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Author: Jenny Poon

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 “methodical 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…)

In Real Life: How Do We Know If Competency-Based Education Is Working?

February 22, 2019 by

This article is the eighth in a nine-part “In Real Life” series based on the complex, fundamental questions that practitioners in competency-based systems grapple with “in real life.” Links to the other posts can be found at the end of this article.

Competency-based education (CBE) systems across the country share one ambitious goal: to have every child master the knowledge and skills essential for success in college and career. It is a bold North Star because it means every child and every essential competency.

To succeed, CBE schools and districts must be able to determine how well their systems’ practices and structures are contributing toward this goal. Through the use of quality frameworks such as CompetencyWorks’ Quality Principles for Competency-Based Education and processes for ongoing continuous improvement and organizational learning, leaders of CBE systems can track progress and make adjustments to their systems in real time. After all, success doesn’t happen overnight. Instead, it looks more like the famed napkin drawing (above) attributed to comedian Demetri Martin: convoluted and full of setbacks and redirection. CBE systems must be able to determine when and how to make adjustments.

What can we learn from “real life” CBE leaders about monitoring the success of their systems and making adjustments when necessary? Three related pieces of advice emerged across the stories shared by the practitioners interviewed for this series:

  1. Collect and analyze multiple types of data throughout the year;
  2. Ensure reliability and consistency across the system; and
  3. Prioritize educator collaboration.

(more…)

In Real Life: How do CBE systems support all students to reach mastery?

February 20, 2019 by

Alison Kearney, Assistant Principal, Noble High School, ME

This article is the seventh in a nine-part “In Real Life” series based on the complex, fundamental questions that practitioners in competency-based systems grapple with “in real life.” Links to the other posts can be found at the end of this article.

Since learners are met where they are in CBE systems and are supported to reach mastery at their own pace, what supports are needed to ensure everyone succeeds?

To better understand this question, I sat down with Alison Kearney, Assistant Principal at Noble High School in North Berwick, Maine.

A rural school, Noble High School serves roughly 1,100 students across three towns up to an hour bus ride away. Its students often come from rural poor backgrounds, influencing how the school has structured its student support system. Noble High’s proficiency-based system was profiled in a CompetencyWorks blog post in 2015.

(more…)

In Real Life: How Do CBE Systems Manage Differences In Pace?

February 11, 2019 by

Mallory Haar, English as a New Language Teacher, Casco Bay High School, ME.

This article is the sixth in a nine-part “In Real Life” series based on the complex, fundamental questions that practitioners in competency-based systems grapple with “in real life.” Links to the other posts can be found at the end of this article.

Competency-based education (CBE) systems meet students where they are and support them to master a pre-defined set of learning targets at their own pace. Managing a group of learners who are at different places in their learning might seem doable if their paces are similar, but what about students who deviate widely from the class norm or “teacher pace”? Are there limits to how quickly or slowly students are allowed to move through the system?

To better understand how competency-based systems reckon with these questions, I sat down with Mallory Haar, who teaches English as a New Language and English Literature at Casco Bay High School in Portland, Maine.

(more…)

In Real Life: How Feedback Loops and Student Supports Help Ensure Learning Is Deep, Ongoing, and Integrated

February 6, 2019 by

Elizabeth Cardine, Lead Teacher and Advisor, MC2 Schools, NH

This article is the fifth in a nine-part “In Real Life” series based on the complex, fundamental questions that practitioners in competency-based systems grapple with “in real life.” Links to the other posts can be found at the end of this article.

Competency-based education (CBE) systems define competencies and learning progressions to make learning expectations more transparent and accessible to students; but such transparency can be prone to the unintended consequence of creating a “check the box” mentality that compromises depth and relevance.

To better understand how competency-based systems balance the desire for transparency with the need for depth, I sat down with Elizabeth Cardine, Lead Teacher and Advisor at Making Community Connections (MC2) Charter Schools in New Hampshire.

(more…)

In Real Life: How Can CBE Systems Ensure Learning Is Deep, Ongoing, and Integrated?

January 30, 2019 by

This article is the fourth in a nine-part “In Real Life” series based on the complex, fundamental questions that practitioners in competency-based systems grapple with “in real life.” Links to the other posts can be found at the end of this article.

Long before she had GPS on her mobile phone, my mother would navigate for our family road trips using turn-by-turn directions printed out from the American Automobile Association. While my father drove, she would call out the next set of turns so that he always knew where he was headed and what to do when he got there.

In much the same way, growing numbers of educators across the country are building competency-based systems designed to help students navigate the learning journey ahead. Such systems define learning targets or competencies that serve as guideposts for what students should know and be able to do as they progress through their learning. Many systems also sequence competencies (although not always linearly) into instructional learning progressions and utilize technology to display students’ progress in real time.

The goal is transparency: students need not wonder what is expected of them, but instead have a clear roadmap for the knowledge, skills, and mindsets they are expected to master next.

At the same time, some question whether such transparency has a downside of reducing learning to a shallow check-list of tasks that students race through to complete. After all, if we improve highway visibility, won’t cars be prone to speeding? (more…)

In Real Life: Designing Outcomes Aimed for Equity

January 28, 2019 by

Cynthia Green, Executive Director of Secondary Programs and Pathways, Madison Metropolitan School District; and Karyn Stocks Glover, Principal, Capital High

This article is the third in a nine-part “In Real Life” series on the complex, fundamental questions that practitioners in competency-based systems grapple with “in real life.” Links to the other posts can be found at the end of this article.

Because competency-based education (CBE) systems expect all students to reach mastery on all competencies, how those competencies are defined (and who gets to define them) becomes critical. For district and school leaders aiming to promote equity in their systems, this question is only heightened. How inclusive and representative are vision-setting and decision-making processes? How can leaders garner support from various stakeholders and help reconcile differing perspectives on what equity means or how to achieve it?

To better understand how competency-based school systems reckon with these fundamental questions, I sat down with Cynthia Green, Executive Director of Secondary Programs and Pathways for Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD), and Karyn Stocks Glover, Principal of Capital High in MMSD.

(more…)

In Real Life: Who Gets to Decide Which Student Outcomes Matter?

January 21, 2019 by

Dianne Kelly, Superintendent, Revere Public Schools

This article is the second in a nine-part “In Real Life” series based on the complex, fundamental questions that practitioners in competency-based systems grapple with “in real life.” Links to the other posts can be found at the end of this article.

One tell-tale feature that sets a competency-based education (CBE) system apart from a traditional school system is the naming of competencies – specific sets of knowledge, skills, and abilities – that each and every student must master in order to move from one stage to the next. Inherently, this feature can also be one of the most controversial.

At first glance, the idea may not appear unique. Every school system in America has education standards, adopted in part by states and added to by districts and schools, to help ensure consistency in what students are learning. Standards shape lessons and tests, and students must do well enough to pass their classes and receive a diploma. We are all familiar with this traditional notion of standards.

In CBE systems, competencies often represent bigger-picture ideas when compared to traditional standards, and they often differ in one other important way: every student is required to master all of them. Because the competencies are designed to represent sets of knowledge and skills that are essential for postsecondary and lifelong success, insisting on mastery is one way CBE systems ensure that every student graduates ready for the next phase.

It is this insistence on mastery that has tremendous implications for how the competencies themselves are defined, and in particular, for the process through which the competencies are decided. Who gets to say what knowledge and skills are so important that every single kid must master them? Whose opinions are consulted? Are these decisions being made by parents and local communities through democratic processes, or are the competencies determined by outsiders with little input from local communities?

To better understand how competency-based school systems reckon with these fundamental issues, I sat down with several practitioners including Dr. Dianne Kelly, Superintendent of Revere Public Schools in Massachusetts.

(more…)

In Real Life: How Competency-Based Systems Wrestle With Education’s Stickiest, Most Human Questions

January 18, 2019 by

This is the introductory article to an eight-part series based on the complex, fundamental questions that practitioners in competency-based systems grapple with “in real life.”

“Why should we educate? What are the benefits that individuals legitimately should expect from education? What are the benefits that society should expect from an educated citizenry…? How can we achieve them?”

Over 30 years ago, Patricia Albjerg Graham penned an article that questions the purpose of schooling and challenges readers to consider how well the design of American public education fits its purpose.  Still today, people working both within and outside the education system question its design, seeking ways to more effectively prepare students for college and career (or whatever is their desired purpose for public education).

Why would people question the design of the education system? For some, it is because the landscape of the American workforce is changing, requiring the education system to prepare students with different skills and abilities than before. Others are propelled by the fact that, despite a rise in public high school graduation rates, too many new college-goers are still underprepared for the next phase and find themselves in remedial courses. In fact, too many find themselves without good postsecondary options at all.

For me personally and for many colleagues who are educators today, we seek change because we know that educators’ daily heroic efforts to reach every child fall short without substantial support from broader systems that configure time, space, and resources in ways that enable educators to know every child and to partner with them and their communities to advance their learning.

If we can admit that change is necessary, the next question is: how? (more…)

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