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.
Student 1. Cultural competence is needed because like if we don’t have an understanding of other people’s cultures then it’s going to hurt us in the long run especially as we become more integrated with other peoples, especially with how the internet is set up, like how we have a direct connection to other people. The more we come together as a society then the more important cultural competence is going to be.
This student and all the others in this conversation demonstrate that they feel respected for their options and concerns.
Teacher. That’s an interesting idea. I think sometimes when we think about cultural competence, we think about race or ethnicity, or maybe somebody from another country, but is it possible that right now what we’re experiencing is also cultural competence? I mean we’re online, this is a new experience for us. We’ve probably done social media, but learning online, is this a new culture for us? Do we need to develop cultural competence for this?
The teacher connects the students’ mention of the need for cultural competence online with their current online learning experience, bringing in greater relevance and context for the day’s learning. This provides students with a better understanding of “why” they are learning this and gives them opportunities for input about how they are learning.
Student 2. Yes
Teacher. Tell us more.
The teacher probes for more input.
Student 2. With this, it comes new expectations and new social use for it and different things people have to do because for some people social interaction is hard, even if it’s over the phone, and for others it’s easy. It is in and of itself a new culture altogether.
Students are able to articulate why they need to learn this. It doesn’t come from the teacher.
Teacher. So maybe we need to develop some cultural competence about how we learn online together, which brings me to something Gigi said. Gigi gave me some feedback that I had never thought about. But now that I think about it, she might be right. So I want to ask you all, when I assign breakout rooms, I can do it one of two ways. I can do it automatic, so the computer just does it and it’s random or I can do it manually. Up to this point, I’ve been doing it where it’s automatic and the computer does it, but it always puts you into a different room. And Gigi said that maybe the reason that we aren’t doing a lot of talking in breakout rooms is that it’s different every time and we don’t get a chance to develop that rapport, that relationship there. What do you think about that? You guys could private message me if you want, but I’d just like feedback on that idea, that you all are with the same people for a while.
The teacher shares feedback from one student on how participation could be better structured to support their own and others’ learning. Then asks for feedback from the whole class. This also demonstrates respect for their concerns and prioritizes student voices. The teacher gives students the option to private message him in case they have something to say but are not comfortable making it public. This eliminates an existing structure of having to contribute to the conversation publicly, impeding students’ disposition as agentic learners. This is an advantage of online learning. Asking for students to give their opinion on the structure of their conversations provides them with an important opportunity to give input about how they are learning.
Student 3. I think that there should definitely be some rapport building because none of us really know each other, like some of us might have had other classes with each other but we never really had the interaction necessary to work with each other because we didn’t have any time together. We just kind of went on to the next group. So I think it’s important because we do need to be able to meet new people and develop rapport with more than just one group, but every once in a while we should have a stay at least, maybe.
With the conversation framework the teacher has set up, students are well able to express insightful ideas. Also, student comments demonstrate that students hold a great deal of knowledge about how they work best together and what they want out of those peer relationships. The teacher has noted separately that he starts every conversation with the assumption that students are worthy of that conversation, a perspective that informs how he engages with students. This shows his disposition toward student capacity.
Teacher. Ok, I agree with that. I agree, stability.
Student 1. My thoughts on it are that those are good points. We aren’t getting the chance to really bond and get to know each other when it’s just putting us in a different room every single time. But if it’s a rotation, like every once in a while, let’s say, once a month or something like that, it changes, so like the next month it’s different. You get a chance to be with different people, but at the same time, get the time you need to bond, to get to know those people and build a classroom relationship with them as in like peers.
Students are able to articulate a clear plan for how they would like to work together. This comes in part from the teacher engaging them in the decision-making process about how they are learning.
Teacher. Thank you. So I guess we’ve just identified where I have some cultural incompetence. I think we just defined where, on the teacher’s side, there are a lot of things that we have to do and keep track of, and for me it’s just easy for me to put you in random breakout rooms. But that’s not what’s best for learning, that’s not what’s best for all of us. I think that I need to start thinking about my own cultural competence in this area, start thinking about how I need to understand what we need in this culture. I need to start thinking about what I need to do as we interact. So Gigi thank you for that idea, for that question. I really appreciate that because you really moved my thinking on this and you said something that the whole group needed. So yeah...we’ll make it happen. But I’ve got to really think through the ways to make that happen, ok? Thank you everybody.
The teacher expresses transparency about his own learning status in an online setting, and ties his ideas to the learning for the lesson on cultural competency. This also demonstrates that he and his students are on the same level, sharing decision-making and roles as leaders and learners. The teacher’s statement provides an important model for students to be transparent about their own levels of learning.
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.