Free Agent Learning In The Age of Covid 19

I first heard the term Free Agent Learner in 2012 at the inaugural Ed Tech Teacher conference in Boston. Keynote speaker Tony Wagner was speaking on necessity of supporting and promoting the idea of creating Free Agent Learners. If I recall correctly, he felt that Free Agent Learning was the way of the future and essentially the only way anyone will be able to keep up with advances in the workplace. When I brought the concept back to my school and shared with colleagues, many recoiled in horror at the notion of encouraging students to take learning into their own hands!? The idea was considered utter madness and I was labeled a pedagogical heretic shortly thereafter. I am quite sure if I brought up the idea again just two weeks ago, I would have been quickly put in my place again; however, things have suddenly changed with Covid 19 pandemic.

In an effort to stem the spread of a rather virulent virus, the closure of all public petri dishes we call schools has been ordered. This sudden shuttering of our public learning spaces has left teachers and students to wonder how does the education system continue? Enter Free Agent Learning.

Let me express at this point, that Free Agent Learning doesn’t mean the absence of “teacher”. It is simply the expectation that an individual has the skills to embark on a learning journey in whole or in part without being lead along by the nose by a teacher. The act of free agent learning is a skill set, not a master plan to eliminate teachers. (there are other things on the horizon that will do that, but I digress) Now imagine IF we could feel confident that students had the agency to direct their own learning at home with a little digital guidance from their teacher during this time of self isolation. I would suggest there would not be quite so many teachers, parents or kids saying to themselves “OH MY GOD WHAT DO WE DO NOW!”

With that said, I understand there are some grades and some subjects where the practicality of depending on kids being “Free Agent Learners” is simply impossible. Grades 1 – 4, I cannot conceive how it could possibly work. Primary grades need the guiding hand of a teacher. High school teachers who are expected to shepherd kids through prescribed academic curriculum, I get it. It is difficult if not impossible to ensure all the boxes are checked and the kids have the skills they need to move on, but what if more of our kids had the skills to take on the challenge of guiding their own learning. What if you could be confident in your students’ ability to discover, investigate, find, answer, expand, elaborate… on their own? Imagine how much easier the current Covid 19 situation would be for teachers, parents and students.

Now this doesn’t mean there are not issues with Free Agent Learning. There are a number of issues that come along with this type of learning.

  1. Many kids come to us and all they want to know is what will they be tested on. They don’t want to take on learning for themselves, because it is time consuming and difficult. They are so conditioned to being lead along every step off the way, memorizing what they have been told and then being tested on it, that they have a great deal of difficulty breaking out of that box.
  2. There is a lot of training involved. When I get kids in grade 9, we start the year with a lot of needy kids that I have to lead along step by step, day by day, week by week. If truth be know, It isn’t until the end of grade 10 when most kids finally get to the point where they find an interest and can pursue it independently with a little guidance from me. There is some intense teacher involvement in getting kids to the point of being able to Free Agent Learn.
  3. Many hard core Free Agent Learners have a very pointed view on what they are learning and how they are learning it. They often become ardent disciples of a topic, a method, a piece of hardware or software… They get so fixated on how and what they have learned that it is next to impossible to introduce alternate points of view or methods of doing something. However, These are usually kids who have been Free Agent Learning long before they ever get to me.
  4. It can be difficult to get students beyond the superficial. Kids will learn something on their own, but they don’t learn much beyond the basics and then they jump onto something else. Free Agent Learning takes effort, time and perseverance. It is then my job to lead them further into the unknown.
  5. It can be difficult to assess a Free Agent Learner. When you set a student loose to learn something, you are not in control of the curriculum and it can be hard to determine what it is the student has actually learned. It is important to figure out what their baseline is and then track what it is they have learned or perhaps a better measure is recognizing what they have created.
  6. Insert other…

Like I said, Free Agent Learning is a set of skills that allows kids to engage in learning without constant daily contact with an adult dragging them along. It is not a perfect learning model, but the Covid 19 crisis has just put a bullet point on the need for kids to have these skills. Free Agent Learning is a life skill, a job skill and now a Social Distancing skill.


Additional Reading

Free agent learners: the new career model
Students as ‘Free Agent Learners’

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