Student agency: what it is and what it isn’t.

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Exploring the real meaning of student agency

It is the beginning of a new year. And I’m asking a bunch of 6-7 years olds, who I have only known for 5 weeks, to tell me about their academic and social successes and goals. Their answers are cute, wacky and hilarious in equal measure. But their answers are also very revealing and informative. Not in the way that this process was “probably” intended to produce. Experience tells me that attempting to capture their ‘voice’ in this way is not meaningful or helpful. It’s as though I am speaking in a foreign language. Over the years I have taken these children’s responses as evidence and motivation to change my teaching practice. It has provoked me into thinking more freely and deeply about what student agency is, and what it isn’t. But teachers are asked repeatedly to go through this very process on a regular basis. And teachers oblige. No questions asked. Just lots of muttering and stressing.

This received interpretation of student agency has never been explained to me or to any other teacher that I have spoken to. Woe betide any teacher who dares to ask the ‘why’ question. So in fact, I can only guess that the process I have described in the preceding paragraph is actually about student agency at all. Yes, “probably”. I can only assume therefore, that this is how student agency has been interpreted. Or perhaps more precisely, misinterpreted. As you may have figured out by now, I totally get the idea of the how and why student agency is a good thing to have. A curious, engaged student is going to be a much better learner. The learner in the driver’s seat, directing their learning has got to be great. I have built my success of effective teaching and learning on this notion. Wacky nonsensical responses to my earnest questions were my provocation to get to this point. But to put it simply, for many a 6-7 year old, after a whole 5 weeks at school, the only meaningful goal at the beginning of the year would be to sit quietly on the mat for 5 minutes. How is it that we have lost sight of that? Water flows freely down hill. It can be guided and pooled. But working with it, not against is most effective. I like to think of water and learning as having similar qualities.

So now let me describe

  • what student agency looks like in my classroom,
  • how I go about creating it,
  • why I see it as a worthwhile goal.

In my classroom at the beginning of the year, it is my ‘voice’ that is dominant. I am setting the culture, expectations, building relationships, providing a framework and a structure that is visible and consistent. It is more about psychology than teaching at this stage of the year. And I maintain the ‘benevolent dictator’ role throughout the year. I am the expert. I convey that message. I invite them to join me on a learning journey. That is not such an easy task if a student has not experienced this expectation before (or is still learning the skills of self-management). It takes time to convince a student to grasp this reality if they have only ever had teaching and learning ‘done to them’. I know what knowledge they need to know and how best to learn it. I know my impact. And as Graeme Aitken describes, the learning environment needs to be “teacher led, student sensitive”.

It is thanks to this approach that, as the year progresses, the students start to take “ownership” of their learning. The process of learning speeds up. Increasingly, the onus goes on the children to fill in the gaps that I have highlighted to them. I provide extra support to the children who need it – whether it is due to cognitive issues or social/emotional/attitude issues. Classmates are used to provide the extra support that is needed. The analogy being, the firehose has been turned off and in its place there are water fountains in the room for the students to drink from (the fountains being myself, other students, resources in the classroom, parents). My initial job is to get them to drink; to want to drink. Once that culture has been established, my job becomes easier.

It is from this point that the students who have mastered the essential knowledge are provided with opportunities to explore and be creative with this new knowledge and mastery. And that’s when the magic starts to happen. That’s when the ‘genuine’ student agency starts to kick in. The learning becomes a more organic and dynamic process – a learning conversation. The students get excited about their ability and potential. They seem to rediscover their curiosity. It becomes contagious. I then become a conductor – responding to their needs and wants – learning from the students. This is the formative assessment process at its most dynamic. And it is all built on from a foundation of strong relationships, high but appropriate expectations and, the teacher’s expertise.

So which interpretation of student agency do you prefer? If you are a regular reader of this blog, I think I know your answer. The next question has to be, “how is it possible to get education leaders to recognise this alternative interpretation?” I know teachers who understand implicitly what I am describing and would grasp the opportunity to implement this ‘alternative’ version ably and willingly. But they don’t. And I think I know why they don’t. Beliefs and biases are rife. It may go some way to explaining why the teaching profession fails to attract and retain good teachers. Maybe. Just reread this post and replace the words ‘student agency’ with the words ‘teacher agency’.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

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4 thoughts on “Student agency: what it is and what it isn’t.

  1. Pingback: Great teachers… | Ease Education

  2. Pingback: Teaching to the 100% – a model to help teachers move beyond surviving, to thriving. | Ease Education

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