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2016 - The Year of Agency

In addition to being an EdTech Researcher co-blogger, I also write regularly for Edutopia. Last week, I published The Year of Agency in response to the question, "what's next for 2016?" A hallmark of this past year may be the fundamental shift in conversation away from the digital vs paper or iPad vs Chromebook debate and towards a more meaningful dialog about the future of learning.

Agency - the ability to act independently within a given environment and assume an amount of control and empowerment - is not a new concept in education. However, as schools adopt 1:1 or BYOD programs and construct new learning spaces, the larger question of how to truly engage students in the active process of learning while taking advantage of the affordances of these new technologies and environments becomes even more critical. In thinking ahead to next year, I explored three lessons from history.

Since the Middle Ages, individuals looking to become masters of particular subjects engaged in apprenticeships. In this role, they not only gained procedural knowledge but also became enculturated into the community of practice. John Seely-Brown, Allan Collins, and Paul Duguid suggested applying this concept to the classroom through cognitive apprenticeships in the 1980s. They argued that school removed context from learning, as classroom culture does not mirror real-world culture. Students may gain book knowledge but have no idea how to apply it as a practitioner. Imagine if this model of scaffolding and enculturation could be scaled across the curriculum.

In the 1930s, John Dewey argued that schools should provide opportunities for students to engage in democracy and practice the tenets of good citizenship. Through student-centered learning, differentiated instruction, and connecting the classroom to the world, Dewey proposed that students should assume an active role in their learning process so as to develop the skills for becoming successful members of their communities. Project-based learning provides one strategy for achieving this goal. Students identify a problem, engage in inquiry, and present a solution to a broader audience.

The concept of a maker space can be attributed to the constructivist practices associated with the work of Jean Piaget. In his 1973 book To Understand Is to Invent, he explains that active methods should be employed in allowing all students to construct their own truth rather than have it distributed to them. Today, that has manifested itself in the creation of dedicated spaces. However, as Jennifer Oxman Ryan wrote, Maker Education Is About More Than 3D Printers. Through a multi-year research initiative called Agency by Design, Jennifer and her colleagues have uncovered that beyond constructing the environment, incorporating STEM, and inspiring innovative thinking, maker spaces provide an opportunity for students to develop "a sense of self and a sense of community that empower them to engage with and shape the designed dimension of their world." 

What's next in 2016 may already be here. Given the tools available, we have more opportunities to engage students in cognitive apprenticeships, provide them with opportunities to practice the tenets of good citizenship, and encourage them to construct their own understanding of the world.

You can read the full article on Edutopia.

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