Student agency, a term frequently used in educational circles, is often described as the embodiment of “ownership,” “voice,” or “choice.” While these words convey essential aspects of classroom climate, they don’t quite capture the research on student agency and its profound depth and potential impact on learning experiences, especially for underserved students.
In my team’s work at WestEd, “learner agency” is defined as the combination of skills, mindsets, and opportunities enabling students to purposefully set goals, navigate their learning journey, and adapt their strategies based on self-reflection. In our team’s work with teachers and students, we’re exploring the research on agency that is composed of four separate, but interconnected, constructs, each with their own extensive body of research: metacognition, self-efficacy, self-regulation, and learner autonomy. In our professional learning, we refer to these as ‘building blocks’ of learner agency. Our work centers how teachers and students address each of these four constructs through formative assessment, a process used by teachers and students to elicit, interpret, and use evidence of learning as learning is underway.
Student agency is grounded in the idea that students are capable of learning the skills of agency, and these skills can be explicitly taught through daily classroom learning experiences. Through this foundation lies the power to transform the student experience in learning, offering students the tools they need to set academic goals, take meaningful actions, and reflect on their progress. The table below provides examples of how teachers explicitly teach each of these four constructs by designing lessons that include opportunities to engage in each construct.
|Building Block of Agency
In WestEd’s Formative Insights teams’ work with educators, school leaders, and education partners, we have noticed that systemic issues within the educational system, as well as unexamined biases, hinder opportunities to create structured opportunities for students to engage with the skills of agency. Driven by compliance, traditional educational systems often inadvertently create systemic barriers that prevent teachers from creating new models for classroom learning aligned with shifts in the student role. School and district leaders play a critical role in unwinding systemic barriers that interfere with the cultural conditions necessary to bring about learner skills of agency. We’ve found that it is critical to support teachers to examine belief systems and/or unexplored biases in order to transform classroom environments that support students in the process of learning and practicing these skills.
Here are two ideas we’ve explored with teachers that have helped them examine their own beliefs about the teacher and student role in the classroom, adopt new roles for students, and strengthen student agency.
Exploring new teacher roles to explicitly teach the skills of agency. Teachers shape the learning environment and determine the instructional strategies they use in their classrooms. As they create opportunities for students to engage with evidence, teachers ensure that students reflect on their learning status and set the conditions for students to communicate how they are thinking and plan to move their learning forward. When teachers create these learning opportunities, they support students to develop their learner autonomy (i.e., the ability to independently guide their learning) and metacognition (to consider how they are thinking). When students develop these skills, classrooms are more likely to develop learning environments where students consistently seek out and provide feedback from their peers. When educators teach students the skills of agency, it enhances the overall classroom experience and influences their students’ beliefs in how they see themselves as learners capable of advancing their own and their peers’ learning.
It’s critical to unpack unexamined barriers that deter teachers from creating opportunities for students to practice the skills of agency. A key consideration is to interrogate the underlying structures that shape teachers’ belief systems regarding the student role. For instance, teachers need to have the adequate support to assess how traditional models of teacher-student learning impact classroom instruction, including predefined roles for both teachers and students. By recognizing and addressing these systemic influences, schools can actively contribute to fostering learning environments where the role of teachers and students can be seen as a shared partnership. This approach to a collaborative student-centered learning environment encourages meaningful discourse, allowing students to engage with their teacher and peers to develop foundational skills of learner agency. Through the examination of systemic barriers that have historically influenced mindsets, school systems and leaders support teachers to establish structured opportunities for students to collaborate with their peers and teachers.
Now, how do educators create opportunities to identify and address these systemic barriers and unexamined biases that pose challenges for students to practice the skills of agency in the classroom?
In our work, we have seen leaders play an important role in creating the structures for teachers to learn and reflect in their school environments. Leaders:
- Communicate a vision that centers an asset-based approach to student learning and ensures that teachers understand what is underneath that thinking
- Model a learner stance and are transparent about their learning growth and shifts in mindsets around student and teacher learning
- Offer professional learning and reflection that allows teachers to learn and gain awareness of the connection between their beliefs, their practice, and traditional models of education
- Encourage and provide opportunities for individual and collective learning based on interests, experience, and needs
When leaders can create these structures, teachers have an opportunity to:
- Engage in professional learning opportunities that allows teachers to try out new practices that consider rethinking the student role in learning
- Develop new instructional practices that integrate teacher and student practices as outlined in the “building blocks of agency”
- Develop learning routines that feature opportunities for students to more actively engage with feedback to guide their own next steps in learning
- Reflect on how their students are demonstrating learner agency, and what more can be done to strengthen the use of building blocks during learning
In our formative assessment professional learning work with schools and districts, we have seen leaders and teachers work together to interrogate unexamined biases and belief systems around students’ roles in the classroom. This examination contributes to a shift in the ways in which classrooms are structured to support student learning. Leaders and teachers ultimately believe in explicitly teaching the skills of agency and creating structures for students to practice and improve their use of their learner agency skills.
We can empower students when we believe that student agency is possible for all students and when we integrate instructional routines that teach students the skills of agency. As you move forward with strengthening how students learn the foundational skills of agency at your site, consider…
- how you might explore unexamined biases and beliefs that may hinder shifts in how students learn? and
- how might you integrate the instructional routines that enliven how students learn?
To read more on this topic, visit our page and read about amplifying student agency through formative assessment.