Teacher Agency: Reflections on an Interview with A J Juliani

For the past decade, I’ve focused on supporting teacher and student agency at my school. For teachers, our motto is “Continually becoming the professionals we already are.” I’m realizing that for students we don’t have a particular motto. Help me out! What is a good student agency motto for a school?

Tim Logan, the host of the Future Learning Design podcast, recently interviewed A J Juliani about curriculum. Curriculum is so often developed before teachers even meet the students that we assume that’s a good idea. But is it? 

Future Learning Design

Tim and A J begin their talk with a mention of A J’s annual “failing report.” If I understood correctly, A J writes up his failures at the end of the year, presumably to see how much he has learned from them and how much he can continue to learn from them. Seems like a pretty good idea, actually. Is it a good or bad sign that I can immediately think of a number of things to put on my own list!

Juliani is an entrepreneur, and a list of failures is probably something entrepreneurs get quite adept at collecting. The ability to look that list straight in the eye and learn from it is for sure a trait of someone who has embraced entrepreneurial thinking. 

“We don’t think that everybody is going to have to be an entrepreneur when they graduate,” says Juliani. “But everyone is going to have to think like an entrepreneur.” So what might some entrepreneurial ways of thinking be and what might we question about the way we do school (if we want to get our students thinking entrepreneurially)?

Here’s a few ideas.

Maybe our adherence to tests as assessments could loosen a bit. Juliani asks point blank: “Who told politicians that tests work?” Well, they work for many things, but point taken. Tests have limits, over reliance on tests can form mindsets that might not be compatible with quality learning, and the way we tend to use tests doesn’t always encourage perseverance and grit (study-sit the test-get a mark in the gradebook-move on). 

So yes, we could look at assessment. Especially the ones that discourage risk taking (assuming there are some that don’t discourage risk taking). Ultimately, you want “to get students to care about the learning and not the grade. You don’t want kids just doing something for marks … we want them learning because they like learning.” 

Logan mentions a bit of a meme we’ve been seeing lately and something colleagues and I have written about: We should consider focusing on “a pull system instead of a push system. Everything gets pushed on kids, the master schedule, content, [it all] gets pushed on kids. And actually what we need to switch to is a pull system.”

This is a big ask for schools, since they are about the biggest push system around. I remember in grad school taking a curriculum course in which we worked on a needs assessment for several weeks. It seemed like a really good idea in the antiseptic setting of a grad course. But how many times since have I encountered a school context in which teachers had the luxury of time and flexibility to do a thorough needs assessment before jumping into the curriculum? At best it’s done for them. At worst it’s not done at all.

Juliani suggests three basic shifts in our thinking and practice:

  1. when planning the curriculum, “DON’T start with the standards – start with the reason for learning. You want to get interest and buy-in, not compliance;
  2. build a curriculum that has performance tasks … [as] assessment.” Don’t just give students one way to demonstrate learning. If the curriculum only has a test, then maybe you haven’t finished building the curriculum;
  3. We need to have windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors (see Rudine Sims Bishop) – in other words, the curriculum needs to be full of resources and materials that students relate to personally and that allow them to relate to the rest of the world, too.

Do that, so Juliani, “then your curriculum will be adaptable,” And maybe even reduce how often we push curriculum on students. Going further, “I really think that every community’s curriculum should look different.”

That’s a theme we can chew on for a long time. What would happen if the curriculum were different from community to community? Would society fall apart? Or might we be enriched as a whole through the interlocking weave of know-how? Might we even reach a heck of a lot more students by making many more local decisions, relevant to the folks right there in front of us?

Juliani claims that the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development found that locally created curriculum is more successful. Intuitively I can see this. Teachers can learn and adapt as they go, fit curriculum to the students they work with, and keep it alive. “They owned it, and they made it theirs, and they cared about it … They thought about instruction and assessment instead of just following a curriculum.”

This is an interesting question to pursue, since results that indicate the effectiveness of locally created curriculum calls into question a whole lot of currently accepted practices. More than likely, I suspect, there are good reasons for off-the-shelf curriculum and locally created curriculum to co-exist, depending on a slew of factors. That’s where it gets interesting. What are those factors and what blend of curriculum might be appropriate in all the various contexts in which we have teachers and learners? And if we’re aiming to develop entrepreneurial thinking, does a locally created curriculum serve us better?

A nice metaphor that Juliani and Logan pursue is the difference between “cooks and chefs.” 

Cooks follow a recipe given to them. Chefs experiment and put new things out there. They create, take risks, deal with failures, and hopefully learn from them. So the question is, how do we bend curriculum, and our approach to thinking about curriculum, to produce more teacher-chefs? And for that matter, more student-chefs?

Project based learning, genius hour, and choice are good starting points. Juliani points us to those themes in his own research. “We are going to lose our relevancy very quickly .. if we don’t shift much of our instruction, much of our assessment, to these types of practices.” 

And then he reminds us that we have to reconsider our assessment practices. Many current assessments, focused on content, will miss the benefits gained in inquiry based and project based learning. “If you take an inquiry based unit and then you test them in the same way as a traditional unit, I think that’s a flawed approach …”

Logan ends the interview by asking what positives there have been in the pandemic. 

Educators are flexible, but the curriculum doesn’t tend to be. People realized that our system of schooling is not flexible. Thank goodness we had people that were flexible …”

“We have a broken idea of what it means to learn, what it means to teach, and what it is to measure academic achievement.”

See www.ajjuliani.com/blog/research to pursue these ideas further.

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