October 01, 2022

Article at The Sydney Morning Herald

How student agency starts early

Adaptability, initiative and resolve can help futureproof children emerging into a complex world, writes Fran Molloy.

Children born after 2010 are Generation Alpha, often immersed in screen-based technology before they start school, and mastering digital interaction as they grow.

This cohort can access “more information than any other generation gone before”, say Australian authors Mark McCrindle and Ashley Fell, whose book, Generation Alpha, published in 2021, argues education must shift in response.

Karen McArdle, head of junior school at St Catherine’s School in Melbourne, agrees that today’s children learn far more, and at a higher level, than did previous generations.

“Today’s curriculum is not based on rote-learning a series of facts but, rather, on understanding concepts and applying complex reasoning skills such as comparing, analysing, deducting and making generalisations,” she says.

Schools must switch “from structural and auditory learning to engaging, visual, multimodal and hands-on methods of educating this emerging generation” write McCrindle and Fell, adding that many parents of GenAlpha have raised their expectations of schools.

Julian Wilcock, the headmaster of John Colet School, says Generation Alpha may be entering a very different future – yet relationships with families, communities, schools, other students and teachers are still key to their learning.

To this end, all students at the Sydney multifaith K-6 primary school share daily in a school-provided vegetarian lunch and teachers typically stay with the same class for several years.

Wilcock says five key values – stillness, truthfulness, courage, service and respect – have been a constant at the school since it was established in 1985.

Even very young children engage with stillness, he says. “Before starting a new activity, we pause with the children, bringing our attention into the present.”

This school-wide culture helps children learn to focus and take a deep dive into learning.

While technology is not banned, the school has a minimal IT footprint, with a purposely-limited use of screen-based devices among its learning tools. “Children learn to give their attention deliberately, rather than have it captured by entertainment,” Wilcock says.

Eleni Goulas, director of early learning and junior school at ELTHAM College in Melbourne’s north-east, is an advocate of student agency, which she says involves a mindset that goes beyond values and mission statements.

Inquiry-based learning prompts students to ask questions, she adds. “The more questions you ask, the more thinking you do about the world – and with student agency comes the impetus to act on what you discover.”

She cites a recent junior school inquiry-based project exploring ways to prevent snakes from coming into classrooms at the school’s bushland grounds. The children’s ideas resulted in solutions including new seals being installed under doors.

Earlier this year, a group of students successfully lobbied for a chess club – inspiring some of ELTHAM’s youngest students to also request an astronomy club.

The school’s recently revamped observatory has long been popular with older students, so Goulas drafted these keen users in to help younger children write a cost-benefit proposal for the new club.

“Student agency involves not just giving students a voice, but also helping them to understand what comes before and after that,” she says.

“Before you voice something you need to think about what you’re saying and why; and then there is reflection and action afterwards – agency encompasses all of that.”

Katherine Arconati, faculty co-ordinator at Sydney’s Glenaeon Rudolf Steiner School, says that generational differences are a function of the world around us rather than an innate change in how children learn.

“We keep our primary classrooms free of technology to promote meaningful human interactions as well as active learning in children,” she says.

“By cherishing childhood and recognising it as a gradual unfolding of capacity, we let children explore our shared world with self-directed learning.”

Arconati says that the Steiner school encourages children to live in a world of imagination and feeling.

Children can use computers occasionally for research once they are in year 6, she explains, and while doing so learn how to become digital citizens.

Karen McArdle says every child has a unique learning journey with small class sizes at St Catherine’s School playing a role in enabling student voices to be heard.

“Our educators have the time and resources available to deeply understand each student and support them through personalised learning plans” she says.

McArdle says the “thinking classroom” program encourages students to question, interpret, analyse, reason, evaluate, explain, hypothesise and appraise far beyond the basics of English and maths to include STEM, music, art, history, geography, health, civics and citizenship and more.

“They are also active in an array of co-curricular activities and are technologically savvy,” she says, with the school continually adjusting to prepare students for a very different future.

“We know they will be required to be agile and critical thinkers, possessing complex reasoning skills to be successful in a world of work which sees humans and machines working side-by-side,” she says.