Who wouldn’t want responsible students? They listen in class, take notes, and complete their homework on time without nagging. They are easy to teach. Especially as compared to disengaged students who daydream in class, may have disciplinary issues and getting them to do work is like pulling teeth – exhausting and unpleasant for all involved.

But responsibility comes with a price.  A price paid in engagement, personal goals and expectations. Responsible students have taken ownership of their teachers’ and parents’ agenda – to get good grades and be a “good student.” But “good students” are cheated of the opportunity to own their learning, to find their own goals, to develop agency.

Students with agency, on the other hand, are not responsible in the sense that they have embraced the agenda of the adults and comply with it, rather they are reliable and cooperative in pursuing their learning. Like “good students” they pay attention in class, but they are more likely to contribute unique perspectives to the conversation. They do their homework without being reminded but are more likely to continue to explore the topic beyond what they expect to get credit for – just for the sake of learning. They are not just easy to work with, they are a delight.

Every so often, a teacher gets one of these students. And sometimes that becomes an opportunity to reconnect with what he or she loved about teaching in the first place. But why can’t every student be one with agency?

The good news is they can. The bad news is, it requires not only extremely hard work but a deep change in mental models on the part of the teacher. The teacher must make a mental shift from seeing students as needing to be controlled and micromanaged to needing to be trusted and given more autonomy. How can already overworked teachers take on both the work and the personal challenge of moving good students from responsible to agentic? Especially when most of their energy needs to go toward making progress with the disconnected students who need to perform better?

Fortunately, the techniques for shifting good students toward agency are the same as those for engaging the disengaged. These are not two separate processes. They are the agentic approaches designed to shift classrooms from being teacher-centered to student-centered such as Project Based Learning, Inquiry, Design Thinking, and more. Teachers who embrace these instructional approaches and the mindset that goes along with them are rewarded with students who have agency, rather than being disengaged or “merely responsible.” When this happens, teachers invariably proclaim that they could never go back to the old way of teaching. They are working harder than ever, but the work now feels more like play than anything.

Perhaps surprisingly, it is the disengaged students who take to these new approaches most readily. The “responsible” students are uncomfortable having to discover and think for themselves in the way these approaches challenge them to. They have figured out how to “do school” the old way and the change will feel risky and unsettling to them. It can be a slow process that calls for a gradual release of responsibility to students, but over time teachers will know they have succeeded when the questions change. When teaching the “old way” teachers should expect questions like, “Will that be on the test,” “How many words do I have to write,” or, “What will you give me if I get an A?” In the new world, the questions will look more like, “How does this work,” “How does this new information fit with what we read last month,” or, “What would happen if we…?”

Responsible students are easy to teach, but they are like a two-dimensional cut-out of their true potential. Agentic students are not only easy to work with, but a joy, and have ownership of reaching the potential inside them. Perhaps it is time to stop seeing responsible students as a blessing and start recognizing them as a problem of a different kind.

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