Learning Agility: Harnessing the Power of Failure

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Think about your adjustment period when you first entered the workforce: colleagues driving you mad with their opinions, work-life balance challenges, micromanaging bosses, team meeting tangents, fire drills—and so much more. Add to these challenges the fact that today’s market requires fast, nimble response to market demands through new processes, systems, or technologies. Our global marketplace thrives on change and innovation but offers little time to learn what is needed to achieve either! How do we prepare students for a workplace that demands consistent performance in spite of these challenges?

Of course, academic development matters, but the realities of today’s fast-paced work environment fuel the need for what researchers are calling “learning agility,” and the implications are huge for traditional K-20 learning environments. The Harvard Business Review defines learning agility as “a mindset and corresponding collection of practices that allow leaders to continually develop, grow, and utilize new strategies that will equip them for the increasingly complex problems they face in their organizations.”

Essentially, learning agility correlates with emotional intelligence, but it is exemplified by learners who are not afraid to take risks, to fail, and to quickly incorporate feedback into their next step.

Perhaps most important, agile learners are not defensive. To be open to learning, they can’t be closed to feedback. But, how do we begin to teach the idea of “knowing what to do when you don’t know what to do?” And how do we infuse learning agility into our curriculum and our teaching practices?

I believe that teaching learning agility goes hand in hand with student agency. It’s about letting our students generate new ideas, take risks and fail, and then guiding them, through feedback, to recalibrate, try again, and grow resilience. Speaking of feedback, how about we teach our students to ask for it, or even better, teach them to see the value in a 360-degree approach to feedback? What if we teach our students to offer and receive valuable feedback from their teachers, their peers, and from tech-based learning systems? From there, what if we coach them to avoid a self-justifying posture? Think about it. These are skills than many adults have yet to master, yet they are critical to surviving the continuous change foisted on us via a globally connected, ever-evolving world. We need to foster classroom cultures that value the continuous improvement necessary to survive such a world. We need students, and eventual employees, who are insightful and curious, who do not feel pressured to give perfect answers, and who have the resilience both to keep learning and to apply what they are learning as they go.

This kind of learning is powerful…it’s authentic.

And it isn’t going to happen with a uniform instructional approach where we ‘teach to the middle’ in a classroom of 25ish students. Cultivating learning agility demands out-of-the-box, meshed-up learning experiences. I think my favorite aspect of learning agility is that it reassures students who beat to their own drums. When we value agile learners, we value “different” and understand that innovation doesn’t always come from status quo or standard responses.

Insert the hard part: measuring learning agility. This is inevitably difficult to implement. It is the opposite of linear progress and well-defined content areas. It is ambiguous and relies on the emotional intelligence needed to generate students who can put themselves into uncomfortable situations for the very purpose of growth! It requires the learner to want and know how to look at a problem from multiple angles. That kind of learning requires confidence, learning agile instructional frameworks, teachers, and administrators.

But if the outcome leads to a pioneer-like workforce capable of continuous cycles of learning and confidence-building to realize success, count me in to help translate learning agility into our education processes and systems.

Just thinking about how messy it is to teach like this jazzes me because it offers opportunities to let go of presuppositions and teach in the moment. Even more significant – it compels us to focus on student-centered teaching. Instead of moving on to the next set of objectives because that’s what the lesson dictates, teachers who value learning agility capitalize on failure and encourage students to pivot from the original plan and harness the value of the failure before moving on. The changing landscape within the workforce demands agility and it will likely start with educators and educational leaders themselves becoming more learning agile. So teachers, why not get our agility on in the classroom?

i. Improve Your Ability to Learn by J.P. Flaum and Becky Winkler, June 8, 2015, Harvard Business Review

ASU Prep Digital COO Discusses Online Education on EdChoice Chats Podcast

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Earlier this year ASU Prep Digital COO, Amy McGrath, sat down with Mike McShane from the EdChoice Chats Podcast to discuss online learning, policy and the mission of ASU Prep Digital.

McShane and McGrath had a great conversation, really shedding light on what it is like to start a new learning option for students in our current education landscape. To hear the full episode, visit the EdChoice website or check it out on iTunes

Mike McShane: “I’m curious, you’ve been involved in this space and you’ve lived in these. Just given this particular venture, I would love to know sort of what were the hardest thing that you all have had to overcome. I know you’re sort of early in the process now, but to actually get this thing up and running, what were some hurdles that you had to clear?”

Amy McGrath: “It continues to be a hurdle, and I think that’s because most of what works right now for students at scale is tied and anchored to a school model that I think there are really great school models out there and some progressive leaders in the space. But to truly focus on the learner as opposed to the actual system, the machine, it gets very difficult to plug into that. So creating these complex adaptive systems from a technology standpoint that can kind of jump in with the students and the entry point is the school, there tends to be friction there. Not even from the people, just from the actual system.

So that would probably be one of the many, but when we talk about how online kind of permeates all of the different ways that students learn, that’s been the bright spot. Kids are coming to us and we’re seeking out a lot of student feedback in terms of this is how we want to learn; this is what we want learning to look like. We know we’re moving in the right direction, I think it’s the adults that kind of have to figure it all out, but the kids have already figured it out.”

Mike McShane: “Sure, no absolutely. And I’m curious on the policy front, obviously, we here at EdChoice do a lot of writing about and researching policy, a lot of my background comes from doing research on policy. Are there sort of concretely maybe two or three sort of policy barriers that you run into? I know as you mentioned, there’s culture barriers and there’s sort of systemic issues, but are there specific policies that make your life difficult?”

Amy McGrath: “I think part of that is us demonstrating a progressive model that we hope policy will follow. Arizona is really nice in terms of the landscape there and offers quite a bit of autonomy. I’m thinking right now of our ESA situation right now and we’ve got some of our students that are actually leveraging the empowerment scholarship, so I think we have some small wins there but we’d like to see more volume behind that. And additionally, I think we’re really after kind of the student-centered decisions, and part of that will be students being able to make a decision based on the right instructional choice for them. And that might be parents doing that as well, and so what does that look like from a policy standpoint?

In Florida we had, when we established Florida Virtual School, we had the backing of the legislature and that was very helpful for us. And a part of our growth, our spike in enrollment, was really due to the fact that we worked with the legislature on this and a law was passed for all students in high school to take an online course before graduating. And so, of course, we saw kind of an avalanche from that. There are various pieces of policy that will drive us forward from an enrollment standpoint, but we’re also very hopeful that we’re going to see some legislation that backs kind of a “move on when ready” and “advance when ready” type of mentality where students are not tied to seek time, rather performance.”

Listen to the full episode here. To learn more about ASU Prep Digital courses, visit www.asuprepdigital.org