Agency: Reflections on an Interview with Jennifer Groff

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.” 

Tim Logan, the host of the Future Learning Design podcast, recently interviewed Jennifer Groff, Innovation Fellow at WISE (QATAR Foundation). She advocates for both teacher and student agency, and since Tim ends each of his podcasts with the invitation to continue the conversation, let’s do just that.

Future Learning Design

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“There’s just so much about the old model that doesn’t work and hasn’t worked for quite some time. By ‘work’ I really mean that there isn’t research to support [the old model], in fact, there’s a lot of research to support  that many of the common structures that we just assume are fine … are actually rather problematic.” 

Jennifer Groff, Innovation Fellow at WISE and experienced school reformer, is convinced our traditional model of education is not adequate. The world is changing far more rapidly than our approach to getting students ready for the world.

“The world that they are entering into, the world that they are in now, requires such a different education than we have largely structured for them.”

I think most of us who listen to Tim’s podcasts would agree. After all, a podcast about the future design of learning attracts those who aspire to something new, not to maintaining the status quo. (In fact, I’d like to challenge Tim to interview a few folks who are convinced that our education model should stay as it is. Tim? Up for the challenge?) It’s time that we concentrate on showing real examples of the change we are talking about, as well as stories about how we have moved away from the old model (what Groff refers to as a “burning platform” of education) to new models.

Their discussion does hint at systemic conditions that will provide the space for change. First, they agree that change initiatives have to be “embedded in the structure” of school, so that they “cannot be pulled out.” Innovation, in other words, cannot be an add-on for when there is time or it is otherwise convenient. Innovation must be planned and cared for just like curriculum and assessment. Tim alludes to the difficulty of getting more agile while still in the box, yet that is exactly what needs to happen. However one understands the box, it is there, and that’s where innovation leading to reform needs to be embedded in a manner that “cannot be pulled out.” Otherwise, as any reader can recall from direct experience, promising reform initiatives are quickly winnowed by the inflexible sides of the box.

And how do you get agile in the box? For teachers, Groff recommends creating a culture of quick data collection, leading to quick designs and constant piloting of new ideas. That immediately sounds like an interesting place to work, doesn’t it? Much more so than a culture which claims we shouldn’t experiment on our students – which is complete hogwash because good teachers are constantly experimenting with new ways of teaching better – and that teachers should follow outside experts who train on the implementation of the latest method or software. 

Not that the latest method or software is necessarily subpar. It’s just that teachers need agency to come to their own conclusions about how they teach. Telling only goes so far. 

What Groff is proposing has an easy parallel with business agility, in which one develops new ideas in short iterations with plenty of feedback so that bad ideas are quickly discarded and good ideas are made better. Incidentally, this hints at a solution to a problem posed in an earlier Future Learning Design podcast that I reflected on, with Andreas Schleicher of the OECD. He suggested that in education we are not good at getting rid of bad ideas and unfortunately equally not good at adopting good ideas. The opposite of agile. Groff’s solution? Get teachers working in quick action research cycles and sharing what they learn with others, debriefing (and prebriefing?) as they go. 

I’m happy to think that at Leysin American School we’ve been helping support action research cycles for several years through the support of teacher-driven projects. Our application deadline for 2021-2022 just passed. We’re set to review and hopefully approve nine new projects for next school year. That’s about 15% percent of our teachers who would like to formalize their learning and experimenting with support from the research center.


Agency isn’t just for teachers. Teachers can model and help create the right culture for students, who, according to Groff and many others, need much more agency than the old model has provided.

“It really is about student agency, it really is about getting the kids hand on the wheel and them driving the bus, which is really scary for a lot of schools …”

Having the kids drive the buses would indeed be a little scary, but of course she isn’t speaking literally. Having the kids drive the curriculum and instruction is perhaps just as scary – and one of the reasons we continually build systems that downplay student agency. But there are consequences. When do students learn to approach learning independently, without the handholding? 

Groff: “When you spend 12 years thinking that the world is chopped up into linear bits and there’s a right answer that’s that short … you are doing immense damage to these kids. They don’t know how to handle the complexity of the world.” The damage comes because we aren’t teaching in manners that build student agency, but rather “sending them out into this complex world without the agency and the self direction to navigate it.” 

Ouch. But yes. Picture a class of students at the beginning of the hour, as the teacher enters the room. What are they doing? They are waiting. Waiting for directions. Waiting to find out what is going to happen for the next 45, 60, 90 minutes. Waiting to find out what they are going to learn, and how they are going to do it, and probably whether the work will be done individually or in pairs or groups. Why is this model so universal? This is the platform that Groff suggests is burning.

“I could very easily, with a research base the size of a mountain behind me, go look at a traditional school model and say that none of this is working…” Schools “have many things that need redefining and addressing, there’s … just loads of evidence to support that.”

So there’s work to be done. Starting with a cultural shift to greater teacher agency makes good sense to me. Just remember, as Groff chuckles at the end of the interview, reforming our education models “is not for the faint of heart.”

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