Agency: Reflections on an Interview with Matt Barnes

For the past decade, I’ve focused on supporting teacher and student agency at my school.

Matt Barnes recently shared some of the thinking that led him to start the Global Education Movement, a bottom up organization with no less a goal than implementing a radically different vision of education. If you are a reformer at heart, but perhaps plagued by doubt in the context of so much inertia of the educational status quo, this is a podcast for you (Overthrowing Education).

Matt Barnes lays out the three central ideas of the Global Education Movement (GEM) this way:

  1. the parent’s role is central;
  2. student agency and autonomy are required as soon as possible; and
  3. we need a radical redefinition of educational success (focusing on one’s ability to learn).

The parent’s role is central for a couple of reasons. 

First, the dream is for education to be constructed by the student. A student should learn to create an individual learning plan in which they can pursue their own interests. The people who know the student best and can be the best advocate for the student are the parents. 

“Let’s explore the different areas of interest of your child and build a learning plan around that rather than a learning plan around getting to x, y, or z college.”

When you consider that school curriculum is determined before the teachers who work with that curriculum ever meet a single student they are going to teach, well, you can see where personalization isn’t the first priority of a school. Teachers may want to personalize, but they are highly constrained. Administrators may say they are all for personalization, but there you should push back. What exactly is going to be personalized? To what degree is that really personalization?

Secondly, the parent’s role is central because to actually affect change, teachers need to actively recruit parents to be champions for change. “Parents are going to win every time,” says Barnes. “If you want to really anger somebody, start to mess with their child in a way that they don’t think is right.” 

In other words, “the power lies in the parent,” so Barnes’ goal is “to get as many parents as possible to realize that there are ways that they can pursue some of what I’m addressing while still keeping their kids in the system … and that requires the parent to be activated in a way that most schools don’t actually want.”

Student agency and autonomy

Right at the top of the podcast Barnes presents two key questions:

  • what is the definition of success?
  • what is the definition of learning?

You might think it odd that many parents, teachers, and administrators don’t have an immediate  and clear answer to these questions. Perhaps you might forgive the parents, but certainly the educators should have a clear definition, right?

I assure you it’s not that easy. Will Richardson has been railing for years that schools need to start with their definition of learning. Why? Because a definition brings clarity – and because most schools don’t have one. Think Richardson doesn’t know what he’s talking about? Well then consider that the New England Association for Schools and Colleges, a major accreditor of schools, introduced an accreditation protocol in the last few years that starts with the requirement for any school looking for accreditation to create a definition of learning. Further, as a member of a school that has gone through this process, it’s neither easy nor is the end product universally accepted. It certainly isn’t rapidly adopted into the school’s culture, either. 

So parents, you’ve got to help your children forge their definition of success. By doing so, you are contributing to their sense of agency and their ability to take responsibility for their actions and to direct themselves. You are giving them an ability to learn how to learn – that skill that supersedes most others since it is broadly applicable across all circumstances one encounters.

Barnes believes that “by 12 years old, usually 11 or even 10 in some cases, the child can actually become so independent in their learning that they can begin to build their own learning plans.”

At home, I agree. My youngest, at 11 years old, is learning German and touch typing with apps, knows nearly as much about Harry Potter as Rowlings herself, thanks to endless YouTube videos, and cooks or bakes for us on Friday afternoons with her friends. She creates her own dance choreographies and trains for artistic gymnastics. She is the one who remembers her school schedule, what needs to be signed, and what homework and tests are coming up. I could go on, I’m the proud dad, of course, so more than a little biased. 

And I do have lots of contrary evidence at my school. Plenty of students 13 years and older routinely fail when given the space and time to self-regulate. They have lived command and control for so long that many of them don’t even realize they aren’t up to self-guided learning – at least in the school environment. I bet when they are at home on their own they are indeed able to pick up this or that and learn how to do new things. At school, though, they’ve been trained to wait for the teacher. This is a terrible thing to teach our young people.

So I try to create experiences at school that allow students to practice having the freedom of their own choices. And I have in the past done exactly what Barnes recommends: get the parents on my side by informing them exactly why we are doing what we are doing. 

“The parent can give the teacher cover,” in other words. Otherwise teachers who are trying to operate in a way that privileges a high degree of student agency will get negative feedback from the school itself (a strange outcome, but true) and quite possibly leave the system. Through doing so they perpetuate the command and control system they were working against.

A radical redefinition of educational success (focusing on one’s ability to learn)

Schools have a limited amount of time. (Actually, 12 years is massive, but it is at least a finite amount of time.) So to what degree should schools use that time to introduce as much content as possible versus focusing on a student’s ability to learn … well, to learn whatever?

Barnes reminds us that one hundred years ago, teachers had a certain amount of information in their heads that simply wasn’t available to students elsewhere. So they were teachers. Now that information is ubiquitous, students need coaches more than teachers. They need practice in separating knowledge from noise and they need folks who believe in them and ask questions about their work (see my blog about an interview with Sugata Mitra).

And this is what teachers want to do, according to Barnes. “I ask teachers all the time what they want, what is the dream environment for their learners … They want learners to be independent, they want learners to be excited about learning, curious, to be autonomous and have a high sense of agency. They want that. But the system they are in doesn’t. The system they are in is built to create dependent learners.”

Aargh! If that’s only partially true – that our schools are really very good vehicles for creating dependent learners – we have got a whole lot of work to do. Perhaps we can take solace in pinning our hopes to the content coverage – that knowing all that content will in fact lead to success. Well, ask yourself again what the definition of success should be. And imagine that Barnes is also right that universities are “actually not looking for the straight A / perfect SAT / volunteered at the Children’s Hospital type of student. They are looking for kids who actually know who they are, that have demonstrated that through their activities, that are creative and open and thinkers, not just rule followers. That’s what universities actually want.”

And if you are still holding out hope for that part of universities which IS looking for top grades, consider the extent to which a future boss is going to worry about top grades versus creative problem solving, ability to collaborate, and seeing another’s viewpoint. 

The host, Batsheva Frankel, ends the podcast by reminding Barnes about one of his own quotes. “Why normal is broken and you want to be weird.” Barnes restates the quote as “Normal is broken in schools; from now on weird wins.” Barnes defines weird kids as those “who don’t need an adult to hold their hand or look over their shoulder. Weird is about creating kids who fit [today’s world], not fit in schools from previous generations.”

“If your child’s school looks, feels, tastes, or smells like the school you attended when you were a child, then you have a big problem.”

Consider your child’s school – or your own, if you are a teacher – with this last nugget of wisdom in mind: “You never ever ever do for others that which they can do for themselves. Because the minute you do that you are creating a dependency.”

If you’d like to hear more from Matt Barnes, check out his interview with Tim Logan on Future Learning Design.

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