s the ability ask for help, by oneself.

In other words, if an idea is originated by a parent or teacher, than it is the parent or teacher’s executive functioning skills getting worked, and not the student.

This isn’t far off from the definition of student agency. One definition I like states that “Agency refers to the power to make choices. Students with agency are those who feel a high level of responsibility and ownership for their own learning (source).” In order to have that high level of responsibility and ownership, students would need to have executive functioning.

So then…if a teacher is setting up a classroom to provide opportunities for students to develop and exhibit agency, then how much of that opportunity is based on the teacher’s executive functioning skills and agency and how much of it is building the child’s skills? In other words, if the teacher says, “I’m creating this writer’s workshop to build agency” then has the responsibility and ownership been placed on the teacher instead of the student?

Slide with female adult helping young female student.
States: If it's the parent's idea, parents EF skills were used. If it's the teacher's idea, teacher's EF skills were used. If it is the child's idea, child's EF skills are being used.
Slide from Kamath’s presentation. EF = Executive Function

This becomes an important question when considering two important executive functioning skills – to adapt and to shift flexibly. Throughout a school day, students are expected to transition multiple times through a variety of different transition types:

  • leisure to leisure – from lunch to free play, or during station rotation with fun experiences
  • work to leisure – finishing up an assignment before recess or the end of the school day
  • leisure to work – coming back to class after recess, or lunch, or an assembly
  • work to work – shifting from math instruction to science instruction

Disengaging from one experience and then reengaging with a different experience is exhausting, especially when it is a work to work adjustment. Before students can take ownership of learning, they must successfully navigate these transitions.

Kamath recommended that teachers ensure the expectations match the level of skill readiness. It may be unrealistic for a kindergartner to know how to put away math and pull out writing without direction, but it is not unrealistic for a middle school student. So before judging a child for failure to exhibit agency, it may be necessary to provide help in executive functioning,

A tip from Kamath: Use timers to warn about upcoming transitions (not just when time is up!), as well as provide visual reminders. Have different timer sounds for different transition types.

Function Before Agency

So if executive functioning skills must stem from the student’s self management, and self-management is required in order to exhibit responsibility and ownership, which are demonstrations of agency, then it stands to reason that students need to have age-appropriate executive functioning in order to demonstrate agency in learning.

Our Role as Educators

Helping students discover their sense of purpose, and then assisting them in using their executive functioning skills to set them on a course to achieve that purpose, will create a personal drive to learn, and thus lead them to take agency, or ownership and responsibility, of that learning.

Yesterday I watched as teens came together to use their design thinking and entrepreneurial skills to tackle the subject of human trafficking, which is prevalent in San Diego. They came up with innovative ideas to increase awareness and inspire action.

The day kicked off with a motivational talk by WIT Founder, Sarah Hernholm. She stressed to them how important their voice is to solving big issues in our society. “You’re so much more than your school, your GPA, your AP course load… what matters are your ideas.”

Sarah and Don sharing with teens about the issue of human trafficking.

To provide more context as to how important the issue of human trafficking is to San Diego teens, Don from Saved in America shared with the group how 3,000 teens from San Diego alone were lost within the past year. He shared signs of distress to look for in friends who may be involved in unhealthy relationships, as well. When asked why teens don’t know more about this epidemic, Don responded that it’s a hard conversation for adults to start with teens. One of the teen participants responded, “Just because it’s a hard conversation doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have it.” Another added on, “Teens have to be at the table for issues impacting teens.”

Brainstorming ways to encourage teens to avoid unhealthy relationships.

And at the table they were!

Don’s talk lit a fire in the teens. Split into smaller groups, they brainstormed solutions to:
– Ensure teens know the Human Trafficking Hotline Phone Number
– Provide education to teens on healthy vs unhealthy relationships
– Encourage parents to engage in conversations about human trafficking with their teen
– Use social media to increase awareness of human trafficking amongst teens

Sorting ideas on how to encourage parents to engage in conversations with their teens about human trafficking and unhealthy relationships.

Design Thinking the Challenge Presented

Empathizing. Defining. Ideating. Prototyping. Testing and Refining. Teens spent six hours developing their proposed solution to one of the problems. Unlike past WIT Hackathons, this year the teens did not have an adult coach assigned to them. Instead they were trusted to use the design thinking process on their own, seek out feedback or assistance when needed, and most importantly, have their voices heard.

Students had not met prior to the day, but by the end, they were family.

A Bias Towards Action

It was an honor to coach them, and a thrill to listen to their pitches. Two groups tapped in to the power of Instagram to get their message out to peers. One group connected with local and national businesses to ask that the hotline be printed on their product packaging. We had a group developing curriculum for middle and high school teachers, and another group developing signage for public transportation stops and gas stations.

Hotline Heroes is partnering with local and national companies to add the hotline to product packaging.

Each proposal was unique, and their pitches were on point. Just like Shark Tank, students tackled all the key components of a pitch: Why, How, What, Target Market, Competition, Unique Selling Proposition, and Financials. They were scored on how well they met the challenge; their ability to address all the components; their presentation skills; the feasibility of their solution; and their adherence to the time allocation.

This video uses a snack analogy to discuss healthy vs unhealthy relationships

Change Agents

Although three groups won a monetary award, the reality is that all of the teens were winners. They came together, used empathy to tackle a tough issue, and spread the word about an issue that affects their lives. These kids are world changers!

If you haven’t heard of WIT, check it out. Hackathons and college credit courses are available for all San Diego County high school students. It’s also available in Austin, TX and New York City. And hey, if it’s not in your town (yet), reach out to Sarah and make it happen!

My boyfriend and I have very different communication styles, especially when it comes to sharing our feelings. He’s just not the kind of guy who will bring me flowers, or leave me notes or proclaim his love for the world to hear.

So when we decided to pull weeds at about 7pm last night, the last thing I expected was this:

Him: “Hey Google, play ‘Tell Laura I Love Her.'”

Me: 😍

…And This Has to Do with Education How?

So why tell you this story when this blog is about education?

Because I know that, if relationship skills were to be assessed in school, my boyfriend probably wouldn’t get top scores. In fact, he may even be labeled as “at risk” or some other label equally obnoxious.

We have this narrow view in education of what success is, and how we measure it, and honestly, our measures seem to lack correlation to what success means in life. Not sure what I mean by that? Check out The Valedictorians Project.

Or read about Basil’s experiences in her piece, “Dear School, Eff Your F.”

Your education factory assembles each student in the same order, first this piece then the next. Units are assessed as they move down the line; the standards are high with little room for deviation. Those who fail inspection are stalled in production, the ones who pass are given certificates and sent out to market.

“Dear School, Eff Your ‘F’” by Anastasia Basil

I’m hopeful that we’ll one day get to the place where people aren’t measured against some arbitrary “norm” but instead are celebrated for their own skills and talents. Because hey, he may not buy me flowers, but my boyfriend brings me joy, and that’s a true measure of success.

P.S. If you don’t know the song, it’s a 1960 (somewhat tragic) love song by Ray Peterson.

Three school site primary teacher teams have been spending the past two months digging into agency and personalization. What is it? Why is it important? And what do I need to do to provide it for students?

Each group was tasked with presenting an overview of what they had learned, using the Zoom Panel guidelines from Making Learning Visible as a template. The basic elements of the presentation included:

  • Overarching question
  • Context to set the stage
  • Zoom In – artifacts that document the learning journey
  • Zoom Out – findings and implications for further discovery

Each group approached the concepts of agency and personalization differently, and yet, their overall learnings all centered on a theme.

Slow down.

No matter what the learning target was, each team shared a need to slow down and make sure that students understand the WHY behind the activities. The WHY being the learning target behind the activity.

Cult of Speed

Carl Honoré says that society is caught up in the “Cult of Speed” and this can certainly be seen in education. High stakes accountability has resulted in a sort of checking off of standards as the new finish line. We talk career and college readiness, but do we mean it?

When accountability becomes the focus, the WHY gets lost in the shuffle. Seth Godin, in his blog post “Accountability vs Responsibility,” sums it up perfectly.

Accountability is done to you. It’s done by the industrial system, by those that want to create blame.
Responsibility is done by you. It’s voluntary. You can take as much of it as you want.

Seth Godin, “Accountability vs Responsibility”

Accountability to Responsibility

When we switch from accountability to responsibility, students are able to exhibit agency. They learn the WHY, and this then provides the foundation for the WHAT and the HOW.

  • Why is it important that I learn this skill/content?
  • Why is this activity important to my learning journey?
  • Why is my choice in flexible seating important to the task I am working on at this moment?

Each of these questions is important. And each requires a deliberate slowing down of the content madness so that students are able to understand, connect, and take responsibility for their own unique learning experience.

“The great benefit of slowing down is reclaiming the time and tranquility to make meaningful connections–with people, with culture, with work, with nature, with our own bodies and minds” 

― Carl Honoré, In Praise of Slowness: Challenging the Cult of Speed


When the WHY is owned by both the student and the teacher, then the WHAT and the HOW have INTENTION. When the WHAT and the HOW have intention, great learning happens.

By Emily Mackie, 5th grade teacher

As mentioned in my Exploring Agency and Personalization blog on December 15th, I’ve been working with teachers to to better understand the principles of agency and personalization. As these are key elements of our district’s vision and mission, it is important to be able to articulate what those principles are, how they manifest in an elementary school classroom, and what impact they have on student learning. When I asked teachers to reflect on their growth, one teacher took the time to write an eloquent response. With her permission, I am sharing it here.

I used to believe that all good teachers foster agency in their classroom. It is something that just naturally starts to happen for most kids, and something that might happen very slowly, or in a limited capacity for others. After all, the reality is that some kids just have more buy-in to their own learning than others. Our students come to us with different personalities, hopes, dreams, family values, and beliefs about their schooling. Our students come to us with a vast spectrum of experiences, fostered from within and outside of our school district. Changing or growing their pre-existing belief system is no easy task. But now I believe that supporting every student in the ways they approach their own learning is quite possibly our most important task as educators.

@MrsMackieD3 Tweet: Sharing Learning@Home with our classmates = engaged learners

After working closely with my team and the other hub participants, my thinking on student agency has really changed into a belief that supporting student growth in agency is slow and steady, and is fostered most effectively over time. When we can support students in building these habits of mind, they build a foundation for success in life that will extend beyond their school experience. Agency is grown through hard work and understanding. Building grit and academic tenacity takes focus, attention, and buy-in, from students and teachers alike. Growing agency for students is about goal setting and asking the tough questions about the WHYs of their learning experiences. Questions and considerations about learning that I have been asking my students to become aware of are: Why are you doing this? Why does it matter? Who are you doing this FOR? Is this for you, me, your parents? What you do, make, say, accomplish each day matters – for YOU. Otherwise, what is the point? Providing learning experiences and opportunities for students to grow this mindset should be the point…for all of us. Spending time, scaffolding opportunities for students to make decisions about their learning behaviors with intention is hard work. But it is important work. Helping students build an awareness about their own contributions and responsibilities toward their learning outcomes is one of the most important contributions we can make to them as lifelong learners. This is the work, the learning, the growing, that is most certainly worth doing.

Emily Mackie has been teaching elementary students for 13 years. She strives to make the classroom a student-centered space which fosters curiosity, exploration, creativity, and FUN so that all children feel safe, valued, and loved. You can find her on Twitter at @MrsMackieD3

For the next two months, I get the honor to spend time, like serious, dedicated, reflective time, with three groups of teachers as we dive deep into the concepts of personalization and agency. Our goal is to define how these terms are demonstrated in an elementary classroom: What teacher moves are present? What are our learners doing? How does personalization and agency impact their learning? Their sense of self?

One of the teacher hubs is a group of 1st grade teachers that would like to spend more time getting to know learners’ interests and concerns.

  • How can getting to know our learners help with social and behavior interactions?
  • How do we get to know each child’s culture and traditions?
  • How do we apply personal interests into core curriculum?
  • How can knowing our learner’s interests help with connecting with other students, like big buddies on campus?
  • How can we learn more about a student’s outside learning, and bring that passion into the classroom?


What I love about my role is that I am simply the facilitator of their discovery. I find resources to help them explore their ideas, and I guide them through the PDSA cycle of Plan-Do-Study-Act. I’m like the fairy godmother in Cinderella, except that the pumpkin coach I provide is ways to grow in understanding, and discover new approaches/strategies that can be applied in the classroom as part of the pursuit towards the extraordinary school experience.

Below are a few articles I am sharing with the teachers to help provide context around the topic of personalization. I’d love it if you’d share your resources as well, or even . better, ways in which you are providing personalized opportunities for all students to ignite their genius.


This article shows how personalization uses what you know about students (relationships + academics) to build experiences that meet their unique strengths and needs.

This article talks more about the partnership between teacher and parent to create a shared understanding of students, which helps to deeply understand the learner, leading to personalization that is meaningful.

And this article helps build context around personalization, differentiation, and individualization… and the process teachers tend to go through as they head towards a personalized learning environment. It may be helpful to self-identify where you see yourself in the process, and then identify an area for growth/development through the hub plan-do-study-act cycle.

…I may ramble in this post. It’s 1am. I’m tired! Have a head cold. But wanted to share my learnings…


Do I really have to go home tomorrow?

It’s going to be hard to walk away from the synergy of woke educators at this conference, but I know that I have much work to do when I return to San Diego.

Not the work of answering emails and finishing tasks (although there is plenty of that as well), but the work of amplifying the conversations and ideas that have taken place here the past few days so that words don’t just stay words, but instead become actions.

David Hogg and Dan Rathers sitting in chairs talking

David Hogg and Dan Rathers

I started today hearing the voice of the new generation, David Hogg of March For Our Lives, rethink advocacy in this new era. He shared how he had never truly understood what empathy was until he saw his 14 year old sister collapse under the weight of finding out that four of her friends died in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting. As.a teenage boy full of hormones, he didn’t know what to do with those emotions, but he knew he didn’t want shooting to be just another news story with no change/impact.

Advocacy is born from passion, from desire, from need. So often in education we stifle that drive or relegate to an elective, after school, or GATE program. Education says it is preparing students for the world of work, but when a teenager can say that he never felt empathy until his senior year of high school, then what have we truly prepared them for? What kind of future doesn’t require empathy?

When pressed as to what prepared Hogg, and others like him, to be advocates, he credited experience with speech and debate classes; theater, TV production, and journalism. The very nature of these programs built the skills needed for activism. Hogg learned that it is not his place to speak for others, because he has not shared their experiences. But he can certainly elevate their voices, spotlight them.

When Hogg was asked what his advocacy work had accomplished, he paused before explaining, “We’ve accomplished a little in an area where nothing is expected so we’ve accomplished a lot.” This ability to see progress, to chart a path and stick with it, and to amplify voices through empathy… this is how schools should be preparing students not for the world of work, but for the world of life. The world they’re in now.

There was also a panel of three female teenage entrepreneurs sharing their stories today, and although they weren’t activists like David Hogg, they had a voice that was being amplified through their start-up companies and non-profit organizations. But it wasn’t an easy journey to become a teen entrepreneur.

Entrepreneurship is like a varsity sport, one of the women explained. “We’re working on it during ALL our spare time..thinking about it all the time. We need adult mentorship outside of the classroom to help us find our way.

But instead, many received truancy letters for taking time out of school to pursue their passion. “Attending an economic summit in Boston shouldn’t result in punishment at school!” Reminds me of conversations yesterday as to what learning is valued, and how antiquated our current learning value system is. How ironic that students are penalized for being successful outside the school walls.

Instead of punishing them, the young ladies asked for mentorship, for people to help them amplify their voice and their passions. People who would offer personal reciprocity by sharing their own struggles; helping alleviate self-doubt; and asking tough questions along the way. Sounds like they were asking for support with the soft skills, the skills that matter most.

One of the women explained, problem solving is just as important as reading and math. As entrepreneurs, they are learning how to fail and grow early. They’re using their creativity to think outside the box to create positive change for society.

And yet, these opportunities aren’t well integrated in elementary schools because the hard skills are pushed more than innovation. Only the gifted, the affluent, or the lucky get to participate. It doesn’t have to be this way. Some ideas shared were to run a pop up shop for a day as part of an entrepreneur project or to have students pick an inconvenience and design a solution.

The advice given to one of the entrepreneurs is just as applicable to all the educators in the audience: You need to take the first step before you’re even ready to take it. A small step is better than no step.

Amplifying voices should be happening all over our schools. “Libraries are like the quarterback [you never knew you had],” so why aren’t school and district leaders leveraging the power we have in our buildings? The library, in many schools, is the biggest classroom in the school. What if we reimagined the space as a systemic gateway to change?

In the 30 minute Reinvention: Designing Future Ready Libraries session, Carolyn Foote articulated that students deserve access to inviting, accessible, collaborative, flexible, tech-rich and literacy centered libraries that support academic and enriching experiences. I’d add that those spaces also support student passions. They elevate the voice of the students by providing them with the resources needed to find and nurture that voice.

#dtk12chat crew posing for a photo

#DTK12Chat Live!

Like every other day, today wasn’t just about the sessions. It was about the connections made between sessions. The best part of Wednesday at #SXSWEDU is actually the #dtk12chat that happens live from the Hilton lobby. There were so many inspiring stories shared about innovation, transformation, and creative change. More importantly, new friendships were forged, and old friends were embraced.

Dan Rathers, in the panel conversation with David Hoggs, shared the line from a Barbra Streisand song, “Hearts can inspire other hearts with their fire.” Well, I certainly plan on bringing a fire back to San Diego!

Next time I decide to stay up and blog at 1am, I hope I remember how tired I am today and force myself to go to sleep! Seriously… what was I thinking?!?

Today’s SXSWEDU experience was truly about connections. Yes, I attended some sessions, but a lot of the thought-provoking ideas came from conversations. Here’s my attempt to recap it for my readers (and for me!)

This morning’s breakfast learning was centered on personalized learning. Elliot Washor from Big Picture Schools talked a lot about how we need a broader understanding of what smart is. Students should be given credit for how they’re learning outside of school. Unfortunately, our current system has biases around what smart is, and how students should learn and understand. If students don’t fit that mold, they are not deemed successful.

Which is ironic, because school is probably the least likely place for learning to occur. It’s rigid…controlled. Time is predetermined. When to learn, what to learn, when to eat, where to sit, how to write, what to write, etc. It’s hard, virtually impossible, to have agency in that situation. And yet we expect these students to enter the work/college realm ready to make important decisions on their own.

Testing is individual, but learning is communal. Think about that – Edward Clapp from Harvard discusses the false narrative of the lone creative genius, when we know that every genius got there through connections and conversations with others. Yet we test the individual, and not just test, but test on random knowledge that we have arbitrarily assigned to a grade level.

Schools still promote a falsely constructed concept that learning is linear, which creates a huge inequitability situation (yes, I may have made up that word…) Students don’t need literacy/numeracy to have complex thoughts. They also don’t need it to develop and/or contribute to creative processes. So why do we take away the exploration courses from students who are in remedial classes…double math instead of robotics or engineering? We need to flip it around. Give those students access!!! Joe, Design 39 Principal, sums it up well. “Our school structures are human-made… if they get in the way, change it. That’s our role.”

And all that thinking was before 10am! This is why I enjoy SXSWEDU.

It was the perfect segue into the next session attended, which was The Gift of an Inclusive MakerSpace. Sam Patterson (@SamPatue) opened by reminding the audience that MakerSpace work is about teaching collaboration. It’s not about the circuits. Patrick Benfield elaborates. “If all you have is a hammer, then all the kids end up looking like nails.” Equity and personalization in education means we have to realize that we aren’t just a hammer and the students aren’t just nails. MakerSpaces are a great place to do that because it fosters the collective creative genius.

Bridging Divides Through Verbatim Performance, a 30 minute presentation by NYU Professor Joe Salvatore (@profjoesal).

Verbatim Performance is an arts-based investigation grounded in objective observation and precision. It’s not satire, but is a group of ethnodramatists/ ethnoactors who specialize in the techniques and ethics of the form. The performers are charged with ability to have empathy for the person/role they perform in order to truthfully render the performance.

Why do they do all this, you ask? Because, as actress Anna Deavere Smith explains, “If you say a word often enough, it becomes you.” Verbatim performance disrupts preconceived notions and biases. These actors aren’t just recreating a moment in time. The gender or race roles are switched to force people to look at the moment through a different lens. Through these experiences, the audience is asked to consider what happens to perception and understanding of various moments when the gender of the speakers is flipped.

There are a few applications of verbatim performance.

Media literacy
– Objective/subjective observation
– Rhetorical devices
– Point of view

Building empathy
– breathing as another person

Analyzing & Strategizing
– Embodied analysis
– Seeing ourselves (much stronger/deeper than watching video)
– ‘Knowing” the opponent

Disrupting consumption
– “Chewing our food” (consuming media – not chewing makes us sick, puke, choke…)

So what is the role of verbatim performance in my world? I’m excited to explore how to use a simplified version as a way for students to explore empathy for each other, for characters in a book, for adults in society… Can this approach help with social-emotional learning?

But in all honesty, like I said in the intro, the power of today’s learning was in the conversations.

Breakfast conversations with Brooke (@TobiaBrooke) and Marisa (@MarisaEThompson) may have inspired Brooke to rethink the concept of learning in her classroom, but it also rekindled an idea to form a community of learners with our neighboring school districts, in which they teach.

Spending time with the MakerSpace panel after the session to discuss the deconstruction of making and how to inspire students to understand how systems work gave me ideas for new student experiences.

Talking to Professor Salvatore after his session connected me with an educator who is modifying his work for 3rd graders, and opened my mind to ideas for teachers who are working on a Humans of New York storytelling project.

Lunch with a Twitter friend I had not yet met was an amazing connection. Kami Thordarson (@kamithor) is doing amazing work on personalized learning through design and technology. Her design camp for teachers has my gears spinning like crazy! And I’m excited to explore collaboration models for professional learning concepts.

Exhibition hall connections have me thinking about a variety of topics: different furniture configurations to create happy learning spaces; how to share our learning (#ShareYourLearning) on a larger scale; and how to tell the story of our learners through projects like What We Are Made Of, which is a mosaic portrait series created to uplift student voices and explore the multi-layered experiences of youth across America.

A photo of a mosaic of an African-American woman surrounded by yellow objects that represent her background.

What We Are Made Of is a mosaic portrait series created to uplift student voices and explore the multi-layered experiences of youth across America.

How many times have you found yourself trying over and over again to explain a problem, only to have the other person jump to solutions without quite hearing you? Reminds me of this Sesame Street routine.

What I love about Design Thinking is that the focus on empathy requires the designer to truly listen, observe, and immerse oneself into the problem through the lens of the user, and not the lens of the designer. It requires us to hear about the issue with the fly in the soup.

This hit home for me Saturday at #DesignCamp. I attended Ellen Deutscher’s (@Lndeutsch) “Nurturing Design Thinking Mindsets through Play and Improv” session. I told her I was attending because improv gives me anxiety and I needed to step outside my comfort zone.

Ellen is a wizard at leading people through collaborative experiences that build active listening and risk taking so I knew I was in good hands. At one point, after an activity, she asked if anyone wanted to share how that experience made them feel. She said, “Be mindful of your process. If you don’t like it, why force your students?”

How can a concept so seemingly simple not actually be so? Why do we, as educators, keep forcing processes on students that would make us cringe? Timed tests, novel selection by Lexile level, five-paragraph essays…

Perhaps it has to do with the fact that education tends to search for the middle ground, the average, and solve accordingly. Instead of being mindful of what makes us unique, it’s easier to solve for the middle.

The Air Force learned the flaw in this approach when they discovered that their cockpit, designed based on average measurements of hundreds of pilots, actually fit none of their pilots, resulting in many crashes … on one particularly rough day, 17 plane crashes!

Average doesn’t work in cockpits, and it doesn’t work in education. Randy Scherer (@RandellScherer) reiterated this in his “Design for Extreme Users” session. Randy explains how extreme users (or “radical people!”) lead us to “deep insights about why our designs sort-of, kind-of work.” When we set aside the concept of average, we can make a huge difference in the lives of students.

When we set aside the concept of average, we can be mindful of our processes. We can design education not for the average, but for every user. And when we do that, then we can truly take care of the fly in the soup.

Exploring Agency & Personalization

For the past few months, I’ve had the pleasure of working alongside our county office’s Assessment, Accountability, and Evaluation Unit, as well as some of our teachers, to better understand the principles of agency and personalization. As these are key elements of our district’s vision and mission, it is important to be able to articulate what those principles are, how they manifest in an elementary school classroom, and what impact they have on student learning. 

To dive deeper in to these principles, I have been meeting with three teacher hubs to further explore the principles of agency and personalization. Hubs consist of a grade level team at a school site that meet weekly around this topic. By participating in a cycle of Plan, Do, Study, Act, teachers dig in to better understand how the principle they are focused on is developed in, and impacts, their students.

For example, a hub studying student agency might ask:

What is agency? What impact does it have on DMUSD students? What do we want to accomplish?

What common activities will we engage students in to increase agency?

How will we communicate the work, results, and resources to stakeholders?

How will we measure agency?

Each teacher hub meets weekly for approximately 6-8 weeks. During these meetings, teachers discuss articles read on the topic, ideate methods to bring these principles to life in the classroom, and after prototyping those ideas with students, time is spent reflecting and refining the idea. This cycle is repeated as many times as needed in order to gain a deeper understanding of the principle.

Personalization Brainstorming
This is an example of our initial ideation as to ways we personalize in an elementary classroom.

In January, the three hubs will convene together to share their findings with each other. Their findings will be documented and passed along to new hubs. The new hubs will then analyze the findings of the group and expand on it within their own time together as a hub cycle. 

This is part of a developmental evaluation approach, which is much like the R&D process private sector product development teams use. It allows us to provide feedback about how a major systems change is unfolding; generate evidence for how an innovation may need to change or adapt before taken to scale; and then spreading the resulting ideas/knowledge to have a broader impact.

The idea is that, as the hubs expand, we will reach consensus as to what these principles mean for our students and can then provide districtwide professional learning so that all students, and all teachers, have a common vision and plan moving forward. It’s been an amazing experience to join these teachers on a learning journey. I’m excited to see the results.

Agency Through FortNite? Sure. Why not?

Fortnite, and other games like it, require students to practice “teamwork, collaboration, strategic thinking, spatial understanding, and imagination,”  Stanford Graduate School of Education experts say. 5th graders would agree, although they didn’t realize it at first.

I’ve been working with small groups of teachers to critically examine student agency, and how it is developed, nurtured, and grown in the learning environment. In one of our meetings, 5th grade teacher Dan Dahl shared with us that he has a group of students that love Fortnite. He asked them, “So what do you do when you get stuck in the game?” Students were quick to share their strategies:

  • Look at YouTube videos to see how others completed the task
  • Ask a friend who may have already beaten that level
  • Practice the skill needed in the online “playground mode”
  • Try other skills to see if the task can be accomplished other ways
  • And of course, keep trying!

When Dan asked students what strategies they might use when they are stuck with a math problem, it took a moment…


and then…

Oh snap! GIF

The connection was made – the strategies students were using to find the path to success in Fortnite are the same strategies they could use to find the path to success in their academic life, too.

For some, it was a #mindblown moment.

Thing is, many of our students already exhibit agency, which is the capacity and propensity to take purposeful initiative. They just don’t always get the opportunity to do it at school. It’s up to us to connect those dots and provide meaningful ways for students to take their own initiative to learn.

(Postscript: For those of you who are enraged at the prospect of 5th graders playing Fortnite, deep breath! We are not endorsing violent games in elementary schools… just engaging in conversations to better connect and understand the passions and joys of our students.)

When you know your ‘why’ then your ‘what’ has more impact,
because you’re working towards your purpose.
– Michael Jr. 

Today I was fortunate to present at the online #InnovateSD conference hosted by San Diego County Office of Education, thanks to an invitation extended to me by PowerSchool Senior Director of Educator Engagement Mike Lawrence.

At around 1 hour and 18 minutes of this YouTube video is my presentation.

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I’ve asked about the story of learning to over 300 educators over the past year, and regardless of age, background, or socioeconomic status, the answers were largely the same. The story of learning has been one largely comprised of compliance. Even those who shared about projects and experiential learning still shared a common message that you must do what you are told if you are to be labeled successful.

Many of our practices and our beliefs are so ingrained that they are institutionalized. After all, most educators have been in the school system since the age of four or five. It’s all many of us have ever known so it’s not a surprise that we don’t notice the messages we send through our systems, structures, and beliefs, or why we send them.

This video is about how Del Mar Union is pushing back on those systems, structures, and beliefs. It’s about the importance of providing students with the foundations and the experiences needed to think and to know their voice matters. It may be the story of Del Mar, but I am hopeful that it becomes the story of learning for all of us.