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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

Ways to Support Student Agency

By Larry Ferlazzo — October 21, 2019 20 min read
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(This is the second post in a four-part series. You can see Part One 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.

Today’s commentaries come from Adeyemi Stembridge, Mary Beth Nicklaus, Alycia Owen, and Dr. Laura Greenstein.

Response From Adeyemi Stembridge

Adeyemi Stembridge, Ph.D., provides technical assistance for school improvement with a specific focus on equity. He works with districts around the country to identify root causes of achievement gaps and formulate pedagogy- and policy-based efforts to redress the underperformance of vulnerable student populations. Follow him on Twitter at @DrYemiS:

Once upon an ancient time (in the early 2000’s), the teacher was expected to be the expert “knower” in the classroom. They stood in front of their charges directing their thinking through lectures and assigned readings, basking in the admiration of students who undoubtedly deferred to their vast content knowledge... and then came Google and a full paradigmatic shift.

Content is no longer the centerpiece of instruction. And yes, though content will forever maintain a position of importance, we are now teaching in an era in which the skill of “learning how to learn” is the single-most significant preparation that education can afford. This generation of students must have the agency and intellectual tools to effectively use the volumes of content knowledge available to them at their fingertips. The 21st-century economy and marketplace require that students be able to evolve their skillsets and interests in order to adjust to workplace responsibilities that may not yet exist. The students who have the agency to self-direct and amass their own understandings are pre-eminently advantaged over those who merely follow directions and recite large amounts of information; the student who is only capable of learning when being fed context and conditions is severely disadvantaged next to the student who is able to find purpose and direction for their own discovery. To be able to compete in the modern workforce requires agency, and our schools must center it accordingly or risk a profound disservice to our students.

I like to think of agency in terms of investments. Students must be able to engineer and justify their own investments in learning or they are reduced to passive participants in any classroom experience. When our students are empowered through their own sense of agency, they are invested beyond behavioral engagement. Authentic agency is a function of affective and cognitive engagement. It requires that students are able to summon a desire to learn and the willingness to stretch themselves past the limitations of their comfort zones in doing so... which is much more than simply completing tasks.

The key to agency in students’ learning is that they must be able to leverage what they already know in order to be able to learn something more. This is simple human nature. Learners are more likely to sustain their investment when they sense purpose in the challenge, and their sense of purpose is enhanced as they experience hope through their ability to draw on both their in- and out-of-school schema to make sense of their newly emerging understandings. When we are able to consult our own experiences and background knowledge in order to make analogous connections to support our growth, we see learning as more meaningful; and when learning is perceived as meaningful, we endure through hurdles that might otherwise defeat our efforts because there is purpose and hope in the challenge.

Rigorous learning experiences, more so than rote lessons, encourage students’ self-awareness of when their decisions and behaviors are more or less likely to yield success. Unfortunately, facilitating rigorous learning experiences can be a challenge because, in some cases, we teachers may lack a robust notion of what rigor truly requires of us; and in others, our students may resist rigor because they haven’t often had to exert themselves in this way. This results in many missed opportunities for students to develop a sense of their agency.

Difficult is not the same thing as rigorous. Rigor is a function of critical and complex thinking. True rigor necessitates that students have to think in ways that reorder and recombine ideas. Rigor lives in “the interactions between the content taught and the thought processes used to demonstrate learning” (Hess, et al, 2009). When students are thinking rigorously about content (i.e., factual, conceptual, procedural, and metacognitive knowledge), all of their background schema is available to them to make sense of what they are coming to know and do. In terms of pedagogy, this means we teachers must look to design experiences in which the students have to build arguments, construct prototypes, and synthesize multiple texts in order to share the meaning of their emerging understandings. In other words, it’s going to have to get noisy and maybe even feel a little chaotic.

Just as important as any specific teaching strategy for drawing students into an engaging and rigorous learning experience is the time that should be dedicated to supporting students’ reflection for what their agency requires of them. Once students have accepted the invitation to think rigorously (even if just for a few minutes), it’s essential they are able to consider the steps taken to do so or they may not be clear in how they can recreate the experience for themselves in the future. I’ve found that students enjoy rigor and the agency that comes with it, but without reflection, they may give the credit entirely to the teacher. I encourage students to consider reflection questions like:

What process did you go through to produce this piece (or argument, or prototype, etc.)? What did you find frustrating about what you’ve learned? What do you most want people to notice when they look at your work? What’s something you would like to improve as you continue to work on this project (or piece, or text, etc.)?

While we teachers can very much enjoy those moments when students are in the flow of rigorous engagement, without appropriate reflection of their investment, they’ll miss the opportunity to understand the scope of their own personal power for applying that same sense of enthusiasm and dynamic thinking in the future—and that would be a shame. The best thing about supporting the agency of students through rigor and reflection is that they will begin to associate your teaching space with their own self-directed growth; and once a kiddo feels you are party to their agency, you can basically teach them anything!

Hess, K. K., Jones, B. S., Carlock, D., & Walkup, J. R. (2009). Cognitive rigor: Blending the strengths of Bloom’s Taxonomy and Webb’s Depth of Knowledge to enhance classroom-level processes. ERIC: ED517804

Response From Mary Beth Nicklaus

Mary Beth Nicklaus is a secondary-level teacher and literacy specialist for Wisconsin Rapids public schools in Wisconsin:

Quite simply, agency is a student’s sense of power and control in driving their own learning. Students need to be inspired to set their own goals, reflect on their journey, and cross the finish line. In this regard, teacher relationship and guidance need to run parallel to student performance. Our interaction with students provides the vehicle and the fuel that allows them to take ownership of their own progress. Part of this interaction requires us to understand and reflect on our own growth as teachers and learners. We need to be willing to step off of the pedestal and humbly draw attention to our own mistakes. In doing so, we can share what we have learned and show them the growth that followed. Here are 3 ways we can work in tandem with our students to provide that spark toward classroom agency:

  • We solicit opinions and partner with them when engaging in classroom activities. We stand at the helm and guide them as they work to achieve learning targets. Students prefer choice in determining modes of learning. They also feel proud to voice their opinions on how a lesson should transpire. “Should we study the words this week using individual flashcards, or should we create a class KAHOOT to do on Friday?” or “Should we run two separate stations this week? One for students who want to study one way, and another for the students who prefer the other way?” We discuss the different choices together and come to a consensus based on that discussion. As teachers, we can also model ways to create options and decide on the best way to proceed when working on projects and activities.

  • We provide opportunities for students to teach each other (and the teacher) and we draw attention to that teaching. A while ago, during work time, an 11th

    grade student noticed my school-issued Mac Book on the smartboard and suggested I create a number of desktops on a screen as opposed to my “75 tabs open at once” habit. I admitted that I didn’t even know that was possible. I then asked him to show me how to do it, and he took the stage. He began participating more in class after he realized that he had much to offer as a student in our class. Our students increase their own agency by watching us navigate our own teacher journeys in the classroom.

  • We provide students with opportunities where they can confer with us as they examine their own self-efficacy. Fire up the beginning of the conversation by letting them know you’ve noticed good things in them. Students visibly brighten and instantly engage when asked the question, “You know what I notice about you?” Even the most withdrawn student will quietly ask, “What?” People noticing us in a good way buoys our mood and increases our confidence to continue to do well in our pursuits. We also allow ourselves to share the role of student with them. We project text passages and model our own reading, thoughts, and questions as we go through the comprehension process in front of our students. We model our own writing and ask, “How do you think I could make this part in the paragraph sound less awkward?” We give our students a sense of empowerment by showing them that their viewpoints matter.

Pulling students into the decisionmaking process in our classroom increases agency. Celebrating the gifts and knowledge they have to share increases agency. Conducting one-on-one time with our students to drive student reflection on growth increases agency. Anything we do to get students motivated and engaged through classroom activities increases their depth of response and motivation for self-direction. When we keep students empowered and motivated toward wanting to plan their course and utilize their abilities, we give them the tools to direct their learning and their lives outside of school as well. We increase their self-efficacy and we increase their own ability to have a say in the way their future unfolds.

Response From Alycia Owen

Alycia Owen is an international educator, instructional coach, and EAL specialist who has implemented the co-teaching model in math, science, and language arts. She has provided professional development for schools in the U.S. and abroad and has been a workshop presenter at NESA, AASSA, and EARCOS international teachers’ conferences, as well as the SIOP National Conference. She currently lives in China where she serves as EAL department chair for American International School of Guangzhou:

Managing Student Voice and Choice

Increasingly, teachers are expanding opportunities for students to have a say in what and how they learn, as well as how they demonstrate that learning. There is a growing emphasis on personalizing education to a degree by getting student input on the learning process and allowing them to choose how they show what they have learned. The point is that, by taking a more active role, students will develop greater agency over their learning. This increases their capacity to monitor, assess, and set goals for their own success. For those of us who’ve already headed down this path with our students, the evidence to support these beliefs is found in our classrooms, in the day-to-day interactions with our students. Loosening the teacher’s reins to make way for student selection of the activities that demonstrate their learning (choice), and that increase collaboration and reflection (voice), is the most impactful change I’ve made to my personal teaching practice.

It’s not always easy, though, to convince colleagues that student choice is a good thing. Spencer and Juliani (2017) do a beautiful job identifying the fears teachers may have about empowering students in this way. Common fears include not meeting standards, classroom chaos, taking up too much class time, and negative judgments by school leaders, to name a few.

I’d like to try to counter those fears by describing my own experiences. Currently, I have the good fortune of co-teaching Grade 8 English with Ms. Gina Zlaket at the American International School of Guangzhou. She and I have made student voice and choice a priority. This is especially evident in our lessons where students:

  • self-select independent reading books
  • choose their own vocabulary words
  • determine how they will demonstrate their learning
  • define the focus of their projects

That’s a lot of free choice, especially for a young teen. But promoting student agency demands that students practice what it means to be an autonomous person, capable of forging a path toward personal goals. Some may think we’ve gone too far and are risking bedlam in the classroom, but it works for us, and here’s why:


We give a lot of time to our students and we make a point of doing less whole-class instruction so that students can collaborate more with peers or work independently. Students have ample time to look at exemplars, to ask questions, to do research, to reflect, and to develop and improve their work. During student work sessions, we hold personal conferences with students. In these conferences, we give feedback and guide their efforts. Whole-class instruction is limited to carefully planned mini-lessons designed to target areas in which all students need the same set of directions or the modeling of a learning activity.


Giving students voice and choice implies increased independence. For teachers and students to work independently, though, requires trust. Teachers need to trust that, with guidance and explicit teaching, students are capable of making progress toward goals while we’re not directly guiding them. Students need to trust that teachers are ready and able to facilitate their work and to give them the tools they need to succeed. Mutual trust established at the beginning of a school year can deepen as the year goes on. This trust creates an atmosphere where students can be creative and innovative, and to take risks without fear.


Yep. You read correctly. Setting limits, or parameters, is an important step in helping our students manage personalized learning. While this seems contradictory on the face of it, consider the choices one has in a country like the United States. I have the freedom to earn a driver’s license, for example, but I’m not allowed to drive 100 mph to work. I must register my car with the DMV and report to the police if I’m in an accident. If I don’t stop at the gas station to fill the tank, I’ll be stranded on the roadside. My choice to get a driver’s license does not come without limitations, and neither do our students’ choices in a classroom. Typical classroom parameters we put in place ensure that all students work toward and are assessed on the same standards and that interim and final due dates are the same for all.

Let’s revisit those common fears by looking into our experiences with them:

We won’t meet standards

By making standards transparent and applicable to all students, virtually every student is able to meet those standards. We also use personal conferences to provide ongoing feedback to students in all phases of the learning process.

There will be classroom chaos

Gina and I look forward to being in our classroom. It is a lively but orderly learning environment. We and the students all get along and genuinely enjoy being there. We smile and laugh often. From the first day of class, we work to build a strong rapport with our students, who come from diverse cultures and backgrounds. It is the opposite of chaos.

It takes up too much class time

It would be false to say that we never run short on time to cover everything. Sometimes we do. When that happens, it’s usually because we have either overplanned or there is a special school event taking up part of our class period. In the three years that we’ve worked together, all of our course standards have been systematically addressed. We have also been able to provide opportunities for students to dive deep into important concepts and to develop foundational skills in preparation for their coming transition to high school.

My principal will judge me

Both our principal and vice principal are proud of our work. They are openly appreciative of our efforts to build student agency and note the routinely high levels of engagement they see in our classroom. So, I guess we’ve been judged, but in a positive way.

Increased engagement, heightened creativity, strenghtened metacognitive skills, and self-confidence are some of the many benefits we’ve seen from giving more of our teaching time over to students. Even marking is made easier. Given the repeated opportunities to give feedback to students via individual conferences, Gina and I are keenly aware of our students’ quality of work on a day-to-day basis, and so can spend less time analyzing the final products they submit.

When I look back on my earlier days as a teacher, I can’t help but ponder how much further my students would have gone if I had given more of our class time over to them and let them have more choices in how to accomplish and demonstrate their learning. Gina Zlaket and I have seen how helping students to develop personal agency, instead of defining their learning paths for them, gives them practice that we believe will help them eventually become self-directed, lifelong learners.

Work Cited

Spencer, J. and Juliani, A.J. (2017). Empower: What Happens When Students Own Their Learning. IMpress.

Response From Dr. Laura Greenstein

A lifelong educator, Dr. Laura Greenstein has served as a teacher and school leader, professor and professional-development specialist. Her passion for excellence in assessment is evident in her numerous books, articles, and blogs on the topic:


Developing student agency of learning and assessing takes time, attentiveness, and perseverance. It begins with engagement via interest, curiosity, and anticipation. This leads to motivation through an understanding of purpose and acceptance of ownership. Agency develops when students take a role, see a reason, explore opportunities, and take action on their learning.

Putting students at the helm of assessment reverses the traditional formula of teach then test. It doesn’t mean they tell the teacher the score or grade they would like, but it does put the onus on the student for explaining the relevance of their learning, displaying their process, and demonstrating and evaluating their level of proficiency. Students are more likely to become agents and proprietors of their own learning outcomes when there is transparency and choice.

Engagement and Empowerment Put Learners on the Path to Agency and Self-Regulation.


The first step in agency is helping students understand the learning intentions and to find personal meaning in learning. Everyone may not be interested in scientific discoveries or historical events. But individually, it is possible to find meaning in a topic such as mining through its cost, utilities, effects on people and the environment.


Agency develops when students are aware of the purpose of learning, determine their priorities, and put learning into practice. For example, calculating area can be used to plan a zoo or design a video game that will be assessed against explicit learning criteria.


Coherence in assessment comes from clarity of expectations combined with monitoring of progress and actionable feedback. Assessment-capable learners take responsibility for learning, are aware of their strengths as well as areas for improvement. Rather than a license to do what you please, agency means doing what is important, substantial, and consequential.


“I’ve never been interested in learning about presidents, but when I found out that Theodore Roosevelt started our national parks, I paid more attention, because it is important to protect public lands for wildlife as well as recreation.”

“Oh, now I see that I misunderstood step 3 in the formula, so I fixed my work and changed my answer.”

“Each time I rewrote my letter, it got better. Now my salutation and closing are stronger, so I’d give myself 45 out of 50 based on the rubric.

“I understand that our unit is on early European settlers, and there will be a quiz on each part, but can Cy and I design a map of the expansion rather than writing an essay?


When learning intentions are clear and assessments methods evident, students see the purpose and pathways for learning. Engagement increases as they track progress. Perseverance develops as they make personal connections to learning. Students think more deeply and analytically about their learning outcomes, especially when they have opportunities to review and self-correct prior learning. Agency isn’t just about students owning the process and product, but rather it is an important outcome of a comprehensive and inclusive learning environment.

Thanks to Adeyemi, Mary Beth, Alycia, and Laura for their contributions.

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