This is What Learner Agency Looks Like

Practice   24 May 2018
By Johnna Noll, Norris Academy, and Paula Kaiser, Norris Academy


Becoming a learner at Norris Academy starts from the first moment you walk in the door.

Johnna Noll and Paula Kaiser
Executive Director and Director of Development

“I am a learner. I have been a student for several years of my life. I have attended school, gone to classes, studied content, taken tests to prove what I have learned, and moved on to the next level. Now that I am at Norris Academy, I am no longer a student. I am a learner.”

This statement sums up how every member of Norris Academy—from youth to adult—approaches their learning. Becoming a learner at Norris Academy starts from the first moment you walk in the door.

For youth, the first 30 days at Norris Academy begin with an orientation that includes a four-dimensional self-reflection. Through the lenses of Academics, Employability, Citizenship, and Wellness, learners are encouraged to explore what makes them unique.

Adults also complete learner profiles through which they determine who they are and who they want to become. Their profile includes reflections about preferred learning modes, leadership skills, personal strengths and struggles, hobbies and interests, and preferences in communication, workspace, and motivation.

The team shares their profiles with their peers to gain an understanding of each member’s needs, leadership skills, and strengths, so we can capitalize on these during the design and implementation process of our new strategies. Each team member then sets personal goals that align with the vision of Norris Academy and enhance the work as a whole. Like the youth learners, the adults participate in ongoing reflection and pathway adjustment to become the learning professionals they aspire to be.

Norris Academy’s focus on learner agency invites an entirely new way of designing learning and the structures that support it. We want to share our approach with other learner-centered leaders with the hope that our practice will inspire new and fresh ideas that you can weave into your own.

Cultivating Learning Agents Through 4-Dimensional Self-Reflection

To gain an understanding of what is needed on their journeys to develop their whole selves, learners participate in mini-explorations, which include creating their learner profile and presenting who they are to their learning network—an interconnected panel of adults and peers that provides wrap-around support.

The learner profile is created through a series of diagnostics within four modules. The diagnostics enlighten learners about a variety of things including:

  • Their strengths and needs in core subjects
  • Things that motivate them
  • Ways they can self-advocate
  • Hobbies and careers that interest them
  • Their preferred study methods and learning environments
  • Ways they can get involved in their local and global communities
  • Strategies for increasing their zone of engagement
  • Their physical fitness level
  • Their known stressors

This newly acquired information then guides the development of each learner’s plan, pathway, and proof:

  • The plan includes the goals that they want to accomplish;
  • The pathway is the unique way in which each learner will attain their goals, based on their preferred learning methods; and
  • The proof is the real-world evidence of learning and application.

At Norris Academy, we do not have teachers in the traditional sense. Personal learning begins with a learning specialist who helps learners use their profile to co-design a unique plan and pathway that capitalizes on passions and addresses personal needs. This jumpstarts the process of becoming a learner and developing agency in their learning.

Enhancing Learning Through the Power of a Learning Network

In addition to the learning specialist, we also have an employability specialist, citizenship specialist, wellness specialist, global resource specialist, and community coaches. All of these people work together to support the unique needs of each learner and align resources to meet individual goals.

As students in other schools, our learners had one teacher for each subject, but at Norris Academy, we have a learning network that helps learners make connections in their learning within the four dimensions: Academics, Employability, Citizenship, and Wellness.

Here’s how one learner described the way learning happens at Norris Academy. In his explanation, you’ll be introduced to the word “pursuit”—what our youth learners call the process of identifying a problem and seeking a solution.

Currently, the pursuit that I am designing requires me to utilize my research skills and math skills to create a decorative attraction that will become a focal point of Norris Academy. I will be welding a large N that we will fill with decorative rocks painted by other learners at Norris.

At Norris Academy, we have a 900-acre campus, and many of our pursuits involve solving problems and creating projects that benefit all of the members of our community. My focal point project will be displayed in our outdoor learning space.

Some of the other learners are in the process of designing and building a Norris Ball Field (a multi-purpose field for the myriad sports the community is interested in). You may be wondering what is unique about these projects. Well, they are designed around our passions, future career opportunities, and academic needs.

For example, in the ball field renovation, we have historians from the creative and communicative arts community that will document the entire process and publish a short documentary. The business and human service community will calculate our financials and be our project managers. The STEM community will research grasses, plantings, and the chemical maintenance required to enhance the ball field. The heavy lifting for this project will rest with the Skilled Trades community. They will survey the land, create the architectural design, and do most of the construction.

A project like this one requires a lot of varied interests, talents, and learning opportunities. We must expand on the knowledge that we have gained about ourselves during Norris’s self-reflection orientations. While working on these projects, we focus on developing social skills in contextualized, real-world experiences and building strategies to design, engage, and persevere in open-walled learning experiences that are personalized and contextualized to our interests.

At this point, you might be wondering how all of this is possible. To put it simply, this is the power of a learning network.

A project like the one described starts with connections to the global community. Learners must understand the career and learning opportunities aligned to the pursuit they are designing. From there, learners engage in activities on our campus, in our local community, and in virtual spaces that meet their learning needs.

For the ball field renovation pursuit, learners are planning to meet with Extended Learner Opportunity Practitioners (ELOPs)—a financial planner, historian, surveyor, and greenskeeper—who belong to the overall learning network.

The learners are going to do extended learning opportunities at Miller Park, home of the Milwaukee Brewers Major League Baseball team, and a local golf course to better understand field design and slope, as well as the chemical supplements and maintenance requirements needed to preserve the field long after the initial pursuit is completed.

Learners are also considering starting a few clubs to enhance this pursuit, including a photography club that will take time-lapse photos of the project, an art club to design the field logo, and an intramural sports team that will play other organizations within our surrounding community. Clubs at Norris Academy are created to support a specific purpose aligned to the learners’ current goals and pathways.

Designing a Promising Practice Through Five Levels of Input

Pursuits of this magnitude demand trust-building, teamwork, design-thinking, and most importantly, the collective embodiment of being a learner. All of the specialists and coaches are learning right alongside our youth.

The adult learning team participates in weekly design sessions with the Executive Director and the Director of Development. In these design sessions, the team identifies the most significant challenges and barriers to reaching the vision of learning at Norris Academy. The actions we take to “problem solve through challenges” are our “promising practices.” Promising practices become the framework that ensures Norris Academy’s vision come to life.

Each design challenge includes a four-step process with “five levels of input” so everyone’s voices are captured and included in the design.

Step 1: Define and Document

This step starts with a very small group that identifies the WHY—in order to outline the objectives—and the HOW—to create the deliverables and success criteria.

Step 2: Communicate and Internalize

In this step, the goal is to communicate the promising practice widely and include more people in the design conversation to refine and further develop the WHAT—how the vision will become a reality.

This is where we take advantage of our five levels of input strategy; these include: Directors, Specialists, Coaches, Learners, and Extended Community Members. The team at Norris continuously iterates during this step as different team members join the conversation to build and challenge the current design thinking.

This step is emphasized because communication is critical in the implementation process. It gives the learning team a chance to communicate the practice widely among all stakeholders—providing the opportunity for everyone to internalize the process. Engaging all five levels of input builds agency across all levels of the organization.

Step 3: Visible Change in Practice

This is where all stakeholders will start to see a visible change in practice. Through the design process, everyone at Norris Academy is encouraged to take risks and push the limits of what we believe we can do to change lives through the power of learning.

Step 4: Responsive Teaching and Learning

In the final step, the primary goal of the learning team is to shift from the initial promising practice to an enduring practice that will become the fiber of who we are and what we do. Taking time to reflect and iterate through this process helps ensure our work does not become a fad and trail off when the next promising practice is developed.

This process may take significant time. However, the value derived from it is too powerful to ignore. So much so that Norris Academy has made the decision to include this work in its weekly schedule rather than as an add-on to a traditional schedule.

Putting it All Together

For youth at Norris Academy, learning means they focus on developing themselves in the four dimensions of Academics, Employability, Citizenship, and Wellness. For the learning team, learning means developing team and personal practices that will support the needs of every youth through the use of learner profiles; personal plans and pathways; multidimensional competency frameworks and evidence-based progressions; open-walled extended learning experiences; an interdependent learning network; and a transformation practice for policy and procedures.

At Norris Academy, we are focused on developing learner agency at all levels of the organization from learners to leaders. Agency is developed when learners—youth and adults—become empowered to think and act independently. Agency is expressed when learners become the lead designers of their learning paths and take ownership in identifying the knowledge, skills, and dispositions they need to cultivate to drive their personal or community vision forward.

The learning process for youth and the design process for adults empower all our learners to think and act independently—achieving their goals by actively getting involved, making decisions that impact their own experiences, and initiating autonomous learning. Learner agency at Norris Academy develops leaders at all levels.

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