Using Tech to Give Students Agency Over Their Own Learning

As an educator with several years of experience, I've always believed in one major principle above all others: Students need to be able to trust their teachers.

There's a huge amount of research available that shows how important this is. When you realize that, on average, a single teacher will impact roughly 3,000 students over the course of their career, it's easy to see why they need to take this as seriously as possible all day, every day.

Ultimately, this a road that runs in two directions, which is something a lot of people don't think about until it's too late. Just as students need to trust their teachers, teachers also need to trust their students. Without mutual trust—which ultimately gives way to mutual respect—even the best teacher will never feel like they can truly give their students agency over their own learning.

Building this mutual trust and giving students agency over their own learning is exactly what we aim to accomplish at St. Leonard Catholic School.

Agency Over Learning

St. Leonard Catholic School is a modestly sized preschool through eighth-grade Catholic school located right in the heart of Louisville, Kentucky. We have 125 students spread across those grades. To put that into perspective, the biggest class I currently teach has just 17 kids.

Because of our size, we're in a great position to bring unique approaches to learning—both in how we schedule our classes and the way all teachers work together to form something that’s stronger together than any one of us individually.

Currently, I teach students in science in grades four through eight. I'm also responsible for our "20% Time" class. If that sounds familiar, it's probably because Google has been doing something similar for years. Every Wednesday and Friday afternoon, kids in the sixth, seventh, and eighth grades can work on any project of their choice. They all get together in our library with myself and three other teachers.

These classes feed back into the larger principles at St. Leonard Catholic School in a number of interesting ways. For starters, we realized that when these students graduate and head out into the "real world" in ten years, some of the jobs they'll apply for literally don't exist today. Students need to be able to think for themselves. They must learn new information. They have to be able to research and find reliable sources and drive themselves forward.

But, almost more importantly than that, we wanted to be able to give kids more agency over their own studies—a true belief that they are responsible for their own learning. It can’t just be teachers handing out information they take it in. They need to be accountable for going out there, getting that information, and following their own learning path.

Here Comes the Tech

A major part of our holistic, innovative learning environment is the careful use of the right kind of technology. Technology is already all around us at every moment of every day, so it makes sense that we should try to incorporate it into our education as much as possible. After all, even if kids don’t apply for jobs in the technology industry, they'll still work in positions that require some sort of proficiency. It makes sense to prepare them today so they'll be ready for that shift tomorrow.

The teachers got together and ultimately decided that a heavy technology push was absolutely a step worth taking. We are 1:1 in sixth, seventh, and eighth grade. These students all have Chromebooks they get to take home. Further, when they graduate, they can buy that Chromebook for a dollar. Our fourth and fifth graders share a Chromebook cart. 

Our kindergarten through third grade students share a set of 20 iPads and 20 Chromebooks in the classroom. However, while these devices have aided us in so many ways, they also initially proved to erode that essential student/teacher trust I hoped to have between myself and my students.

Technology and Trust: Building a Better Relationship

Make no mistake about it: technology in the classroom is a good thing. I'm glad our school is 1:1. But it was frustrating, too—at least in the beginning.

To initially help establish that trust, we had a platform for filtering in place. If a child searched for something they weren't supposed to, our system would flag it and send it right to our technology coordinator for review. However, we didn't have anything inside of the actual classroom that allowed me to keep an eye on their activity. We definitely needed that frontline defense. 

With the lack of tools for teachers, I realized I spent a lot of time wandering around the room looking at screens to make sure that kids were actually doing their school work. It was heartbreaking for me to know this was how I spent my time instead of my real job: helping them learn.

Quickly, this made it more difficult for me to actually want to use that technology everyone agreed was so important. There had to be a very good reason for me to have students take out their Chromebooks for a lesson.

In a sense, I felt powerless until we found something called GoGuardian—the classroom and device management platform—and I could see a bright light at the end of a long, dark tunnel. 

Going Deeper

Once we implemented this technology, everything changed. For sixth, seventh, and eighth graders, in particular, the trust started to come back. I felt comfortable integrating more tech into the classroom because I was able to trust them more. Both the students and I knew that at any given moment, I could just pull up the technology and see exactly what they were up to. 

If they were supposed to be on Google Docs but wandered away to another site, I could view where they went. This enabled me to address the problem more directly, which eventually allowed me to fix it as well.

Because of this new level of trust and accountability, it’s helped us change the way we teach our students in the first place. The activities we engaged in started to get more advanced and required additional critical thinking. The technology was no longer just a replacement for writing on paper. In a lot of ways, it became the natural evolution of what we'd done all along. 

Enabling the Future Through Today's Technology

I no longer have to worry about how students use their devices. It provides me the chance to always help them if I'm needed—even if we're not in the same physical space. It gives me a way to make sure our students are engaged by the technology—not distracted by it. Finally, all the teachers at St. Leonard have been able to realize our collective dream. By providing kids more control over their learning, we've enabled them to do things that wouldn’t have been possible just a few years ago.