Control Isn’t a Bad Word, When You Let Students Have It

This post is part of a series of articles, blog posts, and short briefs produced by EXPLO Elevate focused on supporting schools’ virtual learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.

by Sudipti Kumar | Director of Research

In June, we hosted a webinar with Maggie Baker, Assistant Head of School of Greenfields Academy in Chicago, Illinois and published a corresponding piece on their school’s blended learning model. One of the main things that struck us was Greenfields’ intentional focus on building student agency – something they do in all aspects of their curriculum and through an informal program called “Freedom Shock”.

It works as a gradual release of responsibility over the first few weeks of school, in order to give students a great deal of choice in how they spend their time and make progress in their work. “Freedom Shock” even extends to where students do their work on the physical campus, giving them more autonomy as they get more comfortable with having it and using this discretion wisely. We loved this idea, particularly because the latitude students have been afforded at Greenfields went a long way in making the transition to remote learning go smoothly in the spring of 2020 when COVID took hold. It wasn’t hard for these students to have long periods of “asynchronous time” because they already were comfortable with having chunks of unscheduled periods that they used to make progress against their individual learning goals.

One of our foundational beliefs at Elevate is that prioritizing student agency is a key lever to stronger outcomes, both academically and socio-emotionally. It was therefore incredible to hear about the students at Greenfields, and other schools across the country, actually flourishing during “emergency” remote learning because of their ability to be independent learners.

At Elevate, we believe that the key to strong learning is where these three circles, Content, Teacher Ownership of Content, and Student Ownership of Content, come together in the Venn Diagram.

This is why we were very excited to see recent research from South Australia, out of Flinders University, on the importance of self-regulated learning (SRL). The author, Stella Vosniadou, a Strategic Professor in the College of Education, Psychology and Social Work, has undergone an extensive literature review in which she argues that the transition to higher education can be strengthened by improving students’ capabilities for independent, self-directed and self-regulated learning. She notes that many secondary schools don’t focus on SRL in the ways that would deeply benefit students so that their experience in higher education is more easily facilitated.

An example Vosniadou gives on how teachers can better bridge the gap and build SRL is a helpful one. The Australian Science and Mathematics School (ASMS) builds students’ independent learning through the school’s Learning Studies Programme. This Programme is specifically “designed to help students become aware of themselves as learners by developing their knowledge about learning and the strategies needed to manage and control their learning”.

They look to achieve greater student independence through three elements:

The Learning Studies Group

These groups consist of eight students and a teacher who meet daily for 40 minutes. It is formed when students start attending ASMS and continues until they graduate. The purpose is to help students understand themselves as learners. During their time together, students discuss their successes and challenges, and goals for their work. The teacher focuses on providing self-management strategies including time-management, goal setting, and cultivating a positive mindset.

Key Wonderings This Brings Up for Us:

  • Are there spaces within schools’ current schedules (e.g. advisory periods) that can be repurposed so students could focus exclusively on SRL?
  • In combining this with what we learned from Greenfields, are there ways to start a Learning Studies Group that meets daily but then transitions over time to meeting less frequently?
  • How can schools prioritize building meta-skills like adaptability and resilience (which are always important, but are showing how critical they are in this moment in time) alongside practical tools such as time-management?

The Personalised Learning Plan (PLP)

This plan is a “development of a personal profile” focused on student goals – what has been accomplished, what still needs to be worked on, and what needs to be revised.

Key Wonderings This Brings Up for Us:

  • What are ways schools can work with students on creating individual PLP’s during orientation – including both academic and socio-emotional goals? This resource from WestEd on personalized learning has some great examples of PLPs from the Galt Joint Union Elementary School District in their appendix.
  • How can schools utilize quick surveys or other feedback mechanisms to get a pulse of how students are feeling as it relates to their progress on the PLP and to learn about individual challenges that are coming up?

Learning Conversations

These are required student/parent meetings that take place twice each year. During these meetings, “students have an opportunity to present to their parents an e-portfolio with examples of the work they did during the year”. This is a time that focuses on reflection and an opportunity for students to own their learning goals and talk about them.

Key Wonderings This Brings Up for Us:

  • How can parent/teacher conversations or other moments in time with students be re-envisioned so students own the discussion? Student-led conferences are an exceptional tool in giving students ownership in their learning and building their sense of personal accomplishment. This EdSurge article provides a great anecdote on how one school revised their student-led conference process.
  • What is the right structure and regularity of student led conferences for different age levels?