The corona pandemic has taught us painfully how limited we look at children’s development. We speak of a generation of deficit, falling behind and gaps in learning. At the same time students never learned so much on a personal level. They talked with each other about what they valued and missed, what was actually really nice about the new situation and sought for new, creative ways to feel connected with each other, even from a distance. Why do we focus on learning in such a limited way?
Any society that fails to harness the energy and creativity of its youth will be left behind.
Talking to Julia
Julia decided she will redo this year and stay in grade 11. She decided to figure out for herself what she feels is important in life and what she wants to learn. The main thing for her is to learn about herself, her talents, her thrive and to develop the power to follow her own path instead of doing what is expected by others. She would like to learn to be free of fear of failure, to be able to persist in the face of difficulties and to accept it when things do not go as expected. She is not unhappy with her choice. On the contrary, she feels empowered that she made her own choice. She hopes the school system will take aboard that it is possible to lower the contact time in school, leaving room for students’ own choices and providing space to contemplate. Julia is not the only one.
Dutch students made it quite clear before the pandemic already that they felt they were ‘walking grades’ instead of human beings. They expressed their wish to learn for life instead (Laks, 2015). This call for a broader perspective on children’s development does not only come from students. In fact, great educational thinkers throughout our history emphasised the importance of a bigger picture. Many curriculum reformations have that goal, to create space and opportunities for deepened learning and personal development (OECD, 2019). The Dutch Government emphasizes that we should not only monitor children’s grades, but also their executive functioning and well-being (OCW, 2021). It is an attempt to come to a different understanding of our students, although the why and how of curriculum reforms is not always explicitly formulated.
Why and how
The current curriculum and assessments are formed around learning in a top-down manner. The government sets the end goals, the teachers translate those goals to subgoals, and the student is expected to do what is necessary to reach those goals. If they do not, they fail. This impacts their development as a person and how they feel part of the communion as well. As Biesta brought to our attention many times, the purpose of education is threefold: qualification, subjectification, and socialization (Biesta, 2020). Schools always impact those three domains, so it is of the utmost importance to think about how these domains interact with each other and what students need to flourish in all three domains. The subjectification turns out to be the most difficult domain for educators to get a picture of and is at the same time exactly what students wish for.
It is about how I exist as the subject of my own life, not as the object of what other people want from me.
Subjectification is about becoming an agent in the world. An agent is able to make choices, take responsibility and influence the course of life (Bandura, 2016). It requires space for making intentional choices, acting upon it and reflect whether the outcomes meet the intentions. And it requires valuing this process of subjectification, even when students make mistakes, because that is important too in the process of development as a person. But how can we value this and support students in their development? It is by making their growth visible on each of the three domains, that we can enhance students’ development as an agent.
What we need is to monitor how students develop in the process of learning. Learning progressions can do exactly that. They make growth visible as well as students’ thinking and reasoning (Furtak, 2017; Shepard, 2017). This information can not only enhance self-reflection by the students, but also provide teachers more insight, so they can give feedback or provide scaffolds to guide their students. These learning progressions should monitor the agency features, such as intentionality, forethought, self-reactiveness, and self-reflection as well as the assets that contribute to the quality of these features, which are consciousness, self-efficacy, and value/moral (Bandura, 2016). The factors and features mutually influence each other in an ongoing process of deepening understanding. This can and should be done with mixed methods, like questionnaires, interviews and a portfolio in which students showcase their development. It is not about assessing this from the outside, but about providing opportunities for the agent to reflect and make decisions based on that. Only when we create an agency-friendly environment, students can come to their full potential, instead of being limited to predetermined knowledge and skills.
In fact, all humans are agents. They make decisions to act or to refrain from action, to choose to repeat a year, like Julia, or to set everything aside to get good grades. The more conscious decisions are made, the more helpful it is for the development of our students. So, our task is to shed light on the process, to interact with students and above all to respect their thoughts and feelings. The shift form looking to grades and IQ, to potential and passion, is to allow diversity and creativity (Gagné, 2007) which is a joyful experience for both students and teachers. Let us use this pandemic to change the system of top-down education and create opportunities to reflect and make choices. Let’s rethink what we would like to hear from our students when we meet them five years from now. What will they have appreciated from their time in school? And are we prepared to become agentic ourselves and create what is necessary to make that happen? Empowerment can work both ways and transform the educational system to a more fruitful and energetic environment!
Bandura, A. (2016). Toward a Psychology of Human Agency. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 1(2), 164-180.
Biesta, G. (2020). Risking ourselves in education: qualification, socialization, and subjectification revisited. Educational Theory, 70(1), 89-104.
Furtak, E. M., Circi, R., & Heredia, S. C. (2018). Exploring alignment among learning progressions, teacher-designed formative assessment tasks, and student growth: Results of a four-year study. Applied measurement in Education, 31(2), 143-156. doi:10.1080/08957347.2017.1408624
Gagne, Francoys. (2007). Ten Commandments for Academic Talent Development. The Gifted Child Quarterly, 51(2), 93-118.
Laks, Landelijk Actie Komitee Scholieren (2015). Scholierencongres. Eindrapportage 2014-2015. Retrieved June 6, 2021, from https://www.laks.nl/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/Scholierencongressen-rapportage-versie-2.pdf
OCW, ministerie van Onderwijs, Cultuur en Wetenschap (2021). Nationaal Programma Onderwijs. Retrieved May 10, 2021, from https://www.nponderwijs.nl/po-en-vo/menukaart
Shepard, L. A. (2018). Learning progressions as tools for assessment and learning. Applied measurement in Education, 31(2), 165-174. doi:10.1080/08957347.2017.1408628