Building Student Agency: Encouraging Voice and Choice
February 22, 2021
Many years ago, a friend of mine (who happens to be a 1st grade teacher) shared a story from her classroom. She liked to break up her lessons by having a “brain puzzler” moment every afternoon. Students would gather in a circle on the floor as she read them a story from a big, illustrated book. The stories always came with some kind of brain teaser, “Where did Mr. Red’s hat go?” or “Who ate Miss Wallaby’s pie?” The students then discussed the available information and shared their ideas.
One afternoon, just as they were about to begin, one student raised their hand and asked if he could share his own brain puzzler. This was a shy student who rarely spoke and hated the spotlight, but he had constructed his own question using paper and crayons. Needless to say, my teacher friend was thrilled! But the surprises didn’t stop there. Other students began to construct and share their own questions. By the end of the year, most of their “brain puzzler” moments involved questions written by the class itself.
Find Their Voice
As educators, we know that in order to develop a generation of innovate thinkers, we can’t just teach students what to think – we need to get them invested in their own learning. Building student agency is as much a part of education as learning math or science. But how do we go about teaching it? It feels almost paradoxical to sit a student down and tell them on how to become intellectually independent. Thankfully, the process is a bit more nuanced than that.
Building student agency means teaching students to value the learning process, not just the content. By building their creative and problem-solving skills, we help students develop their mental toolbox. That way, they come to understand that learning is applicable to moments outside the classroom, and that failure is all part of the larger journey. To put it simply, student agency gives students a better perspective on who they are and how they can grow. So, where do we begin building student agency in our classrooms?
5 Teaching Strategies
- Create the Culture: Sometimes teaching means drawing a classroom into your world or appealing to student interest, but other times, it can mean learning to let go. Rather than trying to steer every learning opportunity, create a culture which emphasizes inquiry and creativity. Foster collaboration among students by teaching them to ask good questions and showing them how to listen. Then when the conditions are right, step back and let them take the lead!
- Make Learning Relevant: Have you ever had a student ask, “Why should I care about this?” Well, they do have a point. Providing students with compelling motivation is what leads to greater engagement. In the Blue Apple project, Take a Stand, students research respectful debate by advocating for a cause they believe in. This personal investment makes what they learn more meaningful. Consider using student interest surveys to find out what matters to your class.
- Share What Success Looks Like: It’s important that students know what they should aim for in a lesson. Learning Targets are one way to provide your class with a general idea of what they should be investigating while still giving them plenty of freedom to explore. You could also utilize rubrics to help students see where they stand in the overall process. Do they have a clear, detailed understanding of the information, or could their knowledge be better?
- Provide the Map: Point students in the direction they need to go but let them decide how to get there. Incorporating choice boards into a lesson is one such strategy because it provides students with several different methods for accomplishing a project. This choice creates a sense of ownership for students while also making the knowledge more accessible. Over time, students will become more comfortable incorporating their unique voice into their learning.
- Adopt a Purposeful Practice: There is perhaps no better tool for adopting purposeful practices than project-based learning. With PBL, students can apply their knowledge to create real, lasting change. This engages them in the learning process and allows them to really learn content — not just borrow it for long enough to pass the next test. PBL shows students how learning isn’t just something that happens in school, it can be applied to their daily lives!
It Starts with You
Building student agency can be a daunting task, but it’s also one of the most rewarding. Getting students active and involved is what leads them to become curious and creative thinkers. That shy student who created his own brain puzzler could very well become the changemaker of tomorrow. So, don’t be afraid to let go of the reigns and give students a little more control. The results could be far more than you ever expected!