05 Jul 2023

How to Transform Education System Through Learners’ Agency

Photo provided by Dr. Asmaa Al Fadala.

Dr. Asmaa Al Fadala is the Director of Research and Content Development at the World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE). She is leading a number of projects and initiatives, including the Empowering Leaders of Learning (ELL), which supports school leaders in navigating school improvement processes; the Agile Leaders of Learning Innovation Network (ALL-IN), an international network of school leadership experts and practitioners aimed at raising awareness of educational leadership policy globally through research and advocacy; and the WISE Innovation Hub Project, a K-12 education research initiative focused on learner and educator development in progressive school settings. She is also a visiting fellow at Cambridge University. With over twenty years of experience in K-12 education, higher education, and policy development, she has served as a policy writer at the governmental level, professor, author of books on leadership reform, and board member of educational organizations.

This article is a part of the New Education Story Global Insight Series, aiming to showcase what education transformation looks like in different contexts.

In your opinion, what is needed to transform education systems from the leadership perspective?

I began my professional journey as a teacher before transitioning into the realm of research, specifically as a policy analyst working alongside policymakers. My Ph.D. focused on educational transformation and system redesign, particularly on leadership, aimed at enhancing Qatar’s education system. This gives you an insight into my role in education as an insider – in the classroom practices, at the school level, and at the ministry level – and as an outsider looking at what’s happening in Qatar and globally. And this is the beauty of my work at WISE as a global platform with different efforts happening in the space of transformation, both in Qatar and globally. We often use different terminology, but we have a shared goal. Firstly, we want to involve youth and learners – with a clear focus on learners’ agency. Secondly, we recognize that enhancing academic achievements and promoting well-being requires empowering teachers through a bottom-up approach. Thirdly, we prioritize supporting educational leaders at different levels through capacity building to be part of this agenda as co-creators and co-designers rather than implementers.

Unlocking learners agency is one of the key drivers identified in ‘A New Education Story’. What do you mean by learners’ agency? What does it mean to you and your organisation?

Let me share a personal example. A few days ago, my 18-year-old daughter said, The learning I enjoy the most is the one I do by myself.’ She learned knitting by herself. She learned piano by herself. She learned Spanish by herself. It’s something she’s enjoying, and she’s interested and motivated to continue. Even when we were on vacation, I was surprised to see that she was on her laptop continuing the learning for her projects. So how can we have this model of learning? We need to include the learners and teachers in the process as co-designers. And this is what learners’ agency means to me as a researcher, educator, and mother. I lead a project called Innovation Lab in Qatar Foundation to use research as an engine to drive change and innovation in school and how to empower learners to be the change. It’s not abstract, it’s doable, and there are a lot of examples around the globe. We just need to make it possible through conditions for change, such as resources, time, and emotional support for teachers and learners, and give them the space to fail, fail well, and learn from failure.

From your experience as both the system insider and outsider, what are the biggest barriers to capacity building? Is the co-creation rather than implementation partners a part of the answer to those barriers?

Let’s start with the definition of capacity building. During my Ph.D., one of the recommendations was to support the school leaders in their professional development and to manage and lead the change process. At WISE, one of my responsibilities is to support schools and the Ministry of Education. So I looked into their professional development, what type of work they are doing, and why it is provided to them, so we can build on it. Most of the work is a workshop or a standalone session; capacity building is ongoing. The training should be relevant to their context and practical so that they take the learning in their school and return for feedback. 

So I designed and implemented a year-long programme called Empowering Leaders of Learning (ELL), to empower them and help them with skills and mindset. When we talk about bringing new change, not all teachers accept it. To deal with this resistance, we need to equip them with the skills and mindset that allow them to embrace change. We bring teachers and school leaders from five to six schools, provide them with theory and practice, help them with the tools that they can implement in their schools and learn from it. So the model we use is identification, incubation, and amplification. During the incubation, they select an area that they want to improve, for example, reading or maths for year three. They look at school practices, and research evidence, then start small, fail well, and learn fast. Once this is successful, they can amplify it in other classrooms. 

The barriers to capacity building come at different levels. For busy people like schools, we bring them from their busy life. Firstly, we need to contribute to something unique. We manage logistics and operations and coordinate with the Ministry of Education that this is not an assessment week or a busy time for them. Secondly, when we talk about changing their practices and learning new things, they are at different levels, and their responses are different. Some are excited and motivated to learn; others don’t want to change. So when it comes to changing behavior, what are the tools that we can facilitate to support that, understanding their needs and their goals? The final point that I’m still struggling with is, we provide capacity building and help a number of schools, but how does it fit into the transformation for the country and how can this programme help on a bigger scale? I’m still working on it and trying to learn from others. Whether we call it scaling up, amplification, or leapfrogging, it needs a mechanism on the ground because each context is different.

How does intergenerational collaboration and leadership inform the next steps in your work? What role do you think it will be playing in the future?

At WISE, we always involve youth and students from K-12 and higher education when it comes to advocacy work. For example, we have the learner’s voice, Emerging Leaders of Learning, and an editorial team from youth that helps us with summit preparation and shaping the agenda. Attending the Transforming Education Co-Action Summit gave me another perspective on how to involve youth. Meeting young people and learning about what they are doing in different contexts is really impressive. To put it into practice, we have upcoming webinars and roundtable sessions, and we have already invited three learners to join the discussion and take active participation in our research project on inclusion policy in Qatar. We need to involve youth not just for the show, we need them for the action. I believe WISE has the resources and the platform to do that, either in our events, our social media, policy, or discussions.

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