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What Do You Mean When You Say “Student Agency”?

August 29, 2019 by

Jenny Poon

This article is the first part of a two-part series exploring student agency as it has been defined through decades of research and how we can apply the lessons learned in a culturally-competent frame. It originally appeared at Education Reimagined on September 11, 2018.

What the heck is “student agency”?

Those like me who frequently invoke the phrase don’t always identify it as edu-jargon. If you know what it means, kudos. But, if you try rattling it off around your everyday friends, you may discover blank stares, empty head-nods, or worse, misunderstandings. Even frequent users like me tend to kick up dust around it when we are less intentional with our words.

When trying to explain the concept in layman’s terms, I have used a hodge-podge of half-right descriptions. I might say, “It’s when students take ownership and responsibility for what they learn.” Or sometimes, I have described it as, “When students take an active role in their education rather than having school ‘done to them.’” Whenever someone else defines it as “voice and choice” or “autonomy,” I have nodded my head in agreement without really pausing to wonder if that definition is right.

But, are all these things really the same? My mom-of-a-toddler brain hears “taking responsibility” as if it’s a behavior issue that a solid timeout will solve. “Voice and choice” conjures the meme of the shotgun guy, American flag in hand, fighting for his free will. And, what do we really know about what “active” versus “passive” looks like when it comes to the inner contours of the mind? My off-the-cuff definitions are adding to the noise.

It’s only recently that I’ve become much more disciplined in my use of the term “student agency” and how I apply it. Thanks to a research assignment on behalf of the Center for Innovation in Education’s Assessment for Learning Project, I’ve learned that the term—and related terms, such as “self-regulated learning”—has a rich lineage of researchers and practitioners who have carefully defined it.

Some definitional efforts are relatively new but many are much older. And, meditating on this question—what is “student agency”?—has given me a more sophisticated understanding of what “student agency” really means and how to develop it in students.

First, I should say, there is no broad consensus on the definition of student agency. Many different words are used to describe the concept, and sometimes the same words are used to describe different concepts. That said, by looking across researchers1, practitioners, and other thought leaders2, common elements arise that begin to suggest a consensus.

From these sources, the dust seems to settle on a concept of “student agency” that involves four distinct components. The first three are temporally linked covering future, present, and past:

  • Setting advantageous goals;
  • Initiating action toward those goals; and
  • Reflecting on and regulating progress toward those goals.

Several sources also agree on a fourth dimension, that undergirds the others—a belief in self-efficacy. That is, whether one believes they can act with agency actually enhances or diminishes that agency.

For me, this multi-part definition clears the air by allowing me to situate related terms—like voice, choice, and ownership—as valid pieces that fit within a larger whole.

Student Agency Graphic

The four components of “student agency” and some related terminology and skills.

 

 

More importantly, this definition demystifies what it means to seek agency as an outcome for students. It’s not a binary “you have it or you don’t” quality. In Education Reimagined’s lexicon, Learner Agency is the “methodological development of both the capacity and the freedom of learners to exercise choice regarding what is to be learned and to co-create how that learning is to take place” (italics mine). Meaning: educators can work with young people to intentionally and progressively develop each of the four components.

Setting Goals

For example, one can help students become more adept at setting goals. Educators can design pathways of learning that promote students’ awareness of their current strengths and weaknesses relative to a developing sense of where they want to go. They can provide opportunities to practice, self-assess, and receive feedback on specific skills such as forethought, intentionality, and “planful competence.”

Of course, the point isn’t to set goals willy-nilly but to drive toward goals that are advantageous to the student. This is a value statement that calls into question what gets counted as a worthwhile goal and who gets to make that determination. The way we answer these questions has important ramifications on equity—a point I’ll dwell on in the second post in this conversation. (more…)

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Strategies for Building Student Ownership of Their Learning

August 20, 2019 by

This is the fifth post in a series about the Eastern Carver County Public Schools in Minnesota. Links to the other posts are provided at the end of this article.

Two Girls at Pioneer RidgeCompetency-based education can lead to some interesting conversations. One exchange that stuck in my head after a recent visit to Pioneer Ridge Middle School was:

Student: “Can I go to the bathroom?”

Teacher: “Is that what’s best for your learning?”

A teacher shared that exchange as an example of how his team relentlessly seeks to build student ownership of their learning. The teacher’s message is “If you need to go, then definitely go.” But he also likes to convey, “Let’s be honest with each other. Are you really just asking because you need a break? Because if what you need is a quick walk or some type of support to help you refocus on your learning, that’s fine too.” (Yes, this gets personal, but teachers know the out-sized role bathroom discussions can take on.)

So many conversations at Pioneer Ridge were about having a task become collaborative between teacher and student, rather than a compliance exercise in which students were just following orders. The goal was for students to learn about themselves as learners, while they’re still in K-12 education with a safety net. For the student mentioned above, maybe they start out taking some kind of quick break every 20 minutes. Maybe over time it becomes every 30 or 60 minutes. But their agency, self-knowledge, and self-direction are the fundamental issues.

One teacher told me about a student who was in tears because he hadn’t met his learning targets by the end of the school year. The student was able to see and acknowledge that he didn’t use his time wisely. The teacher told me, “I thought to myself, ‘Wow, I didn’t learn that until my freshman year of college, when I was wasting a $40,000 tuition!’ So sometimes students are off task, but it’s such a different conversation, where we’re helping them identify behaviors that are best for their learning.”

Sign Saying Could You Should YouMany aspects of the personalized learning approaches in the Eastern Carver schools call for student ownership and self-direction while also building these qualities, in a virtuous upward cycle. As described in recent posts, students at the Integrated Arts Academy develop intensive projects related to their interests, and students at Pioneer Ridge Middle School learn to allocate their own learning time based on transparent information about their progress in different courses. An 8th-grader at Pioneer Ridge told me, “If you’re ahead and you’re done with stuff in one class, then you can really focus on the class that maybe you’re not doing as well in, and keeping hitting those seminars and focus flexes and coaching workshops to spend time with the teacher and really understand the topic you’re working on.”

Pioneer Ridge Principal Dana Miller described seeing a group of students engaged in what was clearly a coaching workshop, but there was no teacher present. She realized that a student, not a teacher, was leading the workshop. The student had mastered the material and was passionate about the topic, so she offered to coach her fellow students. Perhaps this suggests another dimension of ownership—taking responsibility for other students’ learning. But teaching a topic often solidifies the knowledge for the teacher, so the student coach was likely well-served too. Miller pointed out that part of what facilitated the student-led coaching was that “The roadmap of our standards and learning targets is so clear. It wasn’t a secret anymore what we wanted them to know.”

(more…)

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Improving School Equity Through A Student-Led PD Activity and an Equity Summit at Casco Bay

May 28, 2019 by

This post originally appeared as “Letter from the Principal Derek Pierce” in the January 2019 newsletter of the Casco Bay High School in Portland, Maine.

Casco Bay High School StudentsDear CBHS Families and Friends,

Happy New Year! The CBHS faculty is always looking to create meaningful opportunities for student leadership, but last month was the first time we ever offered an entirely student-planned and facilitated professional development session.

The goal was to help faculty better understand the lives our students live, especially our immigrant students and students of color. It began with a student fishbowl. A cross-section of about twenty CBHS students, many members of our Student Union, answered questions posed by senior Imti Hassan. Faculty sat around in a larger circle and just listened, for thirty minutes, as students spoke candidly on questions that ranged from “What do you love about CBHS?” to “Where and when have you experienced injustice or inequities at school?” Faculty received lots of kudos, but also heard some hard truths (delivered with remarkable maturity and civility); they ranged from student frustration at having their names or pronouns continually botched by staff, to a request that our curriculum include more uplifting and nuanced tales of oppressed or marginalized people. Afterwards, small groups of students and staff discussed what they had just heard and went deeper into questions about what teachers and students may not yet see or fully understand about each other’s lives.

Students and Staff at Fish Bowl Professional Development ActivityThe insights shared during our closing circle from both faculty and staff made clear the profound impact of the experience. This December professional development session was one action step in response to the Equity Summit held on October 30th. During the Summit, the CBHS faculty leadership team met with members of the Student Cabinet to review feedback generated earlier in the fall by the faculty’s equity self-assessment and the student’s courageous conversation on equity. We also used a set of rubrics on school equity developed by the “Schools of Opportunity” program as another tool to reflect on our strengths and areas in need of improvement. (more…)

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What Happens When You Really Listen? Student Voices and Reshaping Policy

April 18, 2019 by

This post originally appeared on EdWeek’s Next Gen Learning in Action blog on March 25, 2019.

Student Explaining Work to Adults

Educators and policymakers spend a lot of time asking, “How can we better serve our students?” We hold convenings, we compile data, we collect surveys and evaluations. But how often do we ask the real experts: the students themselves?

Based on our current education system, it’s clear we haven’t been listening deeply enough. That’s why Future Focused Education and the Assessment for Learning Project created a touring student-voice exhibit. The “If You Ask Me…” gallery is an interactive, augmented reality experience that brings student interviews to life through any smartphone. It is the culmination of a 1,000-mile road trip, visiting eight districts across New Mexico and interviewing over 45 students. We asked students directly: “How do you learn best?” and “What would you change if you were in charge?”

What Did They Say?

The student interviews surprised and delighted us. We heard from 3rd grader Ben Malden, who said, “School would be more fun if we played more math games” and 12th grader Lily Camunez, who said, “When all the students are really engaged, it’s a room full of energy that wants to learn.”

Their responses troubled us, too. Twelfth grader Jacob Gutierrez said, (more…)

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