Steps Toward Maturity: Making Meaning of the Mindsets and Skills for Student Agency (Part 1)

November 7, 2017 by

Photo by Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action

This is the beginning of a periodic series on what it means to help students build the mindsets and skills to be a lifelong learner.

Student agency is a phrase that is nearly impossible to use in everyday language and is certainly not a phrase that parents use to describe their children. “Look at the agency my darling Marla has climbing that tree.” “My Martin is doing so well, he is demonstrating such agency these days.” Nope, nuh uh. That isn’t language that is going to be accessible to parents.

Student agency is also a concept that has yet to be fully developed or understood in our field. I’ve heard way too many people who specialize in blended and online learning interpret agency as choice. More choice, more agency. Wrong! I’ve heard people say that working through adaptive educational software is agency. Of course, there could be some elements of skill-building depending on what skills or dispositions a student is working on (with the coaching of the teacher leading to greater agency), but in general, programs are designed to guide students with discrete choices along the way. I’ve heard others describe it primarily as leadership, others as giving students opportunity to have voice. However, helping students become lifelong learners and have the ability to navigate new, and often challenging, environments is much more than choice, voice, or leadership opportunities.

There are other related concepts, such as executive functioning (the worst of all in terms of family-friendly language), self-regulation, social & emotional learning, habits of success, and of course the all-important growth mindset. In the next article, the concept of student autonomy will be introduced for us to consider.

It is helpful to have complementary sets of concepts so that experts within schools (i.e., teachers) and within the research community can develop and implement evidence-based strategies that help students learn and succeed. We need the technical language, and we all need to become adept at using the technical language, so we can communicate with preciseness and discern between different capacities and strategies.

What we have to remember is that public education includes the public. It includes communities and families. The language, like schools, must be inclusive and accessible so that the shared vision and shared beliefs are cultivated to enable the shift from a traditional, top-down, one-size-fits all model to an empowered, personalized, competency-based model.

Therefore, we may want to think about maturity and skills students are going to need as adults or lifelong learning skills as an overarching concept that we use when talking to the public and parents to capture agency, self-regulation, social-emotional learning, habits of success, and growth mindset. As a field, we are going to have to become very skilled at communicating big concepts while having at least a somewhat shared understanding of what those concepts mean. It wouldn’t hurt for us to start having study groups on the range of concepts related to student agency.

Thanks to Karla Phillips and the work of the Foundation for Excellence in Education for inspiring me to think more strategically about communication with the public and building technical expertise in the field through their message testing personalized learning and competency-based education.

Turn to Part 2 for a discussion on autonomy and agency.

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