Getting to grips with this thing called “student agency”.


Correlation: as ‘student agency’ increases, ‘blue’ time decreases and ‘green’ time increases.

“Student agency” is a phrase that you may have been hearing a lot lately in an education context. That’s because experts have determined that “student agency” is an essential ingredient in helping drive student success in learning – the equivalent of an educational “holy grail”. “Students as teachers, teachers as learners”, is the way Hattie describes it. I have already written a lot about the success I’ve been experiencing as a result of bringing this theory into reality

It will probably come as no surprise that I often find myself frustrated in the way I see this term being defined and interpreted. At present I see it being interpreted in its most literal sense. That is, student engagement (agency) is simply about wanting to see students occupied, involved and excited in the activities that teachers are serving up to them. But of course, that’s insufficient if improving the learning outcomes of all students is the intended goal. At best, this is a description of “student agency-lite”. The full potential of “student agency” to improve learning growth for all students will only be realised when it is understood and implemented at its deepest meaning and intent.

Full-bodied, meaningful student engagement is a combination of learning that involves sustained effort and deep, intentional thinking. In a school setting I too often see “student agency” being interpreted as bringing or pushing students into learning – getting the students excited about a topic, lesson or activity. Giving them “responsibilities”. Busy work. Lots of fanfare, inducements, prizes, bells and whistles – the works. In other words, lots of external motivation. Lots of energy expended, lots of exhausted teachers, lots of perspiration, limited inspiration. You get the picture. Oh so familiar. I feel exhausted just thinking about it. As you can imagine, reliance on this approach means that the excitement fades very quickly, and the deeper learning fails to fire.

Let’s take a step back to see if we can figure out what’s going on. Students are human. They work for external rewards. Just like you and I do. I teach because I get paid. But I also explore ways of teaching better and describing these experiences on this blog in my free time because I am internally motivated and intrinsically rewarded by the thrill of watching students progress as a result of my deliberate acts of teaching and also, hoping that this expertise could be monetised one day :). I can see that I have a bunch of intrinsically motivated learners in my class. That is, they are displaying high levels of student agency/engagement.

But it’s also important to understand that not all these children were at this point when they entered my class. I have had to engage in many deliberate acts of teaching in order to draw out the children’s natural curiosity and motivation – to try and develop this ephemeral thing called, “student agency”. (In case you are wondering how I know the students in my class are engaged in this way, then please note that I have a plan in process to collect some qualitative data to prove this point in the future). So, assuming I am making an accurate reflection, based on my own observations and the feedback of various other adults who have been in my classroom, what insights can I offer? Plenty, I hope.

All children are naturally curious. But unfortunately, there are plenty of reasons why children have had their curiosity quotient sucked out of them or are proficient at hiding it away. Adults are very good at ignoring or stifling this curiosity. It is the job of the teacher to unlock that curiosity, feed it and invite it to flourish. And may I hasten to add that this won’t happen by teachers rewarding compliance – compliant behaviour nor compliant thinking – which I dare say is the current prevalent practice. It’s those innately human skills that give teachers such potential to make great learning happen. If this wasn’t the case, learning would all be happening in front of a computer screen by now. Learning is a social activity and the teacher’s greatest facility is to inspire students and help them interact. Connect, inquire, respond, celebrate – repeat! This is actually just a synthesis of Hattie’s Visible Learning pedagogy. It’s an approach that teachers can utilise to help develop internalised motivation. Because deep learning is deeply satisfying. It’s contagious. Well that’s my experience. “Can we read another chapter of that book today?” “Can my friend and I play that number game?” Can I write a story?” It’s requests like these I hear everyday that are music to my ears.

Now let’s take a look at the weekly timetable above. I have started to notice that over the years a correlation between ‘student agency’, my effectiveness as a teacher and high rates of learning growth taking place in the class. As ‘student agency’ increases, the ‘blue’ time decreases and the ‘green’ time increases. The ‘blue’ time is when I do the fundamentals of literacy and numeracy. It’s about offering the foundation knowledge that all learners require to be successful learners. During this time there are high expectations on the children to engage and contribute to their own and their colleagues’ learning experience. And when they are not working directly with me (as a whole class, in a small group, or individually), they are expected to be engaged collaboratively and constructively in some developmentally appropriate and engaging learning activity – reading a range of books, completing number puzzles. So, even though it is teacher directed and led time, the students are required to be active in their learning and are given some degree of choice in how they want to engage.

The ‘green’ time is that time of the day when I invite the students to participate in independent and creative activities of their choice. There are a range of resources and activities available to the students in the classroom that are highly appealing and desirable. These activities hold a currency that have very persuasive qualities – even to the most reluctant, least curious learner. It’s just a matter of time, patience and consistency. Eventually, every student wants unfettered access to that ‘green’ time and the goodies that are available at that time of day. Eventually all learning behaviours – social and academic, become self-reinforcing and internalised. The appeal of play drives the students’ desire to move towards managing their emotions and taking ownership of their learning. At that point, my job is done. I can step back and be the conductor and the ‘head’ learner – roles that are so satisfying and rewarding. “So if you can do that, can you show your friend how to do it?” or, “Can you think of doing it a different way”? or, “Wow, I didn’t know you could do that/think like that.” Dynamic conversations and learning points. Formative assessment at it’s most effective.

As a result of making these changes, I have also noticed that I am once again able to use the ‘blue’ time to do more of the interesting stuff that typically gets dropped off the timetable due to a “crowded curriculum”. We are not having to spend all our time covering literacy and numeracy. In fact, the amount of time we are spending on these areas is decreasing. It’s a ‘win/win’. That’s because the learning is going so efficiently. I can’t push the students ahead any further. They are at all at their appropriate developmental level and the required national standard. As I have said before, national standards and creativity can co-exist. The interesting stuff I am talking about (for 5-6 year olds) are topics like – science (baking bread, planting seeds and experimenting with what they need to grow), literacy – (making snozzcumber jelly based on The BFG story). The sky’s the limit. Exciting, motivating, full of good learning opportunities for students and offering seamless links to literacy and numeracy. But just as importantly, these types of learning opportunities are manageable and sustainable from a teacher’s perspective.

And that still leaves plenty of time for the students to have enough ‘green’ time to simply ‘play’. But it is also worth highlighting the fact that even though this is ‘student-led’ time, this does not equate to a free-for-all. This kind of independent play time is premised on a code of conduct that has been co-created and is referred to on a regular basis. That takes lots of my input to keep it on track. It’s purpose is to build, maintain and reinforce high expectations and of course, that secret sauce called, ‘student agency’.

Finally, the biggest prize for getting to grips with this thing called, “student agency” is that ALL students will benefit. No student will be left behind. That may sound like a big claim but I am experiencing it first hand everyday. It’s hard to describe in words but you will know when it when you see it. Give it a go. But you will have to think differently.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

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5 thoughts on “Getting to grips with this thing called “student agency”.

  1. Pingback: Exploring the wide-ranging consequences of ‘knowing your impact’. | Ease Education

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  4. Pingback: A critique of ‘play-based’ learning. | Ease Education

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