/ February 19, 2021

Student and Teacher Agency in Action: the Self-Direction Toolkit Development Process

Originally published February 2, 2021, at studentsatthecenterhub.org

Researchers tell us and employers confirm that individuals who demonstrate the 21st-century skills of self-direction, communication, creativity and collaboration excel in post-secondary and career experiences. So the more schools can support the development of those crucial skills, the more we’ll be ensuring our graduates are successful in both the workplace and college. Figuring out how to do that amid the many other curricular, instructional, assessment and behavioral demands placed on educators can be difficult, however. Education leaders need to design projects and systems that help teachers to meet students’ needs while also recognizing the realities of teachers’ workloads.

We believe that teachers need well-designed tools that will help them empower students to own their learning and develop the kinds of skills that will serve them well long after graduation. In a nutshell, that’s what we set out to do. In our Building Essential Skills Today for Tomorrow (BEST) project we supported teachers, students and researchers to work together in an iterative design process to build a toolkit that enhances teacher capacity and impact while building the crucial skill set of self-direction among students.

Prioritizing Teacher Leadership and Agency

Teacher leadership and agency is fundamental to the success of the New Hampshire performance assessment work and the BEST project adopted this model that positions teacher expertise and guidance at the core. Deploying teacher leads is an approach derived from Cynthia Coburn’s article, Rethinking Scale (2003). Coburn asserts that to achieve change at scale in the instructional core the ownership of that change needs to reside with the teacher at the classroom level. In our model, teacher leads took ownership of the design process by creating classroom-ready tools for teachers and students. Dr. Felicia Sullivan (JFF), lead researcher for the BEST project, describes the model in the article Investing in Teachers as Agents of Scale. We found the teacher lead structure essential to the iterative design process used by the BEST project team in creating the self-direction tools. In fact, teacher leads became so committed to this work that in the spring of 2020, at the height of the pandemic and the shift to remote learning, they determined they would push forward with the self-direction tool design process because, as they said, “this is important work.”

Including and Listening to Student Voice

Another essential element in the redesign process was including student voice. Students are the end-users of the self-direction rubric and associated tools so their input in the design process is invaluable. As students used iterations of the tools and rubrics, the teacher leads gathered feedback from students on how various components supported the development of their self-direction skill sets. For example, when responding to the first draft, students shared that the reflection questions on the tools seemed redundant. They also shared that they didn’t feel comfortable self-assessing their self-direction skills using numbers to indicate their progress. They said it felt like they were “grading” themselves instead of using the self-assessment as a learning tool. Students and teachers both indicated that the language on the rubric was sometimes too dense and occasionally not asset-based. This kind of feedback from those with the greatest stake in the project’s success was critical to us as we designed subsequent iterations of the self-direction tools and rubric. You can hear the teacher leads talk about the design process and the tools in the Aurora Institute presentation: Practical Tools to Encourage Self-Direction Among Students in In-Person and Remote Learning.

I felt empowered to be part of this process… teachers collaborated, discussed, researched and got feedback from students to refine and revise our tools and rubrics. It is a great feeling to know your voice is heard.

Engaging Researchers to Strengthen Tools

The BEST project was also strengthened by the research, content knowledge, instructional and curriculum design expertise of the team members. To support the technical aspects of ensuring validity in the rubric and tools, we asked Dr. Karin Hess and Wendy Surr to join the project. Dr. Hess and Wendy Surr conducted a detailed alignment review of the rubric with the Essential Skills and Dispositions Framework, which is the research base for the work study practices. Wendy Surr created a review process for the self-direction tools ensuring that they were aligned to the rubric and would “capture self-direction in ways that were both reliable and valid—and ultimately be recognized as legitimate tools for assessing student competency in non-academic domains.” For the non-researchers out there, this simply means the tools work for teachers and students in the classroom.

In a direct response to the feedback from teachers and students, Dr. Hess made several revisions to the rubrics which included:

  • Refined asset-based language for the indicators
  • Articulated developmental progressions through the levels
  • Parsed the grade bands to K-2, 3-5, 6-8, and 9-12
  • Revised the performance ratings from numbers to descriptive language

Ann Hadwen, Social Studies Content Lead, identified the shared goals that guided the redesign when she said, “the process began with the premise that all teachers want their students to be self-directed, to take ownership of their learning, and to reflect and grow from their experiences.” With that goal in mind, the teacher leads incorporated student feedback into the self-direction tool redesign process by reducing the number of tools from three to two to correct the redundancy that students found frustrating in the original tools. Also, they incorporated peer review protocols in Tool 2: My Self-Direction Road Map Grades 6-8 and Tool 2: My Self-Direction Road Map Grades 9-12 that helped to facilitate student ownership in the process and support a culture of collaboration in the classroom. The teachers noticed that by using the revised Tool 1:Student Assessment of Self-Direction for Growth, the learning goals identified by students in their task are “stronger than the previous year” because the tool allows a “separate place to capture students’ thinking.” They also found the “checkpoint charts helpful” in Tool 2: My Self-Direction Road Map Grades 6-8  because they allow “authentic capture of process strategies.” To ensure the alignment between the tools, Wendy Surr and the team conducted an alignment review between the self-direction rubric and the self-direction tools. Leads continue to implement and test the tools in their current environment either in remote learning or in-person learning.

The changes made to the rubrics were well received by teachers and students. When Tony Doucet, grade 9 teacher at Souhegan High School, conducted a focus group with his students to gain their perspective on the updated rubric, students reacted positively to the rubric changes. “I think you can use this rubric to help reflect,” said one student. “You can reflect on how you set goals, and meet those goals, and take past experiences and apply them”. Nicole Woulfe, 6th grade teacher at Sanborn Regional Middle School, shared that her students “found the updated rubric easier to use.” She noted that her students appreciated the language in the rubric and “mentioned right away how there were fewer words compared to the other self-direction rubric.” Nicole also observed that her students “appreciated the shift to more kid-friendly language.” Observing the rubric design process, Dr. Hess noted that “it was extremely helpful to have teachers and their students review the updated rubrics for clarity, relevance and ease of use.”

Teachers, students and researchers worked together to design the self-direction toolkit and as Dr. Sullivan noted “the researchers held the line on where the rubric and tools needed to maintain alignment with the research framework and the practitioners held the line on where the rubric and tools would and wouldn’t work in their settings.” Dr. Hess shared that the process involved “building trust and feedback loops among various stakeholders [which] was essential in creating high-quality assessment and data collection tools.” And, from the teachers’ perspective, Nicole articulated that she “felt empowered to be part of this process,” adding that “teachers collaborated, discussed, researched and got feedback from students to refine and revise our tools and rubrics. It is a great feeling to know your voice is heard.”

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Kathy White

Director of Deeper Learning

Kathy is the Director of Deeper Learning Projects at New Hampshire Learning Initiative (NHLI), where she coordinates projects focused on promoting deeper learning experiences. She oversees the BEST (Building Essential Skills Today for Tomorrow) project, which involves creating rubrics and toolkits for essential skills like collaboration, communication, self-direction, and creativity. Kathy co-leads the NH PLACE project, supporting teachers in designing teaching and learning aligned with performance assessment. With expertise in assessment design, she collaborates with teachers, district leaders, and administrators to implement intentional and balanced assessment practices. Kathy's contributions extend to curriculum development, instruction, professional learning communities, and leadership strategies within competency-based learning systems. Her extensive experience informs her work to deepen learning, empower educators, and foster student growth.

Categories: NHLInsights, Research and Resources Student Agency

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