Agency: Reflections on an Interview with Andreas Schleicher
For the past decade, I’ve focused on supporting teacher agency at my school. In the early years, our motto was “Continually becoming the professionals we already are.” While we originally focused on teachers, lately we’ve been able to directly impact students, from supporting individual passion projects to creating entire programs.
Yet I feel we’ve only just started to touch on teacher and student agency and I’m a little plagued by the thought that we might only be tinkering. What if we are so stuck in legacy thinking that we can’t even see future possibilities?
So I keep my ears open for those who have something to say about agency. Tim Logan, the host of the Future Learning Design podcast, is introducing many of us to the ideas of influential thinkers in this area. He ends each podcast with the wish that we continue the conversation. So let’s do that.
“You are not going to see student agency without having teacher agency,” says Andreas Schleicher, Director for Education and Skills and Special Advisor on Education Policy to the Secretary-General at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
Exactly! Telling students they need to think and act independently, while not creating a school environment in which teachers benefit from autonomy and self-direction, is by no means ideal. Do as I say, not as I do. Yet if teachers feel their hands are tied, they are justified. There are so many constraints on teachers, including inflexible curricula, demands for grading, teacher evaluations … I don’t even care to try to think about the factors we could include here.
So teachers need to feel and experience real agency so that students can do the same. Fair enough. Even in our traditional conceptualization of school we can find room for more teacher agency. I know that the set of alternative electives we’ve created at my school have given us teachers a significant level of space and time to practice our own agency. This is a good step forward.
Schleicher cautions, though, that supporting teacher agency requires an environment where teachers know what is best, and just don’t suppose they know what is best based on individual feelings and beliefs. As he puts it, “The professional needs to do what they know is right, based on evidence …” Our school’s support of teacher-initiated, year-long action research projects comes into play here, as does the school’s acknowledgment that we value teachers who are constantly trying out new ways of supporting student learning. Have you ever heard someone say, derisively even, that “we don’t experiment on kids?” Well, we do. We believe all good teachers do. And we do it because we want our teachers to do what is best based on their own research and the feedback they get from others.
Often the debate between content and skills is framed exactly that way – one focus pitted against the other. Content versus skills. For Schleicher, that’s framing the problem far too simply. Both content and skills are important, one supports the other. “We shouldn’t treat knowledge and skills as two ends on a spectrum … one without the other is of very little value.” Indeed. It’s just that it seems we are so completely enamored with content. Content determines how we name our courses, hire our teachers, fashion our assessments, and report to our stakeholders.
Perhaps Schleicher shares our bias that skills don’t get even close to equal billing with content. He mentions, as others have when reflecting on teaching during a pandemic, that “those students that succeeded were the ones … who could live with themselves, who could live with others, who could have the discipline to organize their learning independently, who could structure their learning, who could access a wide range of learning resources.” Student agency is out there, in other words, but not universally. To what extent are our students able to pick up the reins when the teacher isn’t present? Should they have to wait for the teacher to be absent to pick up the reins? Do we give them adequate time to learn how to self-direct? Are we holding their hands much too firmly?
But a word of caution: “… it’s not about less structure, it’s about an enabling structure rather than a constraining one.” Right. We want more agency for both teachers and students, but we won’t get there by pulling away all the structure. In fact, it could be that the less structure there is the more demanding the task is for teachers. How do we create the right climate for agency to thrive?
Schleicher: “You do need very carefully crafted curricula.” But these are different types of curricula he is talking about. Not the big plan before the year begins, nor the blow by blow, lesson by lesson. “It’s not about packaging exactly what you should be teaching in what hour, but it’s about providing some structure and good guidance for teachers; how to develop those kinds of thinking and reasoning skills that are of enduring relevance …” For many this will be a very different notion of curriculum. By no means is it a list of content items to cover.
And Schleicher’s use of the phrase enduring relevance makes me think of David Perkins and his suggestion that we teach lifeworthy content and skills. Content and skills of enduring relevance. That also requires a healthy reimagination of our curricula. I’m wondering if the notion of enduring relevance doesn’t also demand quite a bit of choice on the part of the student. We adults might be clever enough to select enduring skills: collaboration, innovation, and the like. But are we clever enough to imagine what content will have enduring relevance for students? Is it maybe even more complicated than just being clever? Endurance may well include a healthy dose of self-selection, choice, or as I learned in Spanish, ganas – that which you really want and what really drives you.
Just thinking about innovation. How many of our school mission statements include innovation in one form or another? And how do we foster innovation?
“It’s about professional autonomy in a collaborative culture. And that collaborative culture in my view really depends on a good accountability system.” There he goes again, full of the pragmatism that comes with expertise. “If you are amazingly innovative in your own classroom and nobody else knows about it, that innovation will dissipate very quickly.”
This is true. And now think about our general education model. Would you say it’s default state is teacher-collaborative or teacher-alone-in-the-classroom?
“Perhaps we should think more about lateral accountability,” he continues, so that teaching “becomes more of a public process rather than a private process – something that is actually visible to your colleagues.” I pause the podcast here to think. How much lateral accountability have we built into my school? We’ve tried with our faculty evaluation. We have some professional development that requires peer observation and feedback. We’ve even had some classes with two teachers … but it didn’t last. Teaching is still by and large an individual endeavor.
A caution and a reason for hope to wind up with.
“We need to make sure that good ideas spread in scale and also that bad ideas disappear … we are not doing well on either side.” Ouch. We know that our current way of doing school is quite entrenched. Attempts to move away from the classic school model (kids move in groups, between rooms with one teacher, each with a desk, whiteboard at the front, not too much time for individual student input, eyes on your own paper, homework at night) are often squelched. The structure of school just isn’t set up to support much beside school as we know it.
Might this be why good ideas are hard to spread? Because good ideas tend to fall outside the current closed circle of what works? We should have a very open conversation about what “works” means, I suspect. We are perhaps stuck in the eddy of a strange attractor that keeps school the same year after year (and even more telling, after a global pandemic), giving bad ideas a longer shelf life than reasonable, even as good ideas are pulled back to the mediocre.
But there is hope, foreshadowed in the podcast by Schleicher’s earlier comment about lateral accountability. The future of teaching and learning, he thinks, likes in lateral instead of vertical relationships. Those of us pulling agile into school thought will resonate with this sentiment, as will anyone tired of top down, carrot and stick management. “I think that the future is not command and control but about collaboration … and I believe that has a lot to do about how we educate young people.”
I’m thrilled to hear this from a person uniquely situated to have a truly international perspective on education.
And for those of us in the trenches, who might be just a little uneasy about radical change, consider these final sentiments from the interview:
“If your role is really to develop human beings rather than just to transmit a specific piece of a subject, I think the role for teachers will be far more rewarding, not to speak of more effective.”