Schools are consistently seeking to achieve engagement and high performance from their students. We know from the pedagogical standpoint that student ownership of learning and student engagement are critically important to help students meet their potential. As teachers, we have the ability to empower student ownership and engagement through asking higher-order questions and providing targeted student feedback. We can also foster student ownership by providing students with agency over their learning.
What is Student Agency?
There are various definitions for student agency, but the classroom context is often lacking. In the article The Promise, Power, and Practice of Student Agency in the November 2022 issue of Educational Leadership, Tanji Reed Marshall shares “While agency has become an increasingly important focus in K–12 education, there does not seem to be a clear understanding of it as applied to the school setting. Conceptually, agency is about the ability to choose and make self-directed, self-determined decisions. Narayan et al. (as quoted by Samman & Santos, 2009) define agency as an individual's or group's ability to make purposeful choices. Connecting this to the school environment means realizing that students come with a host of assets, which influences their approach to learning.”
How we design our lessons and set up classroom environments directly connects to whether we provide students with the highest possibility of achieving their learning goals and experiencing success. It starts with critical, intentional thinking as teachers and leaders to create not just student-centered lessons, but the framework and systems to ensure this is a school-wide practice. At PLC Associates, we have seen rapid gains in student achievement as a result of implementing the PLC Foundational Five - a key set of instructional practices that build student ownership of learning and improve student outcomes.
By implementing classroom best practices, including using designs for building student agency, we have seen evidence based data showing increases of 60-80% in a matter of months.
Student Agency in Action: Somers Central School District
A great example of student agency in action comes from Somers Central School District in New York State. Teachers utilize WIN Time (What I Need) with students to support intervention and enrichment. PLC Team member Emory Roethel, in work with Somers’ teachers and administrators, provided important support in connecting an online learning system with WIN time. As a result of this work, teachers modified their design of WIN and further refined their instructional space and planning to meet unique student needs. According to Dina Miller, the district’s MTSS Coordinator, "Both teachers and students have embraced and engaged in this new learning opportunity that the WIN period offers. Students are receiving timely and targeted support and enrichment offerings. Through teacher feedback and having the ability to self-monitor their growth, students are given the opportunity to celebrate their successes along the way."
This strategy clearly positions students in the “driver's seat.” With these strategies in place, teachers are practicing and developing proficiencies in the design of teacher-created centers and using targeted online assessment learning tools for greater impact. This leads to teachers making more informed decisions in supporting each student where they are and providing a path for each student to reach their full potential.
This is a sample brainstorm from our November debrief after teachers visited a classroom to study WIN Time.
Creating a Student Agency System
Importantly, these student agency strategies must integrate into a system. It is the systems approach that allows best practices to be cemented into the fabric of the organization. By definition, from our team at PLC Associates, we define high-performance systems as well-defined structures and practices, understood and implemented by the school community, once put in motion, that predictably perpetuate and consistently achieve positive results.
A Student Agency System requires intentional planning. We suggest you answer these seven key questions before implementing:
- Do we have a working definition of student agency?
- Are we intentionally designing lessons to build student agency into daily experiences?
- As leaders, are we supporting our staff in developing student agency?
- Have we introduced the concept of agency to our students and explained to them the “why”?
- Are we assisting families as they partner with us in education to understand the benefits of student agency and strategies they can use at home?
- Do student agency plans appear in our school-based plans?
- Are we collecting baseline data, setting goals, and measuring our progress in terms of students having well-developed agency?
Question 4 above is imperative to a system’s success so that students understand the shifts they are undergoing in their education. As Marshal quotes: “Samman and Santos (2009) extend Narayan's definition of agency by including voice as part of an individual's or group's ability to advocate for their needs. Voice, they explain, is the ability and willingness to speak up for oneself and make ideas heard and needs expressed.”
And, question 6 is key as well for the system to work. As Marshall states, “Building agency requires focused effort on the part of educators. It is more than a matter of giving kids choice boards and allowing them to weigh in on classroom procedures and rules. It requires as much work on the adult side as it does on the student side.”
School leaders and teachers alike can use these seven key questions to develop meaningful plans and focus on building the capacity of our students. These skills translate into lifelong skills that will support each student throughout their educational career and further in life as they meet challenges.
The Impact of Student Agency
Just consider what a gift it is for students to possess more than self-esteem, confidence, and belief in self but to actually have the foundational agency skills that support their ability to address challenges, have a positive attitude, be solutions-thinkers, and engage in the steps needed to achieve their full potential.
Marshall eloquently underscores the impact of student agency when she says,
“The promise, power, and practice of agency necessitates creating spaces for students to build and develop agentive skills such as:
- Advocating for their educational needs.
- Participating in class in ways that elevate their identities.
- Determining where, when, how, and with whom to exercise agency.
Students need space to learn about agency, what it is, and how it operates. They must also learn that not every adult will positively respond to them as they exercise their agency, which means they must be taught how to respond when this happens.”
Agency is one of the greatest gifts we can offer to our students. It is the time, now more than ever, to create the systems that foster student agency. Our students deserve it.
Are you looking for the right partner to monitor your progress and improve school quality? PLC Associates, LLC., a Scholarus Learning Company, works with schools across the nation to improve school performance, student achievement and culture through a systems-thinking perspective. Contact PLC Associates, a Scholarus Learning Company, to learn more.
Benner, M., Brown, C., & Jeffery, A. (2019, August 19). Elevating student voice in education. Center for American Progress.
Dabrowski, J., & Reed Marshall, T. (2018). Motivation and engagement in student assignments: The role of choice and relevancy. The Education Trust.
Reed Marshall, T. (2018). To correct or not correct: Confronting decisions about African American students' use of language varieties in the English classroom. English Journal, 107(5), 51–56.
Samman, E., & Santos, M. E. (2009). Agency and empowerment: A review of concepts, indicators, and empirical evidence. Oxford Poverty & Human Development Initiative.
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