Guest post: Student agency, change and pushing boundaries (by Rebecca Tupling)

resumephotoRebecca Tupling is an Early Years (Prep) teacher at the Canadian International School of Hong Kong. As an Early Years advocate, she promotes awareness of the importance of play-based and inquiry thinking within the foundational years of school through workshops and presentations. She is an IBEN member and leads workshops for the IB, and recently presented at EARCOS on learning strategies in the Early Years. Follow Rebecca on Twitter @RebeccaTupling.

It seems each year there is a new buzzword in education. You will be familiar with words such as ‘differentiation’, ‘flipped learning’, ‘growth mindset’, ‘grit’, ‘innovation’ and more recently ‘student agency’. With each new concept, there is an expectation to implement and master quickly, often without really understanding what the buzzword actually means.

“Student agency refers to the level of control, autonomy, and power that a student experiences in an educational situation. Student agency can be manifested in the choice of learning environment, subject matter, approach, and/or pace.”

Grace, The Knewton Blog

I personally love to learn new things and challenge myself to push professionally and implement new ideas. In doing so, I follow incredible educators on Twitter, read blogs and keep up to date with others’ teaching and learning. One resource I follow is #IBrebelalliance, an idea that was started at the IB seminar in Singapore a few months ago. The goal of #IBrebelalliance is to assemble a powerful network of educators (teachers and administrators) who can find comfort, support and inspiration from each other when trying new ideas and concepts. These educators, like me, thrive in this atmosphere. But are school faculties made up of just this type of educator?

What about the other teachers?

I often compare real life to my classroom and, when I do, I often think of these questions:

How would a classroom work if every student thrived on disruption and change?

During a time of implementation or change, why is it important for others to be involved?

Finally, if you are a teacher who thrives on being challenged and trying new things, why is it important to hear feedback from other teachers?

The answer is quite simple; if one teacher is trying to implement a new idea, it can never be successful if other teachers aren’t on board. Without the support of others, any new idea, change or innovation will fall flat.

I am so incredibly lucky to work on a team that is not only innovative but also supportive and positive. As a team, we push and implement new ideas for the benefit of our students.

Recently, the grade level that I teach (Prep, also known as Year 1) went on an amazing field trip to Kennedy Town (a community of Hong Kong). This was the second year in a row that this trip was organized and the truth is that the second year was a hundred times better than the first. Why? Mostly based on the feedback from the teachers who were heard and respected, changes were made to relieve any anxiety or fear.

Both trips were planned and organized with the aim of exploring student agency. At the beginning of this unit, each class brainstormed what being part of a community means. From their ideas, nine venues were presented to the students. To learn more about the needs and interests of the community, they were then given the opportunity to choose one of the nine venues to visit. These venues were a doctor’s office, a dentist, a fire station, the MTR, a pet shop, a temple, a grocery store, a fruit market and a retirement home. The information gathered was brought back to the homeroom classes by each student and shared with the others as an assessment task. Between the first and second year, we made significant changes to the trip based on the feedback below.

The nine venues that students were able to choose from

Feedback #1

Some teachers felt anxious over the idea that the groups had students from different classes under their charge and they may not know the students personally.

Solution #1: We switched our units around so that this unit was towards the end of the year (May) instead of October. This gave teachers more time to get to know students from other classes.

Solution #2: We had multiple experiences throughout the year for students to work with other teachers and practice student agency at school. For example, within the How We Express Ourselves unit, we had eight parent volunteers that offered to read in their home language and students chose a language that interested them. Each parent was accompanied by a teacher within a classroom. Through activities like these, students and teachers can become familiar with those from other classes.

Solution #3: We also planned designated times with our prescribed group, allowing teachers and students to introduce themselves and interact with each other prior to the field trip. This introduction allowed the teachers to understand their group dynamic.

Feedback #2

The groups were too big.

Solution: The previous year, we had five venues and each venue had approximately 20-30 students. As you can see, this year we expanded the number of venues to nine with a maximum of fifteen students in each.

Feedback #3

There was nervousness around going to an unfamiliar area

Solution #1: A group of teachers went on a recce a few months prior to the trip to understand the dynamic of the neighborhood. This was not only a great bonding experience, but it gave teachers a good understanding of how close venues were to each other.

Solution #2: I printed maps from Google that marked the exact route from the bus drop-off point to the venues. Being able to visualize where they were going helped teachers and provided a greater sense of security.

What was the result?

123 students

+ 17 teachers

+ 52 parent volunteers

+ 9 venues

= An incredible learning experience for the students!

If you are an educator who thrives on new challenges, surround yourself with a team that is willing to support you. However, make it easy on yourself by listening to those around you and adapting accordingly. Remember your success in implementing a new idea is completely dependent on the other educators around you.

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  1. “If you are a teacher who thrives on being challenged and trying new things, why is it important to hear feedback from other teachers?” This really hit home for me! I am constantly challenging myself. Other teachers are sometimes supportive, but others wonder what i’m up to. I think it’s important to always push yourself in the same way you challenge the students. That’s what keeps teaching interesting, in my opinion!

  2. Hi Norah, I completely agree that I am very lucky to have the support from the teachers, admin and parents. We finished the field trip with a picnic at a park so it was an overall great day of learning and connecting.
    I would love to write a guest post for your blog, let’s connect through twitter via the messages part. Thanks!

  3. Hi Rebecca,

    Thank you once again for all the time and effort that went into this. I’m honoured to publish such a fantastic guest post on my blog and I really look forward to collaborating with you again in the near future.

    As a new leader, I’m particularly interested in how you got others on board by listening to and respecting their opinions. I’m sure that they really appreciated it. I totally agree that innovations will fall flat unless others have bought into the ideas. It’s wonderful that you didn’t give up after the first year. Instead, you reached out for feedback and acted on it. Fantastic! It would have been very easy (and possibly very tempting) to just go back to a standard, tried-and-tested idea after the first year.

    Like Norah, I was also curious about the number of adults on the trip. What strikes me about your reply to Norah is that there didn’t seem to be a limit to how many adults were invited. Is that right? Beyond health and safety requirements, were they there simply because they wanted to be? Were they allowed to join just because you value their input and involvement? If that’s the case, I think it’s wonderful!

    So many great take-aways from this post! Thanks again!


  4. Thank you, Rebecca, for writing about your field trip, the learning gleaned and recommendations; and thank you, Adam, for sharing. As an early childhood educator, I was particularly interested in reading about your experiences. I can see why the children would be interested in the venues selected and understand the value of what they would learn. I am impressed by the number of teachers and parent volunteers involved – one teacher for every five or six students, and one adult for every one or two students. When I’ve taken students on excursions, I am the only teacher for my 25 students and I try to have between four and six parent helpers to have groups of four or five children. I have never given a choice of venues but like the idea of how you organised for the groups to share their different experiences after the excursion. I think it was wonderful that you responded to feedback from the previous year to ensure this year’s field trip was a success.

    1. Hi Norah, thank you for your comment. I am very luck to have so many parent volunteers, in addition to teachers. Amongst the teacher count we had the vice principal, the PYP coordinator, the librarian and the lower school counsellor volunteer so that was incredible to have the support from them. And we were so lucky to have so many parent volunteers who want to be included and involved in their child’s learning. As early childhood educators we both know how important safety is (especially on an excursion), but how much extra adult supervision enhances learning and inquiry. Please let me know if you have any questions regarding how to start planning for a field trip like this and I would be more than happy to help with anything!

      1. You are very lucky to have all that support, Rebecca. It also shows that you are valued, and that your work is valued too. That is very important for a teacher. That’s a generous offer of providing support, Rebecca, thank you. I’m sure there are many teachers who would love to receive it. I am no longer in the classroom but I write a blog for early childhood teachers. If you are interested in writing a guest post on the topic (it wouldn’t need to be much different from what you’ve done for Adam) let me know. 🙂

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