A core objective of personalized, competency-based schools that is described in the Teaching and Design Principle “Activate Student Agency and Ownership,” is to cultivate agency, “the ability to direct one’s course in life.” (See Designing for Equity for an overview of the design principles.) If we are to realize a personalized, competency-based system that nurtures and develops agency with each learner, then we do need to look at how a school could achieve that. You see, once a learner develops agency, he or she can self-advocate for the way they learn for a lifetime and “lead their own learning trajectory.”
Changing Perceptions: Every Child a Learner
How do we begin to help every learner develop agency? For educators to think about how agency can be realized by every learner, we need to explore how children may be perceived currently in the classroom and how children may perceive themselves.
Schools have spent the last four decades labeling children with specific identifications based upon school evaluations. As a long time educator, it is evident that with these labels, perceptions of these children’s learning capabilities evolve. On a daily basis in almost every school, we are often responding to children based on our perceptions. At the same time, many children are comparing themselves to other children. This is common behavior for children to compare themselves to others, all the time developing a perception that they are different and do not learn like other children. It does not take long for some children to develop their own perceptions that they are not learners, a stigma that sometimes lasts for years, if not a lifetime.
Recently I was having a conversation with a group of teachers where most of them agreed that not all children see themselves as learners. They shared that somewhere along the way, these children had experiences in school that no longer validated or perceived them as learners. If educational equity is at the center of an inclusive learning culture where every learner is valued, then we need to change perceptions. The questions are: How do we change our perceptions of learners and how do they change the perceptions of themselves? How do we help every child develop the skills to achieve agency and self-advocacy?
Personalized Learning Starts with the Learner
There is so much confusion over the the term “personalized learning.” Some believe that it means that technology (adaptive) programs personalize learning for a learner; some believe that educators need to personalize instruction for each learner; and some believe that you need to have a combination of online courses and independent learning projects to personalize learning. Whatever you believe, we need to stop clouding the definition and decide what personalized learning means for the learner. Let’s face it, “learning is personal,” so let’s first all agree that “Personalized learning starts with the learner”; not the curriculum, not the instructional methods or assessments, not the standardized tests or the many technologies that can support learning.
“Personalized learning is not what is done to the learner or about tailoring the learning. It is about helping each learner to identify and develop the skills they need to support and enhance their own learning so that agency and self-advocacy can be realized.”
– Kathleen McClaskey
A Three-Step Process Designed for Agency and Self-Advocacy
In Part 1 of this series, we introduced you to the UDL Lens of Access, Engage and Expresstm that is based on the learning sciences in the what, why, and how of our learning. If each learner is to achieve agency, then they need to know and understand how they learn. Here we will introduce a three-step process that could provide equity, agency, and self-advocacy for every learner. Starting with the Learner Profile, each learner can share their strengths, challenges, preferences and needs in how they access and process information, in how they engage with content and concepts, and in how they express what they know and understand along with their interests, aspirations, and passions. Here is an example of a Learner Profile of a middle school learner with qualities you may recognize.
This exercise in creating a Learner Profile provides a way for the learner to have a voice, to tell their story, and to develop a new perception of who they are as a learner. For the teacher, a new understanding of this learner’s qualities can result in new perceptions and insights on the skills this learner could develop to be more independent and self-directed so that agency can be realized. This is where new conversations begin and relationships between teacher and learner are built. With this Learner Profile, a Personal Learning Backpack (PLB) can be created that will include the tools, resources, learning goals and skills that can support this learner’s challenges or enhance his strengths. Let’s take a look at this learner’s Access strengths and challenges and consider what could be included in his PLB.
In creating the PLB, notice that the learner with the teacher/advisor describes what he would like to learn and what tools he would like to use. This PLB statement evolved from his conversations with his teacher and represents the first step in advocating for himself. The next step is for this learner to describe a goal, a set of action steps to achieve new skills and the evidence of reaching his goal in his Personal Learning Plan (PLP).
“A goal without a plan is just a wish.”
– Antoine de Saint-Exupery
When building Personal Learning Plan (PLP) that focuses on skill development, the learner with the teacher/advisor collaborate on the plan to outline actions steps along with the evidence of reaching the goal. Notice that the goal statement exhibits a statement where the learner is advocating to learn a skill and the action steps require the learner to take action. When the learner demonstrates evidence of achieving the goal, he or she is acquiring a skill that leads to agency. As each goal is achieved, evidence should be maintained in digital learner portfolio along with a reflection.
Personalize Learning: Partnerships and Ownership to Learning
“ No significant learning occurs without a significant relationship.”
– Dr. James Comer
A personalized competency-based system that is built on relationships, open collaboration, and dialogue between teacher and learner often results in partnerships in learning. In the three-step process where the learner shares their strengths, challenges, and aspirations in the Learner Profile; decides with the teacher on the tools, apps, resources, and skills in the Personal Learning Backpack; and then indicates in collaboration with the teacher/advisor what learning goals and action steps to include in the Personal Learning Plan, the learner begins to gain the knowledge and dispositions that will help him or her build the skills of agency and self-advocacy. Remember that agency also provides a reason to commit, take risks, and persist in the face of challenges and setbacks. As the learner applies this process over the years, challenges may even turn into strengths and the partnership with the teacher grows stronger. When this happens, the learner is on the path to becoming a self-directed learner with agency who can advocate for their own learning for a lifetime.
So let’s turn to the essential question in this series: “How can we create an inclusive learning culture with equity at the center?” Here are some thoughts on where to begin to build skills of agency and self-advocacy for all learners:
- Have a discussion about agency and self-advocacy with your learners.
- Using the UDL Lens, have each learner tell their story so they can share their strengths and challenges and begin to identify the skills they want to learn to be more independent in their learning.
- With the PL and PLB, have each learner co-design their PLP with at least one learning goal and a set of action steps.
- Discuss and set a goal and action steps for an extended learning opportunity (ELO) with each learner that focuses on personal interests, passions, or aspirations.
- Provide direct instruction and model ways they can monitor their own progress.
- Include opportunities for your learners to reflect on their achievement of their goals.
Now that we know your learners and how they learn, let’s turn to how we can use this information to meet learners where they are and design effective instructional methods, materials and assessments for all the learners in the classroom.
*The UDL Lens of Access, Engage and Express is a trademark of Kathleen McClaskey.
Bray, B., & McClaskey, K. (2017). How to Personalize Learning: A Practical Guide for Getting Started and Going Deeper. Thousand Oaks: Corwin.
Lopez, N., Patrick, S. and Sturgis, C., Designing for Equity: Leveraging Competency-Based Education to Ensure All Students Succeed, 2018.
Weibell, C. J. (2011). Principles of learning: 7 principles to guide personalized, student-centered learning in the technology-enhanced, blended learning environment. Retrieved Feb. 5, 2017 from [https://principlesoflearning.wordpress.com].
Kathleen McClaskey is Founder of Make Learning Personal, Co-founder of Personalize Learning, LLC and co-author of bestsellers Make Learning Personal and How to Personalize Learning. She is an innovative leader, education technologist, professional developer, and a Universal Design for Learning (UDL) consultant with over 30 years experience in creating learner-centered environments as a teacher, K-12 administrator and consultant. During this time, Kathleen has presented at national and international conferences on the topics of personalized learning, UDL, learner agency, equity and self-advocacy and is actively involved with Education Reimagined’s Pioneer Lab. She continues on her mission for educators everywhere to discover the learner in every child. You can follow her on Twitter @khmmc or visit her website and blog.