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How Curiosity, Creativity and Student Agency Unlock Student Learning

By Jerry Fingal
October 27, 2022
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Long before the pandemic disrupted learning for 1.7 billion students and forever embedded technology into schooling around the globe, it was already clear that education systems were due for an overhaul. 

After all, just as their predecessors had been doing for two centuries, many students in 2020 were still sitting in rows of desks as teachers stood in front of the class reciting facts and assigning textbook readings for students to memorize. 

But remote and hybrid learning models ushered in a large-scale change to that model. 

Overnight, educators were learning to use technology to instruct students in different ways — from afar, on flexible schedules, and using new interactive teaching strategies and materials, often giving students a little more agency in how, when and where they learned. 

Taking that model a few steps further is the goal of many education leaders around the globe who see the promise that blended learning holds for student engagement, creativity, curiosity and agency. 

During an online discussion that was part of the ISTE X Esperaza Asia Education Summit, thought leaders from around the globe discussed ways that blended learning — that is, supplementing face-to-face instruction with online learning — can give students agency and help them develop into lifelong learners.

John C. Tsang, founder of Esperanza, a Hong Kong organization that tackles challenges in education and learning, spoke about how the role of the teacher has changed rapidly and dramatically over the past decade. 

“The word teacher in Chinese means an experienced master who transfers knowledge, culture and skills to others,” he said. “The premise of teaching was predicated on information scarcity, with teachers spreading knowledge to a population with limited access to it.”

But that scarcity no longer exists, he continued.

“We are now living in the age of information overflow and abundance. The needs of learners have also changed as we move away from the Industrial Age. Instead of standardization and conformity, the knowledge economy thrives on diversity and creativity.” 

Roles of the digital-age educator

Speaking to 180 educators, parents and education leaders from Hong Kong, Tsang outlined seven key roles that today’s teachers must assume in order to give students agency so they can become creative problem-solvers and lifelong learners. His list includes: 

1. Designer

One who fosters 21st century competencies with diverse pedagogy.

2. Facilitator

One who enables students to develop their abilities to think critically and independently.

3. Beacon

One who helps students find their north star.

4. Coach

One who unleashes the potential of every student as an individual.

5. Lead Learner

One who walks alongside students in their journey to pursue knowledge.

6. Explorer

One who gets students involved in understanding and addressing the challenges of the real world.

7. Technology Partner

One who makes learning more motivating and engaging.

Harnessing technology is key

A key component of this new role for teachers is the ability to harness technology to empower students, said Justin Hardman, founder and director of 21st Century Learning International in Hong Kong

“Technology can and should help unlock agency for students,” he said. “That doesn’t mean giving students technology, and they are automatically empowered. It’s quite often the opposite! It means when educators skillfully and strategically use technology, in other words blend it, they help unlock student agency for all learners.”

Seek active use of technology

Using technology for learning is a particular passion of ISTE CEO Richard Culatta. He sees tremendous potential in tapping technology for learning — but only if that technology is used to unlock student creativity and curiosity, and give students agency over their learning.  

“Now, we know that learning is most effective when learners are curious,” he told the group. “If learners are curious, they learn more. It’s not just about being fun — although it is fun! Our brains will retain more information if the learning is put in context and in order for that to happen, we have to have learners who are curious.”

Unfortunately, many educators still use technology in ways that are just a substitute for analog learning, he said, citing a few examples: “We take textbooks and scan them and then we have digital textbooks. Instead of boring lectures, we have boring lectures that are recorded on video.”

Those are not strategic uses of technology for learning because they are passive, not active. 

He illustrated what he meant by active learning by sharing four examples of lessons he’s observed in schools around the world. They all make use of technology to accelerate creativity and student agency. 

1. Station rotation

In this classroom activity adaptable for any subject or grade level, students from West Warwick, Rhode Island, rotated through various stations. In one, the teacher led a discussion with a group of students ending with a challenge for students to solve. At other stations, students worked independently on computers to reinforce particular areas where they needed help. At the concussion of the activity, students shared their solutions with each other. 

“It’s a great way to encourage creativity,” Culatta said.

2. Design thinking

In schools Culatta visited in both Colombia and the United States, students used 3D printers to design and “print” prosthetic hands for students with mobility issues. Students were solving a real-world problem using the same technology they’ll undoubtedly be using in their future jobs.

3. Collaborating with experts

Students in Tucson, Arizona, used a handheld device to take samples of plants around their school. They were working with professors at a university remotely to create genome maps of the plants around their campus. This is another example of real-world learning and citizen science.

4. Learning from other classrooms

Teachers at W.F. Joseph Lee Primary School in Hong Kong reached out to educators at schools in Japan and Korea for a global collaboration project that had students learning directly from their faraway peers. 

They started out watching videos to learn about the culture of the other students. Next, they used collaborative docs to ask each other questions. Then they connected on Zoom to meet each other in person. 

Finally, they shared artifacts in the form of pictures, descriptions and videos to share aspects of their culture including hobbies, how they spend their lunch break, how they take care of their school and what kind of street food they enjoy. 

“This is the type of learning that sticks,” Culatta said. “This is the type of collaboration through technology that uses and accelerates creativity and curiosity.” 

Four other education leaders on the webinar shared aspects of developing student curiosity with blended learning. Here are their takeaways.

Defining the elements of personalized learning

Kathleen McClaskey, CEO and chief learning officer of Empower the Learner and author of the book Make Learning Personal, shared seven elements of learner agency that help move educators from a teacher-centered environment to a student-centered environment and, ultimately, to a learner-driven environment. 

In her book, she spells out the three stages for each element for moving along the spectrum. Here are the seven elements of learning agency and what they look like for students at Stage 3, learner-driven. 

1. Voice

Identifies problems, generates solutions, guides groups as a leader of change and accepts responsibility for outcomes. 

2. Choice

Self-directs learning based on challenges, problems and/or passions, and chooses strategies, people and resources to develop an action plan. 

3. Engagement

Is intrinsically motivated to pursue passions and purpose, and is in control and responsible for learning. 

4. Motivation

Is involved in learning for the love of learning and derives satisfaction from understanding, learning a skill, attaining knowledge or creating something. 

5. Ownership

Self-monitors progress to adjust personalized learning plans to demonstrate mastery to meet goals and pursue interests and passions in innovative ways.

6. Purpose

Desires a sense of purpose in the world by choosing a problem or challenge to tackle in seeking a meaningful life.

7. Self-efficacy

Develops resilience to embrace challenges, take risks and views failure as a learning opportunity. 

“Personalized learning is not what is done to the learner or about tailoring the learning,” she says. “It is about helping each learner to identify and develop the skills they need to support and enhance their own learning so that agency and self-advocacy can be realized.”

Digital literacy classroom posters

How tech can facilitate learner agency

Andrew Ko, founder of Kovexa, an advisory organization focused on improving education through technology, talked about how tech is on the verge of opening up new ways of understanding students through data analysis.

“Data is really going to be the way we take it to the next level,” he said.

Educators have long had access to “structured” data. That is, data from formative assessment, summative assessments and attendance. But structured data sets can’t easily measure other factors of learning like motivation and engagement, he said.

The next wave in data analysis is finding patterns in unstructured data to analyze traits that have been difficult to measure. 

Ko said data technology can now pick up on patterns that inform grit or sentiment.

For example, data technology can analyze what students are writing in the LMS collaboration rooms. Those exchanges can be translated and interpreted, and they offer insights about coping skills or grit.

Technology can also pick up on what students are focused on. For instance, if a student is writing about, searching for and discussing cars, data technology can steer that student to career information about working in the automotive industry. The technology can easily identify a trend that might be easily missed by a teacher.

There are already quite a few universities and K-12 systems that are embracing a data-driven mindset. Ko shared four things these institutions have in common:  

1. Start at the top

They demand a data-driven environment from their leaders. 

2. Implement data governance

They recognize there’s fear of data in education, so they prioritize governance and policy.

3. Investigate data dictionaries

They normalize all the data by bringing in different data sets, such as student records, health care records, traffic and weather patterns, family history, etc., because you never know what challenges students have that might not be apparent from structured data. 

4. Pilot systems

They look at algorithms to find ways for information to become more accessible.

Creating learning experience with purpose

Shirla Sum, secondary school principal at the Victoria Shanghai Academy (VSA)  in Hong Kong, talked about how purpose and meaning drive student learning, and technology provides opportunities for students to create, play, share and connect. 

She shared several examples of what that looks like at VSA where the goal is to teach students lifelong learning competencies.

1. Purpose: Adaptive clothing project

Students used the design process to create clothing for those who have different needs, including the elderly, people with disabilities and wheelchair users. “What is really special about this project is that students are engaging with tasks like this because they are making a difference in people's lives.”

2. Create: First year photograph project

Year 1 students learned about photography concepts like framing and perspective and then were asked to create digital art pieces to express themselves and create a virtual exhibition on Art Steps to share with a broader audience. “It helps them understand their classmates better and build a learning community together.”

3. Play: Fed chairman game

Year 12 students used the online game Chair the Fed to learn how monetary policy is managed. Students, acting as the Fed chair, learn how to manipulate interest rates to influence the economy. “Students get really engaged and some are motivated to really understand the intricacies of monetary policy.”

4. Share: Personal project

Students spent a year researching something they were passionate about and put together a portfolio or another artifact to share their learning with the world. One student shared a dance portfolio, another put together information about Chinese fashion and design, and another published an ebook on Amazon about classical music. 

5. Connect: Global collaboration project

Students put together a curriculum for girls at a learning center in Afghanistan on topics ranging from art to the sciences. Then they connected on Zoom and taught weekly classes and engaged in cultural discussions. “There are no boundaries to learning,” Sum said. “We don’t have to confine our students to their own classrooms. They can connect with learners from all over the world.”

The do’s and don’ts of student agency

Gary Wong, Ph.D., director and assistant professor at the Centre for Information Technology in Education, talked about how blended learning can offer ways for student agency to grow. He stressed the importance of agency not only for students, but for educators and parents as well. 

He shared his list of five ways teachers can promote agency and four things teachers should avoid doing to promote student agency. 

Teachers can drive student agency by being: 

  • Knowledgeable and passionate about their subject areas. 
  • Good role models for self-learning and acquiring personal experience.
  • Skillful in using learning technologies to support blended learning. 
  • Aware of students’ challenges. 
  • Responsive with timely feedback for learning.

Teachers can drive student agency by avoiding:  

  • Handing over complete control to students. Instead, set clear goals and expectations.
  • Using a one-size-fits-all approach. Instead, adapt the content and learning outcomes for your students.
  • Trusting artificial intelligence completely. Instead, trust human intelligence when assessing student learning. 
  • Assuming students are digitally competent just because they are digital natives. Instead, teach them digital learning skills.

Practical advice from blended learning experts

Long before the pandemic, blended learning experts Michele Eaton and Torry Trust spent years designing and teaching online courses. The workshops they presented during the summit offered a deep dive into some best practices for blended learning. 

Station rotations: A catalyst for personalized learning

Michele Eaton, director of Warren Online Academy, a K-12 online school in Indiana, literally wrote the book on online learning. Her book, The Perfect Blend, offers practical guidance on designing student-centered learning experiences. 

She defined blended learning as any combination of traditional in-person instruction with online learning. 

Her workshop focused on using blended learning as a catalyst for personalized learning by setting up station rotations. There are as many different types of station rotations as there are educators, but when done right, all of them facilitate personalized learning, she said. 

She offered these tips for educators wanting to try station rotations:  

1. Think through the logistics ahead of time

Decide the number of stations you’ll have, how many students in each group, how much time you want them to spend at each station and don’t forget to build in transition time. 

2. Make independent learning time meaningful

When students are working independently, they should not be engaged in busy work. Prepare meaningful lessons. If they are practicing a skill, the work should be online so you can review it later.

3. Teach the routine

Regardless of the type of rotation you set up, spend time making sure students know the routine and how to move through the stations. This will prevent a lot of chaos and disruption that could torpedo the whole operation.

4. Be flexible

It’s OK to ask around and discover how other educators create and manage stations, but make sure you adapt what you're doing for your unique students and classroom experience. What works for one educator might not work for you. 

Do’s and don’t for three types of blended learning

Torrey Trust, Ph.D., associate professor of learning technology at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, offered some compelling reasons why all educators should be offering some form of blended learning.

The No. 1 reason? Studies show blended learning improves student academic achievement. In fact, literature reviews going back to the 1990s indicate that blended learning classes outperform fully online and fully in-person classes. Blended learning has other advantages, too. For instance, it: 

  • Provides more flexibility in learning. 
  • Supports student-driven learning.
  • Helps students develop technical skills. 

Trust outlined three different blended learning models, and offered tips and best practices for making each version effective. 

1. In-person lecture blended with asynchronous virtual learning 

In-person lectures should offer more than a teacher standing in front of the classroom speaking, she said. Learners need opportunities to interact with not just the instructor, but classmates as well as the content. 

One way to do that is engaging students in social activities like think-pair-share using Padlet or IdeaBoardz, gallery walks, sticky note brainstorming or mind mapping

Another way to activate lectures is to break them up with check-ins, using polling software like AnswerGarden, Gimkit, Kahoot, Slido or others. 

For asynchronous virtual learning, Trust recommended two interactive approaches. The first is interactive online lessons using Nearpod or Google Sites/Docs/Forms. The second is digital choice boards or HyperDocs. These types of virtual experiences are meaningful because they offer instruction, scaffolded feedback and peer-to-peer interaction. 

2. Synchronous virtual lecture blended with in-person learning

When you are presenting a synchronous virtual lecture, the first consideration is to choose a videoconferencing tool that offers live-transcript and closed-captioning to support accessibility. 

Trust also recommends that teachers allow students to be off camera during at least part of the lecture. Research indicates that there are dozens of reasons students might feel anxiety from being on camera, and that anxiety increases cognitive load, which inhibits learning.  

Just like with in-person lectures, break up virtual lectures by using tools to check for understanding. One idea is to do a 15-minute mini-lecture followed by an activity to have students design something that shows their understanding, or ask them to design a lesson to teach what they’ve just learned to a child.

For the in-person aspect of this blended model, Trust recommends engaging students in collaborative design projects such as videos, podcasts, interactive images, games and digital stories. 

3. Asynchronous virtual lecture blended with in-person learning 

One advantage of asynchronous virtual lectures is the flexibility students have to slow it down, speed it up and relisten to the whole lecture or just parts of it, Trust said. Students also have a choice of when and where to watch the recording, giving them more control over their learning. 

When recording a lecture, ensure that it’s digitally accessible by adding captions, Trust said. If you don’t have a closed captioning service or program, you can add captions for free by uploading the recording to YouTube. 

Asynchronous virtual lectures can seem less engaging than in-person lectures, but there are two models to explore that will help make your content more captivating, Trust said. The Made to Stick Principals are six strategies, such as the use of storytelling and emotion, to captivate audiences and help students remember the content in your lectures. Similarly, the ARCS Model of Motivation focuses on attention, relevance, confidence and satisfaction. 

Putting lecture videos on a platform such as Ted-Ed, EdPuzzle and Playposit will allow you to create a library of lessons and those platforms can be customized to add discussion questions, reflections and other elements.

When you blend asynchronous lectures with in-person learning, it’s important that students have learner-to-learner connection during in-person learning sessions. Ways to do that include role playing, debate and challenge-based learning. 

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Jerry Fingal is an ISTE blogger who writes about the power of technology to transform learning.