Undiluted Student Agency: Going Beyond Genius Hour
Many educators are beginning to agree that giving students more freedom to explore their own passions is a good thing. We're seeing amazing examples of this being done through "Genius Hour" and "20% Time" projects—designated school-day time where students are given free reign over what they learn, how they learn it, and what end-products they create. I've been a huge proponent of this idea and even recently gave a TEDx Talk discussing how I got started with my own students. However, last month I had the pleasure of visiting Taupaki School, a K-8 nestled in the hills just outside of Auckland, New Zealand. (Thanks to friend Nat Torkington for taking me!) It was there that I truly learned what undiluted student agency looks like; and what school can be if every hour is Genius Hour.
Upon arriving at Taupaki School, I was immediately captivated by the environment. As someone who has always taught in cities, looking out of a school window to see sweeping vistas dotted with grazing sheep was downright pleasant. We meandered around the open-air walkways to see primary students lounging on pillows in the grass, reading books, and solving problems. A group of intermediate students rushed by with handmade paper boats, eager to try out a hypothesis. Finally we met up with the fearless leader of this small community, Taupaki's prinicipal Stephen Lethbridge.
When I first met Stephen one of the first things I immediately noticed is how much he loves his school and students. Oftentimes I meet principals who are proud of their school, or passionate about their job, but Stephen is joyously, powerfully geeked up about the work they do at Taupaki. From the moment I stepped into his office, he took out a maker kit he was personally working on. Then as we got up and began to tour the classrooms, we couldn't walk down a path without students rushing to share letters they were writing to Stephen or ask him a question about his day—or tell him about theirs. In between the avid teachers and students stopping to talk or say hello, Stephen told me stories about students, teachers, their learning, and their journey.
The thing that truly struck me about this was that none of these things are happening during a designated "time." There isn't a genius hour or ⅕ of the day that students can dig into this powerful agency and practice this choice. It is part of the fabric of how Taupaki works. Students are given choice, they explore freely and it works. Classrooms are constantly littered in hot glue guns, various laptops and popsicle sticks. Barefooted children sit in beanbags in the grass and read to each other. This isn't a center, it isn't a special day. This is just how they do school. Always.Taupaki seems to have an inspiring and pervasive culture of "do it yourself." By this I mean that teachers aren't here to do things for you—tell you what to do, when to do it, and how to get an A. At Taupaki, the students make their own learning decisions, are free to fail, and are persistently guided to iterate from that failure. Students in year 7/8 teacher JJ Purton Jones' class have their own Individual Learning Plans where they self-schedule what and when they'll tackle learning goals. In the "soft materials" class (a remnant of 19th century tradition for year 11 and 12 year old New Zealanders—traditionally a sewing class), kids were using conductive thread to build gloves that would serve as a turn signal for bikers to increase road safety. Primary age students are leading their own parent-teacher learning conferences and capturing evidence of their learning on smartphones they bring in. Everyone journals and reflects on their learning through a custom LMS. When the 3D printer broke, instead of sending it in for repairs, students printed out replacement parts on the other 3D printer.
When I asked Stephen how this incredible culture was cultivated, he said it had everything to do with first finding the right people to be a part of the school and then empowering them to own the mission. He says "When you bring people into the school, you want the school to be more like them, rather than to become a clone of what the school is like. Because diversity is really important." As such, Stephen has a creative way of hiring out-of-the-box thinkers, by literally using a box in the application process (see the video 35:30 for this story). He even hired a teacher over direct message on Twitter! After he finds folks who have the right disposition, he turns the reigns of the school over to them. The teachers in his school were the ones who built the mission and feed into its spirit each year. Stephen says "None of this is my vision—I have no say in the vision at all ... my job as a principal is to make sure that people's feet are held to the fire ... of what they want to create in the school."
And might I say, Taupaki's vision is not only bright but perhaps something we all may want to look toward for our own students.
For more on Taupaki and their work, check out these links!