Be Like A Tour Guide

My fifth graders are currently knee deep in their projects of their own choosing. As we started today, I reminded the class to write a goal for today’s session (small, achievable, focused). There was a bit of murmuring and we started to chat.

“I don’t like it when the teacher doesn’t tell us what to do.”


“Me too.”


I asked the students to tell me more about that.

“I like the teacher to be like a tour guide. Someone who shows you all the places to go. Tells you what you are going to do that day. Stuff like that.”

Me: “But what if the tour guide says you are visiting Paris and you get excited because you really want to go to the Eiffel Tower, but the tour guide walks right past the Eiffel Tower without stopping and you don’t get to go there?”

Student: “If the tour guide was a good tour guide, they would know that I wanted to stop there and they would find out where other people wanted to stop too.”

Student: “The Eiffel Tower is famous so it would be worth stopping there. We should stop there.”

Then there was some whispering. And so I asked the student to speak up.

“Well, you could just be letting us choose our own projects because it is easier for you. You get to tell us to come up with the ideas and then you can sit back and get on with your own work.”

The discussion continued and ultimately, we talked about TRUST. I explained that I was taking a risk in letting the kids choose their own path. That I had to trust that they would use the time wisely. That they would choose to do things they were interested in. That they would ask for help. I reminded them that in every lesson, I asked each student, “How can I help you?” and that I trusted them to answer me in a way that would help us both know what to do next.

There was still somewhat of an underlying grumble about “not knowing” and “it’s really hard” – there were definitely kids in their stretch zones, bordering on panic.

I don’t see this in my four year old when I tell her to play. When I tell her she can make something. In fact, I barely ever tell her that she CAN play or make something – she just does. At what point did we make kids such passive participants in their own education?

When I was a Learning Technology teacher (similar role to a tech coach) in Germany, I was working with a 5/6 year old class who were doing an investigation into work and jobs. As we were sitting together, about to go interview various people in the school about their jobs, I asked the students “Do you have a job?”. Super quick, one student responded, “Our job is to sit quietly and wait for the teacher to tell us what to do.”

Sit quietly.

Wait for the teacher.

To tell us what to do.

5 years old. And that is what they think their JOB is?


What are we doing to change the way we structure our classrooms so this is not the first thing that pops out of a child’s mouth when asked what their job is? I have shared this graphic before, but it has a lot of reflective questions that every teacher could ask themselves in relation to voice, choice, ownership, and agency.


And what about the second comment about the Eiffel Tower:

“The Eiffel Tower is famous so it would be worth stopping there. We should stop there.”

How do we decide what is ‘worth knowing’ or ‘worth stopping at’? What role does knowledge play in the quest for student agency? (starts digging through Wiggins and McTigue and Erickson and Wagner to revisit previous understandings about knowledge and learning). (Thanks, Simon, for bringing this up on the weekend! Good to talk about the place of knowledge in an agency-centered learning environment).

Where are you at in your quest for student agency?

5 thoughts on “Be Like A Tour Guide”

  1. I was at a conference with Dr. Sascha Heckmann this weekend. He defined Agency as, “The ability to take intentional action to impact an outcome.” The word ‘ability’ gets me thinking. What does ‘able’ mean here? Do our values have any place in the definition of agency? Is this where ownership fits in? You can choose, you can do, and you have to take responsibility. So, alongside agency, it is essential that we teach a culture of values.

  2. I really wonder how to go about this though.
    Have been a pre- primary teacher since 5 years , and strongly believe in student agency. Wonder is how to plan the day then?

    1. I think that is a great question. I like the idea of the role of teacher being that of ‘lead documentor” – observing and offering ideas and documenting what is seen. I think that agentic learners flourish in an environment that allows them time and space to explore in a supported way. I think the Early Years teachers tend to have this well under control. What are the next steps though to ensure this agency flows through the primary years?

  3. Wow, this post absolutely reflects what I have struggled with for the past 20 years – since I first started teaching in a PYP school. And the contradicting thoughts linger …
    I know the ‘frustration’ you have felt when students don’t seem to fly with the freedom they are given: the students that do not wonder about what they have seen/heard/experienced, that do not question anything after a discussion, that rarely engage with ideas that come up during a unit – the ones that totally rely on a guide when touring Paris and did not bother with reading up on it beforehand. But then there are the students who take ideas and thoughts and just seem to turn anything into a quest to find out, who know where and how to start, who have it all planned out when you first talk to them and as a result really dig deeper – the ones who don’t want a guide but want to explore Paris themselves after they found out what is worth seeing and what they are interested in. Is this despite school? Because of school?
    I know studies show that students ask fewer genuine questions the older they get and I don’t have to be convinced that school and culture/society play a huge part in this. However, I have always wondered which role personality traits play. You write that your own daughter always knows that to do next but I remember being fascinated when friends and family members started having kids and some of the little ones found it so difficult to think of something to do or to initiate play. Early on they relied on a sibling/peer/adult to play. How much responsibility do families/society/culture carry for developing agency? Nature vs. nurture?
    And then I think back to the times when I started 20 years ago and did not marvel at being given the opportunity to write planners. To be honest, I often thought ‘Just tell me what to do and I will think of the best way to engage my students and help them find a path to understanding.’ But then again, I am a result of my upbringing, being told what to do. On the other had I never liked being told how to structure my lessons, which learning engagements to do because ‘everyone on the team did them’. That’s where voice/choice and ownership were important to me. And why is that? Maybe because I felt more knowledgeable with regard to the how and why than the what and why? I don’t know.
    So, who decides what agency looks like? What about emotional investment? If it is not important to me, maybe I don’t care so much about agency whereas it is of utmost importance in areas that are close to my heart.
    I always worry about whether what I consider not enough agency is actually a big step with regard to choice and voice for some students. And I have failed to recognize it…
    I’ll close with a Diane Ravitch quote from an article about 21st century skills, which she unfortunately is not very supportive of but this statement resonated with me (Boston Globe, 2009): “… one cannot think critically unless one has quite a lot of knowledge to think about. One thinks critically by comparing and contrasting and synthesizing what one has learned. One must know a great deal before she or he can begin to reflect on its meaning and look for alternative explanations.” Isn’t that what writing PYP planners is all about? Any maybe it is worth keeping in mind when wondering whether out students are well enough equipped.
    So, where am I in my quest to student agency? It seems, I’ll continue one step forward, two baby steps back …

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