Two students with masks examining geometric shapes

Engagement, Teaching, Well-being

Student Agency in COVID Times

Empowering students and ourselves

We were at the mercy of the pandemic. Powerless. The pandemic stripped teachers from what we knew or believed was good teaching and learning. We had to make choices to regain this power. The pandemic served as a catalyst for change and forced educators to exercise their agency and think critically about what’s really important to teach and learn – with less time and more barriers. Getting through the curriculum seemed like an impossible task… and it was.

One way to regain our power as educators was to let go. We had to let go of our routines and expectations. What we used to do in the classroom could not be done during the pandemic. We had to figure out how to create learning experiences that were engaging, yet wholeheartedly embraced learning intentions that best reflected the curriculum. Not everyone was in class and some students were learning online. Deciding to let go of what was is a choice.

Understanding that we have choice as educators is key to our freedom to create and design experiences that meet the learning needs of the students in our classroom – and also meet our learning needs as educators. Teaching during a pandemic inherently involves a steep learning curve that we’ve had to tackle whether we like it or not.

Wishing away the pandemic or hoping that all schools would close and go online are not outcomes within our control. Choosing to let go and reconsider what teaching and learning looks during the pandemic is within our control. Exercising our professional autonomy and making decisions that best suit the learners in our classroom is our agency as educators. As educators, we are collectively questioning what we can do to make teaching and learning viable for our students: to meet them where they are, make learning fun, and stay loyal to the curriculum.

Lessons in agency

As a teacher educator, I have the privilege of peeking into K–12 schools to observe teacher candidates, but also to imagine what is possible in teaching and learning during COVID times. I saw classes ranging from five students, to classes split into morning and afternoon cohorts, to full classrooms. I loved watching classes that were held outside. Students in a multi-graded class would gather and sit under the “poetree,” in the snow, to read, listen, share, and create poetry together.

In another class, where there were very few students, the lesson focused on movement and play-based activities to learn how to sound out words and spell. Students were encouraged to get up and move around the room to find words about food (their favourite topic), and they could choose to work in partners or independently. Students were engaged, on-task, and worked at their own rate. The words hidden around the room were inclusive and students had choice in what words they found, how they would sound out the words, and how they would practise spelling the words.

By letting go and embracing our autonomy and agency as designers of learning, we can create learning experiences for students so that they are able to develop and exercise their agency by having choice within the learning activity. Students, in turn, will feel empowered. They take ownership of their learning. They can choose how they learn, who they learn with, and what they produce. The driving force to this kind of learning is the why that’s embedded.

In British Columbia, the provincial curriculum has three Core Competencies: Communication, Thinking, and Personal/Social. These core competencies are developed and embedded in the learning. Students are learning how to communicate, collaborate, and think critically, creatively, and reflectively. They are also developing social responsibility, cultural awareness, and positive personal identity, which serve as underpinnings to what is being taught and why it’s important.

The Core Competencies not only connect and interconnect different subject areas into more meaningful and purposeful interdisciplinary learning experiences that are holistic and experiential; they also prioritize the humanness of learning back into education. The mastery of content is no longer the goal. Instead, content serves as the vehicle for learning. Curricular competencies are introduced, developed, and honed. And context and community matter.

When we focus on the competencies, we not only free ourselves from the burden of singular outputs and striving to create a high level of sameness amongst our learners, we empower students to personalize their learning, make choices about their learning, and

Understanding that we have choice as educators is key to our freedom to create experiences that meet the learning needs of our students.

be the agents of their learning and achievement. Joy becomes part of the learning experience. Learning with others and co-constructing knowledge and criteria become the norm for students.

In a Grade 3–6 class, the primary focus was to make their math thinking visible. The topic was estimating. The class started out with a jar of dominoes and students estimated how many were in it. The lesson moved onto working in small groups at locations around the classroom, where each group collaboratively make their thinking and learning visible on whiteboards.

With each problem projected, the students became more engaged. The learning environment was inclusive, collaborative, and dynamic. Students had the freedom to move, discuss, and solve.

Throughout the math lesson, students were practising their numeracy skills, understanding of math facts, and number estimating. They were also developing their skills in communication, collaboration, and thinking. The Core Competencies were central to this learning experience, which enabled the teacher to facilitate the learning while also having students choose how they would approach the problem, work in small groups, and mutually agree or negotiate an answer.

The lesson concluded with students returning to the jar of dominoes to see if they would change their original estimation based on what they had just learned and collectively experienced in small groups. Some students chose to keep their answer while others opted to change. In the end, they counted the dominoes in the jar to see how close their estimation was to the actual answer. There were cheers, smiles, and a few groans once the answer was revealed.

The students provided feedback to the teacher at the end of the lesson by holding one to four fingers up to their chest to reveal their level of confidence and understanding of estimation. The students also offered many opportunities during the lesson for the teacher to assess how they were doing with the learning. One could assess the noise level in the room (a.k.a. the hum) when students broke off into small groups. One could look at the thinking made visible on the white boards. One could see how they well they estimated the number of dominoes in the jar, before and after.

What I appreciated most about this lesson was not only that the educator created a learning experience that provided many choices for students to engage in the learning, but that there were also many different opportunities and ways to assess student learning and progress, and multiple ways for students to demonstrate their learning throughout the lesson. Assessment is not limited to the traditional pen and paper, and what was important was more than the answer.

The way forward

The global pandemic stopped everyone in their practice and allowed us to take a moment to reflect, reassess, and recalibrate. What is working, what’s not working, and what is worth keeping? I invite you to reflect on these questions and self-assess how you have pivoted during the pandemic and what you would consider keeping in your practice or return back to.

To regain our sense of power during the pandemic and beyond is to understand and exercise our agency as educators and feel good about letting go of some of what we previously did – because doing so allows us to get to the heart of teaching and learning. We want to create, design, and facilitate learning experiences where students feel empowered because they have agency to choose within flexible and reflexive frameworks and guidelines that you determine and provide.

Trust your professional judgment. Take a risk. Break (your) rules and be vulnerable to the uncertainty of not doing things in the same way you have known or experienced. Go outside with your class. Be intentional with the learning. Notice and wonder. What are the students learning? What’s working? What’s not working? Tweak it and try again. Try assessing students in ways that empower them, include their input and voice; this can be done in a variety of ways.

We must break away from the industrial model of mass education. COVID-19 separated us and now we pine to be together as a community and learn together as a community. We want and need to bring back humanity, strive for learning that is student-centred, competency-based, personalized, and interdisciplinary. The pandemic kept us home, which helps us to value being local, learning from our community, and learning more about local Indigenous knowledge and perspectives.

We want students to love learning, feel in control of their learning, and understand the intrinsic good of learning.

Be vulnerable. Let go. Be the agent of your learning. Choose what will work best for your students as it relates to the curriculum. Less is more. We are choosing what is best for our students to learn, meeting them where they are, and focusing on quality over quantity. Enable and encourage students to be the agents of their learning. We can empower ourselves and also the students by giving them voice, choice, community, and context.

What we hope for post-pandemic is for teachers to embrace their professional autonomy to create learning experiences for students that give them opportunities to exercise their own agency. We want students to love learning, feel in control of their learning, and understand the intrinsic good of learning. When we achieve this, students will extend their learning, take risks, and be vulnerable. They will develop their competencies and sense of self as they construct and co-construct deeper understandings of their identity, of others, and of the environment.

Photo: iStock

First published in Education Canada, June 2021

Meet the Expert(s)

Christine Younghusband EdCan Network

Dr. Christine Younghusband

Assistant Professor, University of Northern British Columbia School of Education

Christine Younghusband, EdD, is a recent doctoral graduate from Simon Fraser University in Educational Leadership, an independent educational consultant, and a sessional instructor.

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