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Teaching Opinion

Everything You Wanted to Know About Student Agency But Were Afraid to Ask ...

By Larry Ferlazzo — October 23, 2019 17 min read
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(This is the final post in a four-part series. You can see Part One here, Part Two here, and Part Three 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 provided responses in Part Three.

This four-part series is “wrapped up” today with answers from Dr. Rebecca Alber, Andrea Keith, Tamara Fyke, Jenny Edwards, and Michael D. Toth.

Response From Dr. Rebecca Alber

Dr. Rebecca Alber teaches in the Graduate School of Education at UCLA. She is a blogger and consulting editor at Edutopia, a literacy specialist, and a compulsive reader. She dips into the Pacific Ocean as often as she can get away with:

Agency means choice and resources. In other words, as a learner, if I have agency in the classroom, my teacher has presented me with choices and with the resources I need to grow intellectually, emotionally, and socially. My teacher values and invests in me becoming resourceful on my own, becoming an independent learner, and wants me to have a voice in deciding the ways I will learn and how I will show my learning.

When I walk into a classroom to observe, I know there is student agency in the room when I hear the students discussing their ideas and their work in meaningful ways with their peers. If I ask students what they are working on, they can explain in detail the project or assignment and they can also explain why it is of value: “We are learning this, ... and it is important to know this because...” When there is student agency in the room, the teacher is comfortable and passionate about her primary roles: “guide on the side” and “collector of resources.” The teacher knows they are a facilitator and is strategic about when it is necessary to use direct instruction. And a teacher who values agency follows the lead of her students, even when it diverges from the curriculum or plan (divergent thinking is strongly encouraged, however inconvenient). A teacher who champions student agency will find, create, beg, and fundraise for all needed resources for learning so that students have the tools to empower themselves.

Types of statements we teachers can say to students to encourage agency: “What do you think?,” “How would you like this assignment to look?,” “If you had a choice, what would you like to write about/create?,” “What do you need to help you complete this project?,” “What would feel best to you?”

Response From Andrea Keith

Andrea Keith started her career in education more than 25 years ago, spending time as a classroom teacher in California, Colorado, and Illinois, before working for some of North America’s leading ed-tech companies:

Agency is the capacity to create, act on, reflect, and revise goals. In education, the term is often used interchangeably with other jargon, like voice & choice or student ownership. Ultimately, agency seems to be the goal of raising children. No matter what a student’s IQ, test scores, or interests are, we as parents and as a society want every child to become an adult who has agency. It’s important to recognize that there are multiple components to agency that all must be developed in balance to be effective.

The first part is the capacity to create your own goals, which is something education has not historically done. Since school began, someone in authority, be it a teacher or later an education agency, has determined what goals each student must attain. Our entire system of standards and assessment is based on goals that students have had no part in creating. The move toward personalized learning might help give students some practice in setting goals, although it seems much of what is available is more about choosing their own subgoals, while still aiming for the larger, predetermined standard. Teachers must work hard to find opportunities for students to create their own goals. Voice and choice is a first step, but once a student has chosen a book or a project, they need to be guided to set the learning goals that go with it, even if they are only creating their own subset of objectives, the process and practice is important to developing agency.

Taking action toward goals may be the component of agency that is most available in traditional schooling. The push for standards to be communicated to students is one way to help students recognize that they are taking action toward goals. Regularly using the term “goals” with students can be a powerful way to help students internalize the value of agency.

Reflection on learning is another trend that encourages student agency. Being required to think about how learning is progressing, what worked, and more importantly, what didn’t, encourages a growth mindset and student ownership. Digital portfolios are a great tool for this, though a simple journal can work just as well. Understanding when to revise a goal or to change or add to the action plan to achieve it is another crucial component to agency. Iteration is a process that applies to a multitude of subjects, projects, and life experiences, and giving students a chance to master something, to prove competency, rather than get a grade and move on, goes a long way to encouraging agency.

All of these components are important to the growth of student agency. Creating a goal without taking action is pointless. Taking action that doesn’t work toward a goal is demotivating. Reaching, or not reaching a goal without reflection on the journey or changing the path misses the opportunity to build self-awareness and confidence. Providing frequent and varied experiences with the process of setting, striving to attain, and achieving goals is the way to build agency in our students.

Response From Tamara Fyke

Tamara Fyke is an educator and creative entrepreneur with a passion for kids, families, and urban communities. She is the creator, author, and brand manager for Love In A Big World, which equips K-8 educators with a social-emotional learning (SEL) curriculum that is both research-based and practical, and also provides the supporting resources necessary to empower students to be socially competent, emotionally healthy problem-solvers who discover and maintain a sense of purpose and make a positive difference in the world. Tamara is the editor of Building People: Social & Emotional Learning for Kids, Schools & Communities, a book that brings 12 wide-ranging perspectives on SEL to educators, parents, and leaders. Follow her on Twitter @tamara_fyke:

Bandura defines agency as the ability to influence one’s own course. In other words, agency is choice—the opportunity and power to choose.

One of my all-time favorite movies is Dangerous Minds, starring Michelle Pfieffer. There’s a scene in the film when the students are disengaged in class, which leads to a discussion about choice. Over and over she says, “You have a choice...”

When I first started working in urban schools in Nashville, Tenn., in the mid-'90s, I quickly realized that my students were like the kids in that film. I think that’s why the story on screen impacted me so deeply. The movie was a snapshot of their lives. Many of them didn’t believe they would live to the age of 21 because of the violence in their neighborhood. I knew that in order for my kids to put in the necessary effort at school, they needed to shift their belief systems because it is our beliefs that determine our behaviors.

The work of Carol Dweck and her work around growth mindset have helped educators gain a better understanding of the power of positive thinking. Before students can develop a growth mindset, they need to understand that they have a choice—the opportunity and power to make decisions.

A Different Pedagogy

In a world of test scores and technology, our students’ attention is often torn between school requirements and YouTube. With high-stakes testing, even though they are loathe to admit it, teachers often teach toward the test, leaving little room for innovation. However, outside the classroom, these same students access a world of knowledge from their smartphones. Although they spend time being entertained, they also spend time learning anything from music, dance, and makeup to coding, mechanics, and cooking. They know how to find the information they need and how to apply it to their real-life situations. Is it possible for us to reframe our classroom experiences in a similar manner?\

Both project-based learning and problem-based learning, which parallel our workplace experiences as adults, empower students. By removing barriers and encouraging creativity, teachers become coaches, who are facilitating the learning. As we know, the key to good coaching is connection.

The Power of Personal Stories

In order to develop authentic connections with our students, we must let them know who we are as human beings. Sharing age-appropriate personal stories builds bridges between teachers and students, just as it builds bridges between teachers on a team and administrators and teachers in the building. Being real draws people to us. As Brene’ Brown discusses, there is power in vulnerability.

By intentionally building relationships with our colleagues and students, our students learn that we are here for them to talk through their ideas, doubts, and questions. We become conversation-partners on their road to discovery.

Opportunities for Choice in the Classroom

This is a constructivist and liberationist view of learning. The work and wisdom of Piaget and Freire inform this approach. What does it look like in the classroom? It looks like centers— dedicated spaces for learning tasks. It looks like menus—clearly outlined expectations and options for learning goals. It looks like makerspaces—collaborative areas where students brainstorm and create. It looks like fun.

Our goal as educators is to create a safe place for students to learn and grow. The word “safe” encompasses physical, mental, and social domains. In this safe place, we can offer children the opportunity and power to choose with guidance and support so they learn that what they do and say matters. Our aim is for them to transfer their ability to make good and productive choices within the microcosm of the classroom to making good choices in their homes and neighborhoods both now and in the future.

Response From Jenny Edwards

Jenny Edwards teaches doctoral students in the School of Educational Leadership and Change at Fielding Graduate University in Santa Barbara, Calif. Edwards is the author of Time to Teach: How do I get organized and work smarter? (ASCD), Inviting Students to Learn: 100 Tips for Talking Effectively with Your Students (ASCD), and Research on Habits of Mind (2014, Institute for Habits of Mind International):

According to Klemenčič (2017), “student agency [is] students’ capabilities to intervene in and influence their learning environments and learning pathways” (p. 69). Zimmerman (2015) described “student agency” as “the concept that students should be in control of their educational decisions rather than following a prescribed path determined by others” (p. 21). Martin (2004) defined “agency [as] the capability of

“individual human beings to make choices and to act on these choices in ways that make a difference in their lives” (p. 135).

Klemenčič (2017) explained that student-centered learning has a focus on developing student agency. Thus, student-centered learning would be an excellent way to develop student agency.

Williams (2017) suggested that students who have agency also have high levels of efficacy. That is, they believe they can make a difference. Students with agency believe they can bring about changes. Williams suggested that teachers can build agency in students by pointing out how they solved problems and asking them to reflect on what they did to be successful.

The Reflecting Conversation in Cognitive CoachingSM (Costa & Garmston, 2016) can assist students in building agency. In this conversation, students talk about about something they did. The coach asks them questions to enable them to reflect on what they did to create their success. The coach asks questions related to the “Five States of Mind,” which are “efficacy, flexibility, craftsmanship, consciousness, and interdependence” with the goal of helping students to grow in these areas (p. 107).

Williams (2017) suggested that librarians are in an excellent position to give students choices. They can create “systems [that] enable each student to take charge of his or her learning, to own the experience of discovery, and follow a course that excites the student” (p. 12). He observed that, “enabling student agency requires that it pervade every aspect of each student’s experience” (p. 12). He suggested that librarians can help build agency by valuing student opinions and allowing them to be themselves. In addition, students can choose the books they want to read for recreational reading. Librarians can make the books students write available in the catalog so that other students can check them out. When students can check out their own books without relying on the librarian to do so, they can develop a sense of agency.

Fay and Fay (2016), with Discipline with Love and Logic, recommended that teachers provide many choices for students during the day. For younger students, the teacher could ask if they would prefer to carry their coats or wear them. Students at all ages could choose which project to complete or which learning center to complete. They could choose with whom they wanted to do a project and they could choose which book they wanted to read.

Gardner (2011) proposed multiple intelligences through which people learn. Teachers could invite students to choose how they would like to prepare projects and reports by using the multiple intelligences. They could choose between linguistic, musical, logical-mathematical, spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, naturalist, and existential intelligences.

As teachers, we have a variety of ways to encourage students to develop a sense of agency. What choices might you give your students today and in the weeks and months to come?

Response From Michael D. Toth

Michael D. Toth is founder and CEO of Learning Sciences International (LSI) and leads LSI’s Applied Research Center. He is an expert in research-based school improvement models, shifting instructional methodologies, root-causes analysis for school issues, and building 21st-century skills in students; he gives public presentations and advises education leaders on these issues. Toth is the author of several books—his latest is The Power of Student Teams: Achieving Social, Emotional, and Cognitive Learning in Every Classroom Through Academic Teaming with David Sousa, and more of his commentary on academic teaming can be found on https://academicteaming.com/:

Do Students Have Agency in a Traditional Classroom?

The American Institutes for Research (AIR) defines student agency as “the ability to manage one’s learning.” This deceptively simple definition actually implies a significant shift in thinking about the role of the student and the role of the teacher.

In a traditional classroom, the teacher manages student learning, delivering direct instruction, monitoring to ensure student understanding and behavior is on track, offering clarification and remediation, and eventually assessing students’ mastery of the content. Students have very little agency in this process; teachers have the agency.

Systems for Student Autonomy

In order for students to effectively manage their own learning, they need an environment of autonomy—that is, a learning environment where students do not constantly rely on the teacher for guidance. However, student autonomy without the proper structures in place would result in chaos. There must be systems which create the conditions for students to take ownership of their own learning. These systems are most effectively implemented through a daily instructional process called academic teaming, where students collaborate, peer coach, and peer teach while engaged in rigorous, standards-based tasks.

In their academic teams, students have agency because there is transparency, structure, and peer interdependence built into the teaming process. Transparency comes from students knowing exactly what they are learning, why they are learning it, and how they will know when they mastered it through the learning targets and success criteria which are used for every team task. Structure comes from the team roles, norms, and protocols which explicitly teach students the skills for conflict resolution and self-efficacy so they can function independently from the teacher. Peer interdependence comes from students working together on a cognitively challenging task that requires them to rely on each other and push each other’s thinking as they work toward achieving the learning target.

From “Student Agency” to “Peer Agency”

Students not only gain agency over their own learning in academic teams, they also reach a new level of agency where they take responsibility for their team members’ learning, a concept called peer agency. When students develop peer agency, they are able to support and push their team members in a way that would traditionally be performed by the teacher. In fact, when students work in high-functioning academic teams, they can take over many of the responsibilities the teacher holds. Students track their own and their peers’ learning and manage their own behavior, assess their own and their peers’ mastery of the content (verified by the teacher), and offer timely peer interventions to close daily learning gaps.

When students develop peer agency, that means they can actually help other students develop their own agency. Academic-teaming classrooms give students the opportunity to have the most agency possible as they increase their resilience, leadership, motivation, and empathy in ways they wouldn’t be able to in a traditional classroom.

Thanks to Rebecca, Andrea, Tamara, Jenny, and Michael for their contributions.

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