Our team at WestEd, Formative Insights: Assessment for Learning, has been working with teachers in formative assessment to increase student agency for the last 10 years. Recently, we’ve had our ears to the ground to learn with and from teachers about how formative assessment and student agency translates to, and enhances, online learning. This post shares insights and ideas to strengthen online learning based on what we’ve learned from teachers using formative assessment practices.
New ways to engage in learning
Laying the groundwork for student agency is a collaborative learning culture. We’ve heard from teachers that having this in place enables students to engage in learning in new ways and meet the challenge of online schooling. A learning culture may be different from traditional ideas of classroom climate, as it encompasses more than a focus on relationships and engagement. In our formative assessment work at WestEd, we define a collaborative learning culture as one where everyone values mistakes and missteps as critical sources of evidence about the status of learning, believing there are clues hidden in those mistakes about where to go next. It is a culture where students most value learning with and from their peers and have the sense that they learn better together than alone. In these learning cultures, students and the teacher value each person exactly where they are in their learning and the funds of knowledge they bring to the classroom, while also feeling safe to challenge one another to reach the next level.
We’ve learned from teachers and students that focusing on these qualities of a learning culture are, in the end, critical to both face-to-face and online learning. To develop these in online learning might seem daunting, yet as the structures of online learning inherently privilege a greater degree of freedom in learning, it is actually the perfect time to do it.
Key messages and learning structures
Through this past summer, as schools began the process of rethinking how to begin school with online learning, we heard many educators who felt uneasy about developing a collaborative learning culture without having met the students before, and with such limited ways of getting to know them. They wondered how they could shift their beginning of the year routines to get to know the students themselves. And, more importantly, they wondered how it would be possible to engage students in developing this culture, which is hard enough to do in the brick and mortar classroom. Here are some key structures and messages that teachers have told us they’ve put in place to support a learning culture.
- Giving students an understanding of “why”, why it’s important to participate in their learning community
- Giving students opportunities for input about what and how they are learning,
- Showing respect for students’ opinions and concerns,
- Asking students to participate in the decision-making process about learning,
- Providing students with a mental model of how learning works, and
- Eliminating legacy structures and attitudes that impede students’ disposition as agentic learners.
To demonstrate how these messages and structures can be developed during lessons, we share a conversation between 11th grade English teacher, Joe Nelson, and his students in Tulsa, OK at the beginning of this school year during online instruction.
The conversation took place in a lesson on cultural competence. Earlier in this lesson, students watched a video documenting the experience of Sudanese immigrants reflecting on their process of learning U.S. norms. Students then participated in a video breakout session where they wrote and shared their own definitions of cultural competence. At the point in the conversation shared below, Joe has asked his students if they have more to contribute. The left side of the text is what students and the teacher said, the right side are annotations about how the teacher is developing a collaborative learning culture to promote agency. The text in bold aligns with the list of messages and structures above.
This conversation demonstrates how conversational moves lay the groundwork for establishing collaborative learning cultures, and ultimately, student agency and increased learning. Before students get to the point of being able to take responsibility for their own learning, they need to feel like they have relevant ideas, can make positive contributions to the group’s learning, and that their opinions are taken seriously. Through conversations like this, they get to know that everyone, including the teacher, is a learner.