Student Agency: Creating An Integrated and Authentic K-12 Approach

By Kate Bean

Student-centered learning.

Student-driven education.

Student voice and choice.

These all describe student agency and the idea of creating an educational environment where students drive their learning alongside their teachers. The dream is that student agency creates an engaging, more empowering learning environment so learning is impactful and sustainable for a lifetime.

That dream drives efforts to implement student agency. But educators often get stuck on the surface definition focused on voice and limited choice. What does authentic student agency look like and how can we move beyond the surface to create a student-driven learning experience for elementary students as well as high schoolers preparing for college or career?

One example of this approach is California’s Aveson Charter Schools, which is built on “Personalized Mastery Learning”–a competency-based personalized learning approach where student agency is essential.

What Is Authentic Student Agency?

A 2015 Harvard University Achievement Gap Initiative report commissioned by the Raikes Foundation states that student agency “is the capacity and propensity to take purposeful initiative,” and that students who possess a high level of agency are not passive participants in their learning but active participants engaged in seeking experiences, meaning and purpose that help them achieve the accomplishments they desire.

In student-centered schools, agency means that students have a level of control and autonomy in their learning as they make choices about what, where and how they learn and show mastery of their outcomes. Action, therefore, is the operative word in authentic student agency.

At Aveson, students have the opportunity to voice their opinions about everything from classroom design to how their outcomes will be measured. They collaborate with advisors on subject matter, how they learn the subject matter and how they show they’ve mastered their work. Mastery is a shared decision between student and advisor.

Developing deeper student agency is achieved by giving students the tools needed to understand themselves as learners and by making an intentional effort to nurture a student’s power to act on their own behalf.

The Foundation

The Harvard report pinpointed noncognitive skills necessary to nurture an authentic student-centered learning environment. These noncognitive or foundational skills are as important as the cognitive skills measured on standardized tests.

According to a report by Students at the Center, self-regulated learners can more easily “plan, set goals, organize, self-monitor and self-evaluate” and ultimately change their learning strategies.

Social-emotional learning, relationships and language are central to the foundation of agency. Even in the early years, students and advisors build productive, collaborative relationships. Through constructive and supportive language, advisors help students develop persistence and rigorous thinking. And through social-emotional learning, students learn self-regulation skills and come to understand themselves as learners.

Through its Personalized Mastery Learning approach, Aveson explicitly supports relationship building and teaches self-regulation using multiple tools. In daily advisory, students and advisors come together to create conversation and connection by using tools like the Hawn Foundation’s MindUp curriculum and an integrated daily practice of Becky Bailey’s Conscious Discipline curriculum.

These tools include core practice breathing, lessons on understanding how the brain works, conversations on how to identify feelings, self-regulation strategies for students and support for educators to learn positive language that engages students and provides positive behavioral intervention.

The Structure

The foundation to student agency is the support students need in order to take action on what they learn and how they learn. Collaboration between student and advisor is vital if students are to drive their learning. A foundation of social emotional support and relationship building is necessary for robust collaboration.

Since Aveson students complete outcomes to mastery rather than a predetermined test or assignment that everyone completes at the same time and in the same way, students collaborate with advisors to develop their own ideas on how to fulfill assignments.

Grading and proving mastery is personalized, and this collaborative structure extends to goal setting and presentation of outcomes. Here are three examples:

  • Triad Conferences: Create a collaborative environment where students, parents and advisors agree on yearly learning goals.
  • Student Led Conference: Students practice ownership of their learning by presenting their work to adults to show how they reached mastery and are reaching their goals.
  • Celebration of Learning: showcases student work similar to an open house but also gives students the chance to present and defend their work in front of authentic audiences.

What Supports Student Agency?

Intentional, explicit communication about learning expectations is a key support for fostering student agency. Here are examples of explicit communication about learning outcomes:

Examples Non-Examples
I can describe the challenges I faced, how I tried to overcome them, and whether I was successful.

I can describe what was hard for me and how I felt.

I can reflect on my learning.
I can apply procedures accurately, efficiently, and strategically to solve a complex problem. I can think like a mathematician.
I can use an appropriate tool to interpret set(s) of data. I can perform a regression analysis.

Scaffolding student agency according to developmental ability also supports agency. Not all students of the same age or grade are at the same developmentally and educators need to respond accordingly. Scaffolding is simply giving students guided supports until a student can do it themselves. And this can occur at any age or grade level. For example:

  • In a pre-K/K classroom, younger students can be scaffolded in student agency through the morning greeting ritual. Every morning students enter the classroom and say ‘good morning’ to their advisor. This is a teacher-driven activity. Some students will listen to the instructions and make the choice on how they want to say hello right away while others who are more shy or resistant, will be scaffolded to meet the learning expectation.
  • In a middle school projects class, an advisor can teach student agency through the exercise of creating a driving question. Some students will only need her example to learn, while for others she will need more tools. She may offer students a template or graphic organizer to walk them through driving question development or she may model for students what it’s like to make choices by offering a mind map.

Utilizing metacognitive, connective language that encourages students to evaluate their thinking and learning is a third support for agency. These are vital in establishing relationships with students. Interest surveys, strength and growth area questionnaires, writing surveys and reading surveys get students thinking about their interests, strengths and challenges so they can identify ways they will participate in their learning. For example:

  • In high school English, students fill up a big letter “I” with personal attributes, interests, learning challenges and skills. Adding to it throughout the year, students begin to understand themselves and evaluate their thinking. Advisor and student one-on-one conferences that model critical thinking through the use of sentence starters like “I wonder” or “I’m thinking” also help students experience what it sounds like to change their own thinking and move from dependence on the educator to reliance on their own abilities to take action and evaluate learning. These are important exercises in being empowered to take action and ownership of learning.

What Hinders Student Agency?

The two top hindrances are inflexible thinking and the inability to work outside of comfort zones.

The idea that we need to restrict students and simply tell them how to complete their outcomes is inflexible thinking. Educators cannot see themselves as the only driving force in a student’s learning. They must accept that they are guides or advisors rather than instructors. Even the youngest students can make choices and take authentic action to complete their learning outcomes. But this requires educators to get out of the way and let the student drive the learning too.

When we re-design classrooms that allow students to learn in an environment that supports their individual needs, and when we give students the opportunity to choose their topics and then the power to act on how they will complete their work and show us mastery, we step out of the way and let students drive their learning. And when educators see themselves as advisors, counselors and mentors rather than instructors, students learn to take an active part in their learning and we achieve the dream of student agency.

For more, see:

Kate Bean is the founder/executive director of Aveson Charter Schools and the Personalized Mastery Learning Network. Follow her on Twitter: @AvesonCharter or @PMLNetwork

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1 Comment

Lillon Ryan-Dick

I love reading about your social emotional learning and especially putting the students first! My question is, are there any persons with autism or any other disability that has inherited this same experience in your program? Please email me at any time as I would like to know how to implement this in my school in Trinidad.

Kind regards

Interested Teacher

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