Finding a Magic Wand: Evoking Student Agency

At times I’ve felt that student agency would be most easily found if I’d been able to cast a spell and evoke it using a magical wand.A Little Magic by Mariana Wagner, on Flickr

It’s not that I don’t ever feel the wonder of it in my classroom. For example right now, my students are excitedly developing multimedia projects in their unit of inquiry and the agency is high; however, this wonder is usually topical or subject based rather than being a general learning disposition amongst my students on a regular basis.

Last month we had a mathematics consultant visit our school. Ban Har Yeap helped to bring up a conversation I’ve been longing to have with my colleagues around student agency.

As an elementary faculty, many of us shared that we feel our students lack the necessary skills of how to problem solve on their own. We’ve noticed that many of our students wait patiently with their hand raised waiting for an adult to tell them “what to do.” Since his visit, many of us have had many more informal dialogues around this topic. We want to help our students take more responsibility of their learning and move out of this zone of learned helplessness. Additionally we’ve held professional development sessions for our teaching assistants around when and how to best help our students; this can also be known as, not doing the work for students but instead guiding them.

School by Rafael Sato, on Flickr
School” (CC BY 2.0) by Rafael Sato


Tony Siddall participated in a workshop on student agency led by the WestEd, a consortium of states working together to research and improve education in the United States. WestEd has teamed up with Next Generation Learning Challenges (NGLC) to develop a research project around student agency. At a conference hosted by NGLC, they asked their participants to define student agency. The participants defined it as:

"School" (CC BY 2.0) by Rafael Sato 

“Student Agency” (CC by Next Generation Learning Challenges)

This list of definitions is inspiring. Who wouldn’t want to be a student in a class that helped to facilitate and teach you these skills and learning dispositions? As an adult learner, I hope the learning environments I participate in provide me with these opportunities as well. What words do you think of when you think about student agency?

NGLC went onto define it further in one of their weekly Friday newsletters, stating that, “Agency is present when students take charge of who, what, where, why, and when they learn. This includes choice, self-awareness, self-management, social relationships, responsible decisions, time management, organization, and self-regulation on the way to a long-term, personalized goal.”

Additionally, WestEd has created a learning culture model to support student agency including the different ways students think and the different ways students work. They’ve found ways to help students become “active agents” in their learning and develop a growth mindset where they view their goals as achievable. You can read more here at How Students Learn…To Learn.

“A Culture of Learning to Support Student Agency” (by WestEd’s SAAL project)

Tony went a bit further and framed the discussion at the workshop he attended by sharing the following list of questions teachers and schools are asking around student agency:

  • “How can we design and implement systems of ongoing formative assessment that support student learning, rather than simply evaluating students?
  • How can we go beyond academic achievement to measure a broader range of the skills and dispositions necessary for success in college, career, and community?
  • How can assessment empower students to develop greater agency in their own learning?”

These questions help to guide the conversation away from teachers and what we think, but instead focus on observable student behaviors which is helpful in insuring that students’ learning is the focal point. I’m ready for this discussion! Anyone else?

At my current school, which is not a PYP school, we use a series of learning skills and behaviors, or attitudes toward learning, to help teach our students skills.

It’s helpful but we, especially after Ban Har’s visit, are at a stage where we need to further these discussions and make these skills more tangible and create a developmental continuum in these skills for our students to work toward and demonstrate their proficiencies. By having these conversations, we can begin toward implementing practical steps in how to improve student agency.

With this in mind and recent conversations, I look ahead to next year and an entirely new team of grade 3 teachers. I’ll be the only one returning to my grade level team. It creates the opportunity for greater collaboration and possible discussions around student agency. For this past year I’ve been quite inspired by Taryn Bond Clegg and her grade 5 team at the International School of Ho Chi Mihn City. This group of outstanding individuals take student agency to new levels with working collaboratively as advisors to support their grade 5 students. I listened to almost an hour long podcast, which unfortunately I can’t embed due to it exceeding media uploading limits, where Sam Sherratt interviewed Taryn Bond Clegg about her and her grade 5 team’s work with creating an environment where students “take charge of who, what, where, why and when they learn.” They plan their learning in all disciplines. They use technology to help plan, execute and communicate their learning and also their teachers share their team’s learning journey on their grade level website, Twitter and personal blogs.

You can see how even the students, like in Mihn Thu’s story above, see opportunities for student agency in their daily school lives. I hope I can create opportunities for my students like this. With Twitter and blogging as part of our daily lives, I see opportunities to collaborate with teams and schools already doing this in order to improve our students’ learning and think to their futures and beyond. I don’t think I’m going to need a magic wand after all.

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2 Responses

  1. Student agency is such an important area for all educators and schools to consider, especially when we look at the world that we are living in! I really connected with what you wrote in that my students aren’t being prepared to be problem solvers, rather they are waiting to be taught the “correct way” to solve a problem. I had this happen just this past week as I challenged my students to build a simple circuit using the exposed wire in pipe cleaners. I showed them a diagram of circuit, explained how circuits worked, but then I gave them the tools and said “try to make one!” Before even going off to give it a go, several students asked immediately, “but how do I connect the pieces?” They wanted me to give them exact step-by-step instructions. Naturally I encouraged them to give it a try, to talk to their partners or learn from their neighbors. However, this expectation from students that we will outline solutions for them isn’t unique to my class or my school. So, I feel that your post is hitting some really important ideas about the way schools function and teach.

    Although coming back to a completely new team could be daunting, the gift of this is that you’ve got a blank slate. No one is attached to the way things were done in the past because they don’t know how things have been done. With the mindset you currently have, you could really do some amazing things with your new team members to create a culture of student agency in your classrooms and truly begin to cultivate problem solving as a way of thinking! Exciting times ahead I’d say 😉

    Thanks for your thoughts, it is a wonderful post with some important ideas that we should all be reflecting on!

  2. Yasmeen says:

    Hey Megan,

    The words I think about when I think of student agency are independence and empowerment. I am reminded of one of my students who joined our school mid year. She stands out because she comes from a school where explicit instructions were given for absolutely everything. If we set a task and ask the kids to figure something out, she is always the one with her hand up wanting to know what to do. The rest of the class knows that they are allowed to make mistakes as part of their learning process.

    We have been trying to work on cultivating a growth mindset in our class and I think this goes a long way to encourage student agency. If students are encouraged to try hard no matter the outcome, they feel empowered to take risks. It has worked with some of my students but not all. Of course they are all at different places on their learning continuum. Some are ready to feel uncomfortable and try, and others need a little more hand holding. However, it helps to see their peers taking risks also. I think another important element is to have students reflect on their learning. This allows them time to think and reassess, and perhaps encourage them in their next project.

    Thanks for a great post!


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