Student Agency Needs Modern Literacies

I believe that one of the most difficult tasks speakers have in education conferences nowadays is to convince teachers that students need new skills that inevitably involve technology… because the world has changed and the school is in desperate need of change as well. I see teachers listening to all this and many times apparently agreeing, but going back to keep a safe distance from anything technological, keeping its use superficial….. But stop here for a minute…. “Technology” is actually an “old” term, because it is just part of who we are in the world today ( at least most of us). We think now in terms of “modern literacies”, because it is no longer enough to be literate in terms of reading and writing. There are other competencies that have become essential as well to interpret the world, to become a creative and engaged contributor to society. In the article Deeper Learning: Defining Twenty-First Century Literacy, Edutopia provides one perspective on modern literacies.

Let’s jump to the Assessment Training Institute (#aticon), where an impressive number of researchers and prominent educators (Rick Stiggins, Ken O’Connor, Dylan William) gathers with the mission of educating about assessment for learning as best practice. One of the guest speakers was Myron Dueck, author of the book Grading Smarter, Not Harder: Assessment Strategies That Motivate Kids and Help Them Learn.  His speech was mostly about “change” and he said something that I had not considered before: as teachers, we remained in the school environment, having little or distorted perception about the “real world”. That’s something for us to ponder as we try to unpack the meaning of change in the world today.

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Thinking about change in the world today, I want to highlight three important elements that we hear about all the time but may not be fully aware of their relevance and impact: the massive amount of information we are faced with; the need for innovation to deal with all the challenges of life and the call for collaboration in mixed groups that may cross cultural and physical boundaries.

These changes are particularly important when we try to understand the thinking behind modern literacies. So I want to highlight three literacies that directly match those changes: search ( or research) skills to allow productive filtering of information; creative abilities to develop “products” that make your thinking powers visible and communicable; and collaboration skills to make the first two literacies happen in all their potential.

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The point about “technology” in modern literacies is the direct connection with the “real world” today:  search skills involve deciphering the ways of the Internet; creation has been greatly enhanced by Internet’s communication power, and collaboration is now possible in ways that were not viable before.

As the real world and modern literacies converge, so do best practices in education. A major point of convergence is the idea of “student agency”. In this Edutopia’s article, Next Generation Learning: Bringing Student Agency Back to Schooling, the author Matt Levinson makes several interesting remarks that help us start to understand the change we hear about today and how it points to student agency:

Matthew Malady writes about his experience going offline for three days. It’s torture for him. .. He makes it, though barely…. What he realizes that he missed most during his offline hiatus was the ability to learn new things in an instant.

David Levy, a professor at the University of Washington Information School, talks in his new book Mindful Tech about how learning has become “noisier.” “The world just got noisier,” he writes, “because so many voices are now being heard.” ….

What those two students in the Art and Social Change class are saying is that they appreciated and valued so many voices being heard. In addition to the collaboration that their teachers modeled, the students observed them bringing in voices of our school community to broaden perspectives…

In the Harvard Business Review, Seidman writes about the shift to a human economy, focused on “hired hearts” and away from the knowledge economy, which held “sheer intellect” in highest regard…

The students who are soaring today know how to make connections, build community, and create. Many of them yearn for flexibility in their days to be able to conduct research, develop advocacy skills, reach out to a broad-based community, and use the tools available to them to make meaning.

Student agency was at the core of the Assessment Training Institute , as they advocate for students who understand their learning goals and engage in assessment for learning. Student agency is at the heart of life long learning, where not only the intellect is important but also social emotional well being is crucial to foster the necessary engagement and excitement.  All the ideas about assessment that may seem initially so boring, are actually now being clearly unpacked as central to student agency. All these ideas for best practice in education that are coming from research reinforce what others have also been saying for a while: Alan November in  Who Owns the Learning?: Preparing Students for Success in the Digital Age; Ron Berger for Expeditionary Learning in  Leaders of Their Own Learning: Transforming Schools Through Student-Engaged Assessment.

Student agency is the point of convergence between best practices in education and modern literacies necessary to develop engaged accomplished individuals in the world today. An example of student agency is seen in this TEDx Talk by a student from Lincoln School. It is one of the best arguments that I have seen about the power of collaboration on the Internet.


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