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What is student agency and should we care?

What is student agency and should we care?

The idea of ‘agency’ has been tossed about prominently for the last few years, but seems to be taking a step to the forefront of many educator’s minds once again.

Even the PYP programme will be enhanced this coming Fall to more directly address agency and its role. With such a dynamic change to an established program, it seems certain that this topic is here to stay for awhile.

So, let’s first take a step back and define agency.

According to the IBO, agency is “the capacity to act intentionally.”

While this is a broad definition encompassing the word’s meaning both in and out of education, I think a lot can be derived from those few words in terms of students and their learning. I think of the word ‘capacity’ and think of students being able to complete tasks and make choices, and being given the chance to do so. ‘Act’ automatically sends me to a place where the students are the ones “doing the heavy lifting” and being quite active in their educational journey. And the word ‘intentionally’ implies that choices are being made with purpose, through motivation, interest and relevance.

Taking information from several websites, I was able to create this word cloud from their definitions.

Not surprisingly, some words like agency, students, and learning came up as big, bold repeated ideas. But I thought it was more interesting to look at some of the mid-sized words that were also clearly mentioned multiple times: choice, active, meaningful, initiative, motivation.

My thoughts surrounding the definition tie in well with the prominent words from the word cloud. Many seem to agree that the ideas of choice, meaning, motivation, intention are all part of the pathway to the future of our classroom.

But, these ideas are not really new in education. These ideas are just coming back around from the past with a new look and appeal.

In Beth Holland’s 2015 Edutopia article she relates this idea to the work of Tyack and Cuban. She states,

“In their book Tinkering Towards Utopia, David Tyack and Larry Cuban describe education reform as both incremental and cyclical. Over time, schools make incremental changes. Meanwhile, specific conversations repeat themselves in cycles. However, as a topic reemerges, the environment has shifted. Agency and learner empowerment are not new concepts, nor are the recommendations for how to achieve them. However, the landscape no longer looks the same.”

So agency isn’t necessarily a new idea. We’ve seen it before labeled in different ways. With this in mind, we must ask ourselves what to do with all this information about agency. Do we care? Does it matter to us?

For me, the answer is yes.

While many things in education (and life, for that matter) are cyclical, I think we must take this opportunity to evaluate the role agency could play in our classroom today and how we might move forward with this knowledge. With resources available so readily through advancements in technology, giving students the power over their educational journey seems more plausible than ever.

Schools that support agency in their students have customizable programs for their students, foster real and meaningful relationships between students and advisors, and provide equality for all learners.

And there are several schools and programs taking time to consider agency and making real change to the programming they offer their students. Check two of them out here and here.

What does this mean for you? Your classroom? Your students?

Let’s think about some simple steps teachers might be able to take in their individual classrooms. Maybe students can redesign the learning space to suit their needs. Instead of controlling the look and feel of the room, letting students have power over the space and how it’s used offers ownership to the whole learning community.

As a teacher, you could also try taking small steps with student choice in your individual subjects.

By offering a menu of review sessions and a series of other “could do” activities, 4th grade teacher Jesye Streisel is beginning her journey with student agency. Students plan how they will spend their three segments of math time based on their needs and desires. Small group sessions are offered alongside several independent activities.

Students choosing to join a session on Long Division with Ms. Streisel.

While this beginning step is still quite structured by the teacher, it’s activating those schema that will help both the students and teacher move forward in the future. The students are learning to determine for themselves what skills they most need to practice or review and the teacher is experimenting with the setup of giving the power back to the students. This kind of practice can act as a stepping stone to allowing students to design their own day.

Offering students agency in their educational journey doesn’t mean you eliminate all structure and curriculum. It’s shifting the balance of power so that students take ownership of their learning needs. Students make the choices. Students determine what’s best for them. Students help build the structure and curriculum that suits their needs. As teachers, we must learn to let go of making decisions for our students. To do this, we should accept that not everything will always go perfectly, or always look ‘just so’, and we must come to understand that that is okay.

Now it’s time for you to be the agent of your own learning and take a deep dive into student agency. If you aren’t sure where to begin or aren’t sure what impact it might have, I would encourage you to start some research on the topic. Taryn Bond-Clegg has shared this amazing document full of links on her blog and both are quite extensive. It’s a great first stop for anyone beginning their journey into student agency and offers many suggestions and documents for you to use directly in your classroom.

What are your thoughts on student agency? What shifts are you or your school making that give the power back to the students?

Resources

“‘Student Agency’ Is Not Something You Give or Take | EdSurge News.” 16 Oct. 2015, . Accessed 18 May. 2018.

“Part 1: Student Agency? Teacher Agency? School Agency ….” 4 Dec. 2016, . Accessed 18 May. 2018.

“Classroom (un)Set-Up – riskandreflect – WordPress.com.” 17 Aug. 2016, . Accessed 30 May. 2018.

“Standards: Why Realizing the Full Promise of Education Requires a ….” 9 Mar. 2015, . Accessed 30 May. 2018.

“5 Ways to Promote Student Agency – Cooper on Curriculum.” 20 Jun. 2017, . Accessed 29 May. 2018.

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