Student Agency for Meaningful Learning
Heather Rose, Curriculum, Instruction, and Innovation
What is Student Agency?
The pandemic over the last two and a half years has mounted something of a revolution upon educators, learners, and educational institutions. We’ve learned new ways to teach and learn, and the skill sets of both teachers and students have grown exponentially. Now in our second year of returning to face-to-face learning, we continue to study how to best combine pre-pandemic, pandemic, and post-pandemic instruction to improve upon meaningful learning. By encouraging teachers to continue creating blended, personalized, and engaging experiences both on and offline, we are building the foundation of student agency regardless of the learning environment.
In Dr. Catlin Tucker’s article, Combatting the Challenges of Whole Group Lessons with Blended Learning, she defines student agency as, “...the students’ ability to make key decisions in the learning experience.” Tom Sherrington’s article Do students have agency or not? describes the real value of student agency as, “...having learned to value the truer freedoms afforded by good behavior, students continue to behave impeccably whilst having the freedom not to.” At the heart of student agency is the belief that students are capable of acting independently and making their own choices.
Why is Student Agency Important?
In a more recently published article titled, Five Ways to: Foster Student Agency, Tom Sherrington highlights the important role of relationship-building in student agency because true agency is powered by trust. Student agency is a belief that students can learn, followed up with the trust that students will learn on their own volition. This raises the expectations of trustworthiness, and provides students the privilege and security of being trusted.
Dr. Catlin Tucker also outlines why student agency is important in her article Combatting the Challenges of Whole Group Lessons with Blended Learning. If students are not engaged and motivated by their learning, teachers can harness a student-centered Blended Learning model to encourage involvement through key decisions students make, influencing their own learning and engagement. With a wide variety of skills, language acquisition, learning preferences, and interests, learning models that rely on student agency also utilize small group and individual student-teacher interactions, moving along the continuum from differentiated instruction toward a model of personalized and meaningful learning.
How Do I Design for Increased Student Agency?
Encouraging student agency with all your students requires teachers to create situations where students are provided opportunities to make their own decisions. Teachers successfully managing student agency make this freedom part of the norm of their classroom. The Five Way to: Foster Student Agency one-pager succinctly summarizes five specific, powerful tasks to cultivate a culture of independent learning:
Foster norms around independent work and homework: Let students know their work matters, it is part of the daily routine, and supports their learning. Set goals for work and homework with clear expectations, and showcase work well-done.
Share the big picture of curriculum and assessment: Let students know how things are structured at the start of new study through content, an organizer, or an overview. By sharing the big picture of learning, students learn to develop a big schema map of their progress through the curriculum.
Develop habits around reading for study: Creating norms and expectations with reading to learn is an important part of student agency. Consider how you approach learning something new on your own - it often starts with reading. Make reading a constant within class, and then extend it to homework. Learning through video is widely available, so it is important for teachers to skillfully include text-based resources to support learning and accountability for reading.
Establish self study - self test loops: The process of learning through self-study and self-assessment loops is higher order thinking, and it is attainable through modeling. Teachers can support students in this process by demonstrating how to explore content through reading, discussion, and retrieval practice. Teach students how to create their own feedback loops to address their own gaps in learning through re-studying and re-testing.
Set open research and report tasks: Managing all students working on different content is challenging for teachers, unless you think big and start small. Create a framework of intentionally scaffolded choices through curriculum that allows students to select their own area of interest within the topic being studied. Give students the creative power to determine their own sub-topic of study, and the freedom to choose how to present the information learned.
THINK BIG, Start Small
Dr. Catlin Tucker describes three moments in a learning cycle where teachers can tap into student agency: The What, The How, and The Why. What lens can students choose to look through as they learn? How can teachers create opportunities for students to make their own key decisions about their path, materials for learning, or engagement online or offline? The Why moment of learning calls for students to understand the value or purpose of their learning, and to determine what is created to illustrate their learning. Which one of these moments can you employ to encourage student agency? Which classroom norms can you adopt right now? How can you build upon those norms? Wherever you start with student agency, make sure you’ve built relationships with your students to fall back on the established trust with the learning that takes place.