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With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

‘Agency’ Lets Students ‘Take an Active Role in Shaping Their Future’

By Larry Ferlazzo — October 22, 2019 12 min read
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(This is the third post in a four-part series. You can see Part One here and Part Two here.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

What is agency and how can teachers encourage its growth among students?

Part One‘s contributors were Keisha Rembert, Sarah Ottow, Laurie Manville, Dr. Alva Lefevre, Dr. Lynell Powell, Dr. Felicia Darling, Paula Mellom, Rebecca Hixon, and Jodi Weber. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Laurie, Sarah, and Keisha on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Part Two‘s commentaries came from Adeyemi Stembridge, Mary Beth Nicklaus, Alycia Owen, and Dr. Laura Greenstein.

Debbie Silver, Jennifer Casa-Todd, and Bill Ivey provide today’s responses.

Response From Debbie Silver

Dr. Debbie Silver is a former Louisiana Teacher of the Year, a highly acclaimed author, and a much sought-after speaker. She has presented to educators, administrators, parents, and students in 49 states, Europe, Asia, Africa, Canada, Mexico, Australia, and the Middle East. She is the author and co-author of four best-selling books, Drumming to the Beat of Different Marchers: Finding the Rhythm for Differentiated Learning; Fall Down 7 Times, Get Up 8: Teaching Kids to Succeed; Deliberate Optimism: Reclaiming the Joy in Education; and Teaching Kids to Thrive: Building the Other Essential Skills. You can reach her at www.debbiesilver.com:

All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

--Samuel Beckett

A Harvard study, sponsored by the Raikes Foundation, suggests that student agency may be as critical to outcomes of schooling as basic academic skills (Vander Ark, 2015). Agency is what allows students to take an active role in shaping their future, rather than being solely influenced by their circumstances (Bandura, 2006).

Step One: Help Students Build Self-Efficacy

The first step in encouraging student agency is helping students identify the things they can control in their lives and the things they cannot control. We help them develop plans to maximize potential success through their personal effort, choices, and strategies.

What Teachers Can Do:

  1. When possible, use vicarious self-efficacy to bolster student motivation. Help students understand that everyone has problems, fears, failures, and self-doubt. Share stories about people like them who have overcome similar or even harsher circumstances. It is important to have books and stories that feature characters who look and live like our students.

  2. Help learners attribute their success or lack of it to internal rather than external causes and show them how they have power over the results.

  3. Treat students’ successes as though they are normal, not as isolated examples or flukes.

  4. Help learners seek alternate paths to success when they encounter a roadblock or setback.

  5. Help students learn the difference between hard work and strategic effort.

  6. Continually reinforce the idea that the students can and should focus on the things they can control and work to minimize the effects of things they cannot control.

  7. Concentrate on improvement rather than on a finite goal. Give frequent feedback on progress toward goals.

  8. Keep the learner operating within their Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). Tasks that are not challenging enough or are presently way too difficult deter motivation.

  9. Help students understand that intelligence and talent are not permanent entities. Everyone can make incremental progress toward any goal with effort and deliberate practice.

  10. Use feedback that is specific, constructive, and task-specific.

--adapted from Silver, 2012, pp. 61-64.

Step Two: Make sure that the feedback we give students is designed to help them get better.

We need to think carefully about the feedback we give to students. We can ask ourselves if our responses tend to foster personal responsibility, dedication, persistence, and resilience. Or do our comments label, excuse, or judge them? Are we empowering students? Are we helping them focus on their efforts and their choices? Are we more concerned with compliance than in building autonomy in our kids?

What Teachers Can Do:

We need to judge less and listen more. We can replace some of our “I statements” with more student-centered feedback.


Instead of - “I’m so proud of the score you made.”

Try this - “Wow, look at you! Tell me what you did to make that happen.”

Instead of -- “I like the way you are sitting quietly, Joseph.”

Try this -- “Joseph, you are really focused today. How is that affecting your concentration?”

Instead of - “I don’t think you really tried on this assignment.”

Try this - “Tell me about the effort you put into your work. If you were going to improve it, what is the first thing you would do?”

Step Three: Build a classroom culture that supports student agency.

Real learning is messy and not easy. A supportive learning environment emphasizes effort, practice, and determination. By witnessing how their classroom community honors and appreciates learning, students start to realize learning is not just about getting the answer right, it is about understanding how to master the task and what tools they already have to get there.

What Teachers Can Do:

  1. Teachers make sure all learners get a chance to think. We do not readily give away “the answer.” We provide students with time and support to grapple with the problems. We encourage learners to use the problem-solving techniques they already know and we exercise caution about jumping in too quickly with an unneeded assist. We maximize “wait time” for every student.

  2. Teachers maximize formative assessment. We make it acceptable to struggle and to fail as students strive for mastery. We don’t grade every single assignment. We rely more on formative assessment for guidance in student learning than on summative assessment that signals that the learning is over.

  3. Teachers value and model risk taking. We purposefully show students that we, too, try new things and say things like, “OK, that didn’t work. I see now where my mistake was. Let me try that another way.”

  4. Teachers incorporate the power of “yet” with students. We make it a habit to answer every student, “I can’t,” with the word, “yet.” For example, a student says they can’t write a descriptive paragraph. We respond, “You can’t do the entire paragraph yet. No problem. We’re going to approach this step by step until you are able to do it.”

  5. Teachers turn mistakes into learning opportunities. Whenever students stumble, we ask them, “So what did you learn from what just happened? What will you do differently next time?” We help students see the inherent value in making mistakes as long as we learn from them.

  6. Teachers normalize the struggle. We don’t heap praise on students for being the first, the fastest, or even the best. The focus in our classes is for every learner to get a little better than they were the time before.

In short, the dynamic components of student agency can be taught, guided, and nurtured in the classroom. Students can be empowered to become self-sustaining lifelong learners through exercising the internal will and power they have over external constraints.

Response From Jennifer Casa-Todd

Jennifer Casa-Todd is currently a teacher-librarian, a former literacy consultant and English teacher, and the author of Social LEADia: Moving Students from Digital Citizenship to Digital Leadership. She uses technology and social media to learn and share learning, empower and celebrate others, and make a positive impact on others. She is deeply passionate about shining a light on kids and their adult mentors who are making a difference on and offline:

Student agency can be defined simply as providing choice so that students take ownership of their learning. The impact of giving students agency cannot be underestimated. Consider what Aliya Ali said in Social LEADia , “I never realized the impact your voice can have on others, but once I observed the number of people who listened to me, I felt empowered as a student.” McDaniel (2012) reported that increased student agency increases perceived relevance of course material, critical thinking and design skills (Lindgren & McDaniel, 2012). And Dana Mitra, in her work around student voice says, that the more students “can assume agency in the initiatives, the more opportunities they have to learn and to grow’ (Mitra, 2018, p. 474). So how can we do this when we have a specific curriculum to teach? There are several ways to encourage student agency in their classroom.

  1. Remember that your curriculum tells you WHAT needs to be covered, but the HOW is up to you and your students. At the beginning of a unit, consider sharing the expectations that need to be covered and ask them what ideas they have for how to get there. You can do this by posting the expectations on a chart paper around the room and asking students to go with a partner to add their suggestions or ideas. Or you can place options (i.e., a few titles of stories) on the chart paper and give students three dot stickers to place on their top three selections. I find that often, when students take ownership of this process, there is much more engagement.

  2. Whenever possible, give choice for the final product. For some students, that choice can be open-ended, but in my experience, students need more guidance. A choice board or learning menu provide support and open-endedness. Metacognition is extremely important here. Students reflect on whether they made the right choice and what they would do differently next time. The RAFTT template I created is useful for allowing students choice.

3. Try project-based learning, genius hour, or design thinking challenges. Either one of these teaching strategies inherently encourages student agency because the end product is always unique to the process. Joy Kirr has some excellent resources on Genius Hour, IDEO is a great resource for design-thinking, and PBL Works (formerly BIE) is a great resource for project-based learning.

Response From Bill Ivey

Bill Ivey is middle school dean at Stoneleigh-Burnham, a feminist girls boarding and day school for grades 7-12 in western Massachusetts:

My school’s mission includes graduating students confident their voice will be heard. Since we are a girls school, I sometimes find people pushing back on this. Of course we should graduate students confident their voices have been and should continue to be heard; no one argues with that. But in patriarchal societies from China to Rwanda to Spain to the United States, can they in fact be confident their voices will be heard?

Very early in my career, I used to make my best guess as to what would engage students. After a few years, I began to more actively give them voice and solicit their input but retained the power to make the actual decisions. After way too long spent in this phase of my career, I began to look for opportunities to let them make choices. But the wording is telling: I was determining when those opportunities might be as well as the choices. While “voice and choice” had become my catch phrase, I still held the power.

It wasn’t until I really understood constructivism by taking an ESL Certificate Program at the School for International Training, and encountered the concept of a democratic classroom through the kind and generous mentoring of Mark Springer, that I began to understand that voice and choice were not enough. What students truly needed was agency. While I continued to hold a list of skills my Humanities 7 students needed to develop, I turned over all responsibility for determining content to them. What do you want to know about yourselves? What do you want to know about the world? Their own questions based on these prompts are grouped and prioritized and revised until a unit theme question with a list of related questions emerges. Students then propose and choose a read-aloud, also selecting individual Focus Questions to research, write up in an essay, and turn into an in-class presentation. Our current unit is “How do people perceive, make decisions, and act?”

This year, we are adding one or more civic-engagement units to the course. Students come up with questions and create fact sheets based on their research. They will then move on to brainstorm and propose solutions and courses of action and agree on which of these they will actually implement. Because this year’s group, like so many of us, is terrified of climate change, they have already begun researching and creating fact sheets even though the first unit isn’t quite complete just yet.

Similarly, my Rock Band students choose all the music they learn and perform and collaborate actively with each other (and, if needed, with me) to create arrangements. As with Humanities 7 students, when a question or problem arises, I will typically note it and frame it and turn the discussion back to them on how we can best handle it together.

With these approaches, students have true agency and the opportunity to develop personal and collaborative skills to exercise it well. My goal is that, as they enter the world, they are prepared both to ensure their voices are heard and to work to change the world so who gets heard in the first place becomes less and less a function of existing power and privilege. And, judging from what my former students now in college and out in the world are doing, it’s working out reasonably well.

Thanks to Debbie, Jennifer, and Bill for their contributions.

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

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