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Establishing Student Agency

How to Recognize Roles, Set Expectations, and Let Go in Inquiry-Based Learning

In October of 2017, the Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta, GA approached a team of Innovation Diploma* (iD) students to curate and design an interactive exhibit to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s death. Over the next eight months, I watched this team grow into empathetic storytellers who created a truly unique experience looking at current activism through the lens of Dr. King’s legacy. These students impressed me with their thoughtfulness and intentionality as they researched, interviewed, and connected with a diverse range of perspectives and individuals. The exhibit ran for a month and a half and culminated with an evening of speakers talking about the next generation of activists.**

I could tell you similar stories about iD students who have completed design briefs for Chick-fil-A, Delta, Porsche, and AT&T Foundry. The ups and downs, the breakthrough moments, and final deliverables would vary, but you would quickly see a trend develop. iD students are empowered to control the full arc of their learning. That’s the magic of iD. We’ve created a high-purpose environment where students can fail, grow, and succeed while developing their creative purpose and doing work that intrinsically matters to them.

So how can you establish an authentic culture of student agency? Here are three strategies that have worked for us over the years:

Share Your Intellectual Vulnerability

At Mount Vernon, we know that relationships are foundational to learning. We also know that our students  need to see adults engage with divergent thought. Daniel Coyle, author of The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups, writes, “When we see people in our peer group play with an idea, our behavior changes. That’s how intelligence is created. That’s how culture is created.” As you model your intellectual vulnerability, students start to take risks, ask questions, and challenge accepted norms. In the words of Adam Grant, we want our students to have “strong opinions, loosely held”. By the time they are upperclassmen, we often begin to see them as colleagues, and, in turn, they begin to act like it.

Set the Bar High

When students are tasked with solving a complex problem for an authentic audience, the stakes fundamentally change and the learning becomes life-worthy. Coyle states, “All creative projects are cognitive puzzles involving thousands of choices and thousands of potential ideas, and you almost never get the right answer right away.” Work like this sets expectations and defines responsibilities that are beyond any rubric or assessment that you might design within the bubble of your school. The bar is higher because the work the students are doing matters not just to a teacher, peer or parent, but to a client who is relying on them.

Get Out Of Their Way

I often tell people that the best work happens on design briefs when there isn’t an iD facilitator in the room. This year, we’re formalizing this idea by borrowing a practice from Pixar. At Pixar, the Braintrust meeting gathers engaged individuals from around the organization to critique in-development movies. They believe that films only become great if they are challenged early and often. In iD, students own the design brief work. They are on the ground every day working to solve their client’s problem. iD facilitators, like the Braintrust, come alongside and challenge the work with the aim of unlocking a new way of thinking about their problems. Then, we step back and let the students wrestle with how a new insight might, or might not, disrupt their current line of thinking.

Establishing a culture of agency in your classroom will set the conditions for students to uncover their creative purpose. “Building creative purpose isn’t really about creativity,” Coyle explains. “It’s about building ownership, providing support, and aligning group energy toward the arduous, error-filled, ultimately fulfilling journey of making something new.” Isn’t making something new what school should be about? How might you empower your students to own the transformation of their learning from consuming to creating? Wouldn’t that make your classroom more reflective of the lives they are likely to live?

* Innovation Diploma (iD), a joint program between Mount Vernon Presbyterian School and the Mount Vernon Institute for Innovation, is a student-run transformational design consultancy that inspires, creates, and implements high-impact work now.

** If you would like to hear more about our work with the Center for Civil and Human Rights, check out our episode of MV Stories.

— Brad Droke

 

 

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