Wednesday, October 11, 2017

What is Student Agency? Some Provisional Notes

Next week I will be speaking at the Online Education Symposium for Independent Schools Conference in Boston on October 15-16.  One of several things I'll be doing is participating on a panel titled, "Student Agency - Strategies and Opportunities."  I'm excited to be a part of such an exciting conversation with so many impressive fellow educators. 

I'd like to share some of my preliminary thoughts as they relate to 5 crucial questions for our upcoming panel, and any critical feedback from those of you who are reading this post would be much appreciated as I prepare for next week:

Question 1: What is Student Agency?

First off, I think it’s important to note that there are two terms here: “student” and “agency.” The word "student" makes me think of the following modalities: learner, investigator, inquirer, maker, practitioner, deconstructor, apprentice, evaluator. In other words, to be a student, we must be willing to move outside or beyond the self for purposes of encountering teachers, experts, peers, as well as a body of knowledge in a given field of constructed inquiry.

As I think about the word "agency" some words that come to mind are will, choice, autonomy, ownership, personalization, and individuality. If being a student demands us to "get outside our selves" to experience the world and others, agency is the practice of taking responsibility for the self by being one's own advocate and by managing one's priorities, capacities, and interests autonomously. Agency relates to choices about pacing, sequencing, and scope when it comes to curricular engagement as well as deciding how to demonstrate one's knowledge and learning.

With all this in mind, here's my working definition: Student Agency is empowering students to develop, not only the hard skills necessary for a particular curricular scope and sequence of content, but the soft skills as well to map that scope and sequence for themselves in a personalized fashion that fits their sense of purpose while doing so responsibly and productively in partnership with a community of learners (teachers, experts, peers, etc.).

Question 2: Why does it matter?

Students are capable of learning anything, and they need to take responsibility for that innate capacity, but that can only happen if we expect and demand that of them in their formative years of socialization and education. Otherwise, we risk messaging something much less inspiring: that there are those who are good at school and those who are not, when in reality everyone is good at learning, especially if we’ve been given the time and space to develop the soft skills needed to manage that innate capacity productively. However, this can only happen if students have a safe place to practice agency during the formative years of their educational development.

Question 3: What structural and cultural barriers in our schools inhibit the development of student agency?

For structural barriers, here are some insights that came to mind for me:

1. It can take more TIME: pacing can be unpredictable and varied, and not every student moves according to the same timeline. As a result, teachers may not be able to cover as much ground.
2. School schedules can be a hindrance, but the reality is we need to "have the minutes match the mission" - meaning if cultivating agency is important for your school then there needs to be a schedule that allows for such environments to flourish. I think it's harder to achieve this when students meet for shorter time periods (such as the 45 minute, 5-days-a-week schedule).
3. Technology is often a supporting tool for scaffolding agency, so inequity can be an obstacle when it comes to having access to such resources.
4. Sometimes there can be "mixed messaging" for a given student when traveling from one classroom environment to another.  Some classes demand the exercise of agency, while other classes may inadvertently suppress it, making it difficult to develop the kinds of habits of mind that are necessary for students to take ownership of their learning.
5. High stakes testing.
6. I believe agency is motivated by authenticity, so it's important a student's educational experience is (inter)connected across departments as well as to the real world (beyond our campuses).  

For cultural barriers, here are some thoughts that occurred to me:

1. The tug-of-war between the scope of content vs. the depth of the learning experience can make it difficult for teachers to prioritize student agency. This gets back to the structural barrier mentioned in #1: it takes time to cultivate agency.
2. For some of us, there is a real fear of losing control of the classroom, and the fear is well-founded.  One does lose control, but we have to ask ourselves: What does active learning look like? I think the answer to that question makes clear that there is a need to cede some control in our classrooms.
3. Our cultural perceptions of the role of the teacher can get in the way: there's little room for the distribution of agency when the teacher is content king/queen. We have to rethink our role if we are to empower students to drive their learning.
4. The “messiness” and diversity of student demonstrations of learning can be daunting: How do we assess them? What are we assessing in a classroom that prioritizes agency?
5. It can be difficult to trust students to take responsibility for their learning, but we all know that they need to practice having such responsibility before the stakes are raised in college.

Question 4: Are all students capable of driving their own learning? What gets in the way?

In my experience there are 3 identifiable cases of students who have a hard time driving their own learning:

(1) The student who has always “schooled school”: usually this type of student is a “high achiever,” but his or her strategy for success is to give the teacher “exactly what they want to hear or read.” I like to think in terms of “mapping” versus “tracing,” and the kind of student I’m describing here is very comfortable with “tracing” what the teacher “maps” - instead of taking the risk of leaving his or her comfort zone to map the learning for his or herself. Oftentimes this kind of student needs to be challenged to exercise agency - especially before they leave for college where more independence and agency will be expected of them. Usually consistent conversations (of a metacognitive nature) that reflect upon why such experiences matter can be enough to get this kind of student to understand what’s demanded of them and why. The real challenge here is when the “high achieving” parent of that student expresses skepticism about what you’re trying to get your students to achieve. Again, I think frank conversations about the soft skills that will be demanded of them once they leave for college can be a good starting pointing for winning this type of parent over.

(2) The student who struggles with executive functioning or related skills that are the foundation for exercising agency successfully and productively: some learners, for a variety of reasons, have a hard time self-initiating and staying organized, as well as understanding strategies for prioritizing tasks to get a job done efficiently. A student who has these challenges sometimes necessitates intervention and assistance from the instructor, but I believe this can only work if there is a communicative partnership with parents or guardians behind the scenes. It’s important to let these students make mistakes, but it’s also important to vigilantly serve as a source of support. I often schedule weekly meetings with students to help them identify what priorities matter for them this week and strategize ways to get it done.

(3) The student who is (nearly) completely disengaged from school and perhaps from the greater community: this to me has been the most challenging case in terms of winning a student over to the idea that he or she can drive the learning. No single classroom environment can completely solve this conundrum; that’s why I mentioned community because it has to be a communal effort to reengage the student. Most importantly, there has to be a mutual partnership with parents/guardians as well. The best place to start I think is to get to know the student as well as his/her interests and/or hobbies, but if the parent/guardian is disengaged as well, it becomes a difficult, uphill battle. One thing that can work here (I think) is peer mentorship, namely finding student(s) who have bought in and could collaborate with (aka mentor) the student in question.

Question 5: How do you determine if a student is motivated, engaged and taking charge of their own learning?

First off, I strongly recommend looking at the Bartle Test for Gamer Types. There are 4 categories: (1) Achiever (2) Explorer (3) Socializer & (4) Killer/Griever; and the test results reveal where you fall (in terms of percentile) with each given category. It measures what’s motivating different types of gamers by identifying what keeps them engaged with the game over a sustained period of time. (Go here to learn more about the taxonomy of types). I suggest using this resource to better understand what type of learner you are working with as well as what motivates them to stay engaged with a project or task. If you have a “socializer,” the student is most likely motivated by social factors; therefore, make them a group leader who reports back to the teacher about the success of the group’s work. An “achiever” wants to feel a sense of accomplishment, and they want it sooner than later, whereas “explorers” want to investigate all options and pathways in a given unit of study. The “killers” are interesting; they like sabotaging other people’s progress. I like to gamify my units, and I always recruit the killers to be beta-testers who look for glitches or loopholes in a given unit (and they are very motivated by this role).
Here are a few more observations about indicators that students are truly motivated to take charge:

1. They stop asking about grades and the bare minimum requirements; instead they start focusing on completing the task they have envisioned

2. I know there's a shift towards agency when students stop asking what I want (for a given assignment) and instead start telling me what they’d like to do.

3. I know they're engaged when students demand that I adjust, alter, or modify an assignment, not because they don’t want to do the work, but because they see a connection or direction that motivates their inquiry elsewhere.

4. Students are taking control when what I’ve planned (in terms of a lesson) gets derailed by the demands of what students need that day for purposes of getting done whatever it is they are working on (in terms of an ongoing project, etc.).

5. I know something is going well when students start talking about what they’re doing/learning outside my class and start making connections with other learning experiences both in other classes and in the real world.

6. (In the context of gamification) I know they're engaged when students go beyond the required amount of XP points because they want to finish the task, “beat the game,” or have the most points.

Wow, I didn't expect this post to be this long, but I've been thinking about this a lot over the past several weeks. Again, please share feedback; these notes are provisional so I'd love to hear other people's thoughts on the matter.


  1. For me the big obstacle is “the scope of content vs. the depth of the learning experience”. English teachers like me have had college professors as our most recent teaching models demonstrating (most often) their mastery of a narrow idea within a discipline. We read what they told us to. Had we remembered lower school teachers as our models, we’d see their mastery of individualized instruction, of constant making and practicing skills. As an English teacher, I feel personally that the canon that I love and can teach the F out of is an obstacle to some avenues of student agency. As a parent of lower school kids, I see how well those teachers balance the scope & depth of literacy skills via shared texts and independent reading texts. Would love to hear from non-English teachers. Thank you, Jared!

  2. Thanks Joel. You hit one of the areas I struggle with as well. I want students to be exposed to "the canon" but I also want them exercise the agency necessary to discover a love for reading. Sometimes the former is an obstacle to the latter. One thing I'm doing this year (to strike a compromise) is giving students options within certain parameters: for instance, for their Elizabethan/Shakespeare unit, students can choose to take one of 3 routes: (1) Tragedy (2) Comedy & (3) History. Students will form reading groups, and every week each group has to give a "weekly update" - like a mock news report. We'll see how it goes. Thanks for the comment.