Education Opinion

10 Tips for Developing Student Agency

By Tom Vander Ark — December 21, 2015 6 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Agency is the capacity and propensity to take purposeful initiative--the opposite of helplessness. Young people with high levels of agency do not respond
passively to their circumstances; they tend to seek meaning and act with purpose to achieve the conditions they desire in their own and others’ lives.

A new Harvard study, sponsored by the Raikes Foundation, suggests that student agency may be as important an outcome of schooling as basic skills.

The report,

The Influence of Teaching Beyond Standardized Test Scores: Engagement, Mindsets, and Agency

, relies on the Tripod survey of teaching. Over 300,000 students in grades six to nine in 14 states were surveyed during
the 2013-14 school year.

Developed by Ron Ferguson 15 years ago, the Tripod construction appears more relevant to traditional teacher-centered classrooms than student-centered
approaches. As a result, there are some limitations of an instrument designed for measuring agency in low agency environments. However, next generation Bay
Area models including Summit Public Schools and Education for Change (EFC) find the
survey useful.

“Where this report is effective is in pushing us to think about agency in the context of what grown-ups have to do to facilitate it,” said Hae-Sin Thomas,
CEO of EFC. “Tripod unfortunately is not a tool designed specifically to evaluate teacher practice specific to agency, but it’s as good as it gets with
respect to student surveys and student-centered teacher practice.”

Why agency?

An important subset of Habits of Success ( discussed last week), agency, the capacity and
propensity to take purposeful action, is key to success in life.

Albert Bandura said:

Through agentic action, people devise ways of adapting flexibly to remarkably diverse geographic, climatic and social environments; they figure out ways to circumvent physical and environmental constraints, redesign and construct environments to their liking... By these inventive means, people improve their odds in the fitness survival game."

Hitlin and Elder
suggest four overlapping conceptions of agency:

  • Existential agency: The capacity, or free will, for exerting influence on our environments.

  • Programmatic agency: Following rules and routines.

  • Identify agency: What we believe about ourselves and the ways that we wish to be perceived by others.

  • Life-course agency: Actions that we take to affect future outcomes.

10 Guidelines for Teaching

The Influence of Teaching report makes 10 suggestions for teaching.



Guidelines for Teaching

Care Emotional sensitivity and responsiveness Be attentive and sensitive, but avoid a tendency among sensitive teachers to coddle students in ways that may lower standards and undermine agency.
Confer How welcoming the teacher is to student perspectives Encourage and respect students’ perspectives and honor student voice but do so while remaining focused on instructional goals; avoid extended discussions that have no apparent purpose and thereby fail to model self-discipline and cultivate agency.
Captivate How captivating classes are Strive to make lessons stimulating and relevant to the development of agency. If some students seem unresponsive, do not assume too quickly that they are disinterested or disengaged. Some students--and especially those who struggle--purposefully hide their interest and their effort.
Consolidate Making learning coherent Regularly summarize lessons to remind students what they have learned and help them encode understanding in memory, even when they seem reticent or disinterested. Consolidation helps to solidify student learning.
Clarify Clear up confusion Take regular steps to detect and respond to confusion in class, but in ways that share responsibility (and agency) with students for doing the thinking. Strike a balance between keeping hope alive for struggling students, on the one hand, versus pressing them to take responsibility for their own learning, on the other hand.
Clarify Lucid explanations Strive to develop clearer explanations-- especially for the material that students find most difficult. Also, related to both clarify and captivate, and consistent with the themes in this report, develop lucid explanations of how the skills and knowledge you teach are useful in the exercise of effective agency in real life.
Clarify Instructive feedback Give instructive feedback in ways that provide scaffolding for students to solve their own problems; through instructive feedback, you provide the type of support that enables students to develop and express agency by correcting their own work, solving their own problems, and building their own understandings.
Challenge Require rigor Press students to think deeply instead of superficially about their lessons; set and enforce learning goals that require students to use reasoning and exercise agency in solving problems. Expect some pushback from students who might prefer a less stressful approach. Try increasing captivation and care in combination with rigor in order to help mitigate the tension and make the experience more enjoyable.
Challenge Require persistence Consistently require students to keep trying and searching for ways to succeed even when work is difficult. Emphasize the importance of giving their best efforts to produce their best work as a matter of routine. Be confident that few things could be more important for helping your students to develop agency.
Classroom management Orderly, respectful, and generally on-task. Strive to achieve respectful, orderly, on-task student behavior in your class by teaching in ways that clarify, captivate, and challenge--in support of agency--instead of merely controlling students through intimidation or coercion.

More Than Teaching

The report logic map is shown below. It suggests that teachers and family assets play a major role in support agency development.

The central question explored by this report is, “How do distinct components of teaching influence the development and expression of agency-related factors
in sixth to ninth grade classrooms?”

A more useful question, given advances in tools and schools in the last 15 years, would be, “How do distinct components of learner experience influence the
development and expression of agency, factors related to learning models, progressions, and environments?”

A useful complement to this report is exploring how new models, like NGLC grantees, promote agency through:

  • Blended learning environments where students have some ability to co-create path, pace, and place;

  • Competency-based learning environments where students show what they know and progress based on demonstrated mastery;

  • Project-based and interest-based learning where students have some ability to shape the driving question, the process, and the work product; and

  • Work and service learning experience that students select or create.

The report completely misses model-based factors which are becoming at least as important as teacher factors. The difference between a Summit or EFC
secondary school and a big bad high school is everything. There are certainly differences in teacher quality, but it’s one of a dozen model factors (e.g.,
mission, schedule, structure, advisory, technology blend, learning trajectories, and real world connections).

The report dumps a lot in teacher’s laps but most of them are stuck in an obsolete low agency model that infantilizes teenagers rather than empowering them
to own their learning.

Every high agency secondary school I have visited has had some kind of an advisory structure. The sustained
relationship with a caring adult that sets the cultural tone, is part of a distributed guidance system, and provides continuous feedback on success habits
is every bit as important as classroom instruction in developing student agency.

Agency development isn’t just a product of quality teaching, it’s the product of a quality system--one designed as a high agency environment.

Hae-Sin Thomas said, “It’s definitely time to take this conversation around agency to a deeper level-- what are the components of agency, how do we measure
those components, how do we map those components to specific practices, conditions or attitudes and then how do we measure those specific to building

For more see:

The opinions expressed in Vander Ark on Innovation are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

Commenting has been disabled on edweek.org effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Teaching Webinar
6 Key Trends in Teaching and Learning
As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and a return to the classroom for many—we come better prepared, but questions remain. How will the last year impact teaching and learning this school
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Student Well-Being Webinar
Attendance Awareness Month: The Research Behind Effective Interventions
More than a year has passed since American schools were abruptly closed to halt the spread of COVID-19. Many children have been out of regular school for most, or even all, of that time. Some
Content provided by AllHere
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
School & District Management Webinar
Ensuring Continuity of Learning: How to Prepare for the Next Disruption
Across the country, K-12 schools and districts are, again, considering how to ensure effective continuity of learning in the face of emerging COVID variants, politicized debates, and more. Learn from Alexandria City Public Schools superintendent
Content provided by Class

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Education Schools Get the Brunt of Latest COVID Wave in South Carolina
In the past few weeks, South Carolina has set records for COVID-19 hospitalizations and new cases have approached peak levels of last winter.
4 min read
Two Camden Elementary School students in masks listen as South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster talks about steps the school is taking to fight COVID-19, Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021, in Camden, S.C. McMaster has adamantly and repeatedly come out against requiring masks in schools even as the average number of daily COVID-19 cases in the state has risen since early June. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)
Education More States Are Requiring Schools to Teach Native American History and Culture
Advocates say their efforts have gained some momentum with the nation’s reckoning over racial injustice since the killing of George Floyd.
3 min read
A dancer participates in an intertribal dance at Schemitzun on the Mashantucket Pequot Reservation in Mashantucket, Conn., Saturday, Aug. 28, 2021. Connecticut and a handful of other states have recently decided to mandate students be taught about Native American culture and history. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
Education Judge's Temporary Order Allows Iowa Schools to Mandate Masks
A federal judge ordered the state to immediately halt enforcement of a law that prevents school boards from ordering masks to be worn.
4 min read
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks to reporters following a news conference, Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021, in West Des Moines, Iowa. Reynolds lashed out at President Joe Biden Thursday after he ordered his education secretary to explore possible legal action against states that have blocked school mask mandates and other public health measures meant to protect students against COVID-19. Reynolds, a Republican, has signed a bill into law that prohibits school officials from requiring masks, raising concerns as delta variant virus cases climb across the state and schools resume classes soon. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Education Hurricane Ida Deals New Blow to Louisiana Schools Struggling to Reopen
The opening of the school year offered teachers a chance to fully assess the pandemic's effects, only to have students forced out again.
8 min read
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021. Louisiana students, who were back in class after a year and a half of COVID-19 disruptions kept many of them at home, are now missing school again after Hurricane Ida. A quarter-million public school students statewide have no school to report to, though top educators are promising a return is, at most, weeks away, not months.
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021.
John Locher/AP