Agents of Deeper Learning

September 22, 2014

picture-2666-1426704131Persistence. Grit. Tenacity. Perseverance. Agency. These words are all abuzz on the educational circuit today, and while it’s easy to get wrapped up in these enticing ideas that rethink the 21st learner, we must also interrupt the frenzy to consider how we will produce these agents of deeper learning. Using the framework of Simon Sinek’s golden circle (…), let’s take pause together to think about why it’s important to develop these attributes in our students, how we can go about fostering such traits, and what that will really look like in practice.

The competitive nature of our global economy and the need for our country to produce innovative thinkers truly paints the big picture for why we need tenacious graduates who are invested in becoming innovative thinkers. Through a much more myopic lens, CCSS and The Framework for 21st century learning require that our students become persistent learners and critical thinkers. And somewhere in between, as educators we know that teaching our students grit and how to be resourceful are life skills for survival. Ultimately, what teacher doesn’t want a student who takes ownership over their learning, seeks out challenges and is reflective in nature? With these traits content mastery almost falls into place! The need for students to become agents of their learning is pressing not just for our classrooms, but for our society at large-our future depends on us creating these deeper learners.

As much as I wish I could deliver a satchel filled with fairy dust to sprinkle on your students that would turn them into a Deeper Learner we know that it’s not that simple. A great deal of research has been dedicated to academic mindsets and the value a growth mindset has in producing life-long, deeper learners (Briceno, Dweck, Boaler). Producing graduates who exude these traits is a labor of love that requires intention and commitment to the following:

1. Creating the appropriate class climate by normalizing mistakes. This video on “my favorite no” is a great example of how to do that:
Acknowledging and rewarding effort and ideas (rather than fixed talent or “intelligence”) will also help create a learning environment conducive to critical and creative thinking ( Finally, teacher language is crucial in creating the surroundings necessary for students to feel safe, honored, inspired and empowered-Peter Johnston’s “choice words” is a great read if you want to learn more about how to frame your words to foster agents of deeper learning in your classroom.

2. Cultivate academic mindsets by educating students on the brain science behind this academic research and what having a growth mindset entails (Dweck has a vast amount of resources on this topic, including a curriculum and Consider ways in which you can conduct assessments for learning, rather than of learning by providing frequent, diagnostic feedback and allowing students to go through several iterations of their work (Jo Boaler has a great chapter on this in “what’s math got to do with it?”). This speaks to the idea of giving value to the process of ongoing learning, which supports a growth mindset. Finally, incorporate frequent opportunities for self reflection of student learning, developments and efforts. This can be done either through blogging, journals or Student-Led-Conferences. For more on how to cultivate academic mindsets check out

3. Create opportunities for students to have ownership over their learning. Providing various avenues for students to have “voice and choice” in their work could include any of the following strategies: allowing student inquiry to guide the research process, tasks that ask students to develop a solution to a problem, projects or activities that requires students to defend their thinking . Rob Berger’s Leaders of their own Learning. provides an in depth exploration of ways in which teachers can engage and empower students in the process of their learning, thus creating a model for student ownership (

These three important conditions lay the groundwork for creating agents for deeper learning. Now comes the fun part-the roll up your sleeves and get dirty with “the what”: scaffolding!

Since we can’t depend on the Deeper Learning fairy dust to be delivered, then we must explicitly teach students the skills they need to be agentive. Just like we would teach any other skill, the best practices of teaching your content area apply here-start with the end in mind, scaffold, check for progress and reflect. Explicitly teaching the knowledge, skills attributes associated with agency is key! Here are some ideas to help you get started:

-Start with the end in mind by thinking about some final assessment or outcomes to measure student agency by. New Tech Network, Envision Schools and SCALE collaborated to develop an Agency rubric. New Tech Schools have adopted Agency as a School Wide Learning Outcome and use this assessment to then scaffold throughout projects over the course of the year. In a similar vein, the High Tech High Schools use the Habits of Heart and Mind for student to think about their agency and critical thinking. Students are taught these skills through project work and then ultimately assessed in Presentations of Learning at the end of the semester (

-When students get stuck on a homework assignment, rather than leaving the problem blank have them write what I call “narratives of persistence”. In the margin ask them to explain where they got stuck, and more importantly what they did when they got stuck-require them to access three resources and write about their efforts and process.

-After receiving feedback on their work (either from a teacher, a peer or an authentic adult from a related field of study) ask students to write three specific goals for how they will implement the feedback they received in their next draft (for more on the critiquing process check out Ron Berger’s Ethic of Excellence or the work of

-Have students generate their own goals and resources using a basic graphic organizer (appendix 3). This can be done at the beginning of a project, during a large chunk of work time, in an Advisory-like class, or just as a general reflection of their work ethic and agency.

-Daily, weekly, or end-of-project reflections with basic questions like: what did you do when you got stuck? How did you seek out challenges today? What do you want to try tomorrow? Etc. These could be done as a quick exit ticket, as a journal entry or a think-pair-table share discussion to create “accountabilibudies” who can help them out when they need support or redirection.

-Students could also use the above questions and archive them on a blog or a video blog where they film their reflections. The focus of this blog could be on recording their growth, both personally and academically.

-Have students create a stop motion film or presentation to show iteration and progress in a unit or project. This would allow documentation of drafts, accompanied by some form of written explanation for how it also shows growth and agency.

-In general the Design thinking process supports agency by asking students to persist through iterations and problem/solutions. Check out this great resource or check out a school who is putting it into action in Vista, CA

We have to remember that having agency requires new muscles for most of our students, and it is our job to help build those muscles and create opportunities for students to flex them. So as you approach your next content lesson have the end in mind-what do you want your students to know, be able to do and equally as important, who do you want them to be? Let’s roll up our sleeves and help each other create agents of deeper learning!

Read more from Jenny on her blog.