How Can Teachers Nurture Meaningful Student Agency?

Courtesy Trevor MacKenzie and Rebecca Bathurst-Hunt

 

By Trevor MacKenzie

The term “student agency” continues to be at the forefront of the educational discourse around the world. By encouraging children to have more control over their learning, educators hope students will leave our classrooms and schools with a range of skills that will support them in being lifelong learners, engaged humanitarians and empathetic people.

As of late, this has become increasingly apparent as teachers and students have pivoted to more distance learning experiences. Supporting students in this different educational landscape has proven challenging for many. In the circumstances where student agency had been cultivated and nurtured in the brick-and-mortar classroom setting, I have witnessed that students have transitioned more smoothly into distance learning and have been more successful in a hybrid model. Their ability to manage their time and self-direct; their engagement with their learning and seemingly inherent curiosity; and their critical thinking and collaboration skills all have been at the forefront of what has helped them be successful in several modalities. 

But in my work with schools to create more student-agency-rich environments, I fear we may be missing the mark on what “student agency” truly is. Teachers frequently talk about student agency as a choice over assignments, like a list of items on a menu: essay, PowerPoint presentation, poster project or some form of digital literacy, such as a video, Padlet or Prezi. Although it’s important we ask our students how they would like to demonstrate their learning, student agency is about so much more. It requires educators to hold ourselves accountable to values that we must embody and intentionally work towards. 

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Let’s have a look at these values in more detail in order to clarify what we mean when we talk about student agency.

Genuine decision making

Student agency is about having students take on some of the heavy lifting of learning. When students can have a genuine role in the decision-making process, this will create a classroom culture that values learning as an action. When I teach, I often ask myself, "Am I doing something my students could be doing themselves?" If the answer is yes, I de-centre myself so students can take on these responsibilities. The more I do this, the more comfortable and confident they become in taking on this agency over their learning. Learning becomes a partnership between the teacher and the student as we co-design and co-construct the learning experiences together in the classroom.

Knowing my strengths and stretches as a learner.

I often ask myself if my students know where they are at in their learning, where they need to go next, and if they can identify the steps they need to take to get there. Teachers can often answer these questions about each of our students, but can our students answer these questions for themselves? To help get these conversations started in class, I ask a series of guiding questions to help students reflect and begin to get to know themselves better as learners. For example, "Do you learn best alone, in a small group, or in a large class setting? Do you prefer to write, talk about or draw your learning for others to see? What is your focus threshold, as in, how long can you remain focused on something before you feel you need a change of pace, setting or action?" These questions all help students begin to take on more ownership over their learning.

Exploring my wonderings, curiosities and passions in school.

All students enter their schooling as curious and inquisitive beings. They are full of questions and wonder as they explore and discover the world around them. However, somewhere in their schooling, many become complacent, disengaged and uninterested in their learning and in school. What does our teaching do to support and honour the innate curiosity of all students? How do we lean into student wonderings to make rich connections to our curriculum? How can we make our curriculum come alive so students see it as something we explore rather than something we merely cover? These questions help honour the wonderings, curiosities and passions of all of our students so that they can see themselves as important stakeholders in their learning.

Having my questions shape my learning.

Questions are an invitation to learning. They call for us to be engaged, to be inquisitive and to research and problem-solve. In order to utilize this opportunity to create student agency, I often pose big, unGoogleable questions to frame our units of study in class that draw students in and will act as our overarching big idea for our learning. I make this question highly visible in class. I compose this question to be compelling, relevant and interesting with a hope that this one big unGoogleable question will spark wonder and curiosity in students to ask their own connected questions. We discuss the questions that students generate and begin to sort them into categories and themes before we post them in class under the larger unGoogleable question. They have a genuine voice in the design of the unit in that we will explore the questions they posed in our research and exploration together. Students begin to see how their questions shape their learning.

Having a genuine voice in assessment of my learning.

If we are talking about student agency in the classroom, we must ensure there is student voice in the assessment of learning as well. Students have a genuine voice in the assessment of their learning when they can confidently give accurate feedback to peers, take and apply feedback without worry of ridicule or embarrassment, and embark into learning through the lens of taking risks in order to grow, rather than for a grade, mark or percentage score. Students need to feel psychologically safe if we are to ask them to take on a more active and meaningful role in their learning, which is why as we nurture student agency in our classrooms, it’s important that we also nurture relationships, trust and risk taking.

Showing and exploring my learning in different ways.

Whatever the big idea or content we are learning about, I often begin the school year with a new group of students by providing a choice board through which kids can explore content. A choice board is a digital slide that I have embedded resources into that allows students some options to select information in a means that they feel best supports their learning. I often introduce the exploratory nature of a choice board by asking students, "Do you enjoy taking in information by reading text, looking at images, infographics or charts, watching a short video, exploring a website, or listening to a podcast or someone talking about the information?" Once students have reflected on this prompt, they have a clearer understanding of what best supports their learning. When facing the options on a choice board, they make a decision based on their better understanding of their learning needs and strengths.

Further, I encourage students to document their learning–"evidencing," as we refer to it–in a manner that they decide. I always provide a few options in the form of thinking maps, thinking routines or templates to help anchor and organize their learning. After exploring these options and considering if any of them would support their learning, I encourage students to take ownership over this decision and select an evidencing method that works best for them. The power of this choice over showing and exploring their learning in different ways is seen in their success and engagement as well as the greater understanding of how I can best support each individual student that I gain. I observe and document their choices and pathways and then reflect on how I can help them with this agency and have them be continuously successful throughout the process.

Deciding how I want to share my learning.

I often ask my students, "If you could show me your learning in any way, how would you show me what you know?" My hope is to honour the diverse learners in the room whilst simultaneously leaning into student’s strengths when it comes to agency. Inevitably students tell me the things they’ve always done in school. Similar to the list of items on a menu I referenced at the onset of this piece, I often observe that students don’t reflect on this prompt with the depth, individuality or creativity I would hope the opportunity offers. That’s why it’s so important that I share with students any artifacts I have curated from other classes and previous years to help paint the picture of what is possible in their learning. I have these artifacts posted on my walls, on display on my shelves or saved as digital files so I can do a bit of a show-and-share and speak to how other students have shown their learning before them. The result is that students begin to see that in our classroom, they will have some voice and choice in how they show their learning and that they can really lean into their strengths and interests. This creates a start point in learning from a strength-based stance rather than a deficit-based position. Kids will choose things that they’re good at, interested in exploring more meaningfully and are more genuinely engaged in. How cool is that?

Growing into the person I want to be.

What are the enduring skills, lasting values and habits of mind that will be the legacy of our time with children in our classrooms? How are we cultivating the conditions in today’s classrooms that will nurture the empathy and equity we hope students embody as citizens of tomorrow’s world? How do we view each and every one of our students as unique individuals with strengths, talents, characteristics and perspectives that we need to honour and help flourish during their time in school? It is within our active exploration of these questions and our validation of them in our interactions with students that will give space and support for them to grow in our classrooms. Student agency is not about pushing all kids down the same pathway or having all kids choose the same goal. Student agency is about empowering students to know themselves better, determine who they want to be and identifying steps we can take together to have this goal become a reality.

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Trevor MacKenzie is an award-winning English teacher at Oak Bay High School in Victoria, BC, Canada, who believes that it is a magical time to be an educator. He is also the author of Dive into Inquiry: Amplify Learning and Empower Student Voice, and co-author of Inquiry Mindsets: Nurturing the Dreams, Wonders, and Curiosities of Our Youngest Learners, along with Rebecca Bathurst-Hunt.