Student Agency: “What do you want to learn?”
This is an excerpt from the fourth chapter of More Now: A Message From The Future for The Educators of Today by Mark Wagner, Ph.D., our founder and CEO. These philosophies have inspired his work, and ours at EdTechTeam, for years. You can order his book here.
What Do You Want to Learn?
This question, What do you want to learn? is an effective way to start students down a pathway for meaningful learning. Every student has an answer. And when we ask students what they want to learn, we engage one of the keys to student motivation: Learning is fun, or at least interesting, if the topic is something they care about.
The reality is that we can’t possibly prepare kids for their future; they’re going to be working in jobs that don’t exist yet and using technology we can’t even imagine. Our job is no longer to help kids memorize a few things they might need some day; our job is to help kids access and use information in meaningful ways when they need it. Our job is to teach kids how to learn. And there’s no better way to light that fire than to invite students to learn about things they care about. That’s why, over and over again, I come back to questions like, “What do you want to learn?” and “What do you want to change about the world?”
When we ask kids what they want to learn or what they care about, and then help them achieve those goals, they can apply those learning techniques to whatever they do in the future. That’s what student agency is all about. All over the world, innovative schools are setting the example for student-designed and student-led learning, and the outcomes are changing kids’ lives by getting them excited about learning and, in some cases, the things they learn are changing the world.
When I was a high school English teacher, my students had a year-long senior project. They selected and researched a topic and had to work a certain number of hours in an internship in their chosen industry. They also had to create something, and then present their work to a panel of teachers and community members.
For the most part, students could choose to learn whatever they wanted. Some of their choices were surprising; for example, a varsity football player, whom no one would have expected to excel in English, or on a year-long project for that matter, decided to be trained as a chef for his senior project. He did all kinds of research on what it means to be a chef and what kind of education he would need. He took cooking classes and interned at a restaurant. He then built his own demo kitchen, complete with wheels so he could roll it into the school for his presentation, and a mirrored panel on top so those of us watching his presentation could see what he was doing. I was blown away, and the food was really good!
Another student came to me at the beginning of the year and said, “Hey, Wagner, I want to do Impalas.” He was referring, of course, to the classic Chevy—his favorite car.
“Okay, man, we’re doing Impalas for your senior project,” I said, still not entirely sure where a project on Impalas was going to go.
By the end of the year, he had learned how to use AutoCAD® to design custom body parts for the cars and learned a few mechanical skills while interning in a body shop. Through the experience in the shop, he also learned what it took to run a small business. The project served as a huge gateway into all sorts of learning, all because he thought Impalas were cool.
Another student wanted to be an astronaut and wanted exploring the final frontier to be the focus of his senior project. Honestly, my first thought was, How do I get this kid hours as an astronaut? He ended up visiting NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the (relatively) nearby California Institute of Technology and had the opportunity to fly a Space Shuttle simulator. It was a challenging learning experience for him; he even crashed the Space Shuttle during his final demonstration.
Over and over again, I’ve seen how student agency and student-directed learning has that kind of gateway effect on learning, whether they are seniors in high school or kindergartners. My wife, Eva, used to have a segment in her kindergarten class that was aptly called “Ask Google” time. Students would use her phone to ask Google whatever they wanted to know. It was an exercise in diction for the kindergartners. They had to speak clearly enough that Google could understand them. They also had to learn to ask questions that made sense, even if they were about unicorns or kittens or Iron Man. And of course, the more questions they asked, the more questions they had. So something as simple as finding out what a child wanted to Ask Google proved to be a gateway into learning. (By the way, asking kids to write about their favorite video games can motivate reluctant writers whether they’re in kindergarten or twelfth grade!)
Mark Wagner is a former high school English teacher that has since served as educational technology coordinator at the site, district, and county levels. He is now President and CEO of EdTechTeam, a global network of educational technologists that provide professional development and consulting services to learning institutions, nonprofits, and for-profit education companies. EdTechTeam is a California Benefit Corporation with a mission to improve the world’s education systems using the best technology and pedagogy available and aims to inspire and empower other educators to do the same. Wagner earned a Ph.D. in Educational Technology with doctoral research focused on video game use in education, specifically massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs) as constructive learning environments. He also holds a master’s degree in cross-cultural education. Outside work, Wagner plays hockey, practices martial arts, and obsesses over his ’62 Beetle. He enjoys songwriting, nature, and exploring the world. He lives in Irvine, California with his wife, Eva, and boys, Clark and Finn. Naturally, he’s a U2 fan.