Student Agency: How Will You Answer the Call for Change?


What Do We Know About Student Engagement?

Administrators often talk about the importance of student engagement for student learning and growth.  When walking through classrooms there is an enthusiasm and engagement in the learning experience that is easily observable in early elementary schools that does not occur as frequently at the secondary level.  In a 2013 article Jung-Sook Lee examined the relationship between student engagement and academic performance and found that behavioral and emotional engagement “significantly predicted reading performance” (Lee, Journal of Education Research, 2013).  There are many other studies that make similar connections.  Students who put forth effort and showed perseverance and felt a sense of belonging in the classroom performed better than their peers who did not.  The chart below was based on data from a Gallup Poll and posted in an Education Week article.  Student engagement seems to decline as students progress through each grade in school.  Clearly we need to address this issue, but what variables drive this decline (secondary school culture, instructional strategies, curriculum, school structure, educator expectations, student development, parent engagement, etc.).  Why does engagement dip at the secondary level for students?


Interestingly, in a survey done by School Administrator in May 2017, 95% of kindergarteners said they loved school compared to only 37% of ninth graders.  This almost correlates exactly to the percentage of students who feel engaged in the table above.  There are a few factors that may contribute to the love of school and high level of engagement kindergarteners have, which if continued through all grades may make a difference such as:

1) ensuring the curriculum is relevant and making impactful connections between the students and the content

2) student centered learning where the students are actively and collaboratively working with the content

3) leveraging technology to support and enhance the learning experience. 

This is often easier said than done, but some of the most dynamic educators in middle and high school are doing many of these things effectively and it is having a positive impact on student engagement, a student’s sense of belonging, and ultimately their learning.  At the core of this work is capturing student’s passions and empowering them to have more agency in their own learning.

What Do We Mean by Agency?

According to Hitlin and Elder (2007), there are four types of agency that people can exhibit:

  1. Existential agency:  The idea that all human beings have free will to exert influence on our world and environment around us
  2. Pragmatic agency:  Instances when people make choices in day-to-day decisions rather than following routines
  3. Identity agency:  When people take actions to maintain their social identities or how they are perceived by others.
  4. Life-course agency:  When people take actions in order to affect our future outcomes

In applying these constructs of what agency should look like into education, student-centered learning environments are places when students have control and autonomy in their learning.  Authentic student agency places students in the driver’s seat in actively seeking learning experiences, and having choices about how and where they will show mastery.  When students have agency, they have identified their purpose in their learning.  A piece of student agency, which is really easy to increase in school environments is to capture student voice.

Student Voice is a Form of Agency


Grace Knewton writes:

“Student agency refers to the level of control, autonomy, and power that a student experiences in an educational situation. Student agency can be manifested in the choice of learning environment, subject matter, approach, and/or pace. Authentic assessment, experiential or project based learning, and mastery-based learning all provide opportunities to increase student agency. With more student agency can come higher levels of engagement and commitment to the learning process.”

So why is all this important?

important-2794684_960_720Russell Burt speaks to the fact then when students feel empowered and enabled, they perform at a higher level. Mark Osbourne refers to the Quality Teaching for Diverse Students in Schooling: Best Evidence Synthesis Iteration (BES), in pointing out that students achieve at a higher level when they are allowed to control their learning and have a voice in it. As the Raikes Foundation concurs, students feel a greater sense of belonging in a school when they have they have a sense of belonging in a class. The Values Centered Schools discovered school agency, refers to empowering students through curriculum approaches that; engage them, are respectful of and seek their opinions, give them opportunities to feel connected to school life, promote positive and caring relationships between all members of the school community, promote wellbeing and focus on the whole student, relate to real-life experiences, are safe and supportive.” Ultimately, schools want students to be successful and feel like they belong. Student agency accomplished both of these in an engaging and powerful manner.

18210221868_cb2f8b2d60_bStudent Agency is not about about removing structure in the classroom, minimizing the role of the teacher, or not teaching the standards. There is actually greater structure in the classroom, more dependence on the planning of the classroom teacher, and greater detail in following the standards.  Two examples of creating space and time for agency are through makerspaces and genius hour/20%time.

Makerspaces: Creating Space for Agency

We asked Ashland High School’s Makerspace Lab teacher some questions about his class and student voice and agency and his answers are below.  If you are interested in more information on Makerspaces, Edutopia provides a great example of what a Makerspace Lab looks like. 

Question: How these classes actually require more structure not less?

“The concept of structure is possibly misleading. Students do have more freedom of choice in some classes (Student Technology Assist Team-STAT) and more directed lessons in others (Engineering the future). However, in both situations, students are given clear expectations on what they are going to be doing as students: problem solving. In order to do this, students must have a clear understanding of the structure of problem solving, and must approach each day with the expectation on fulfilling on the goals at hand.”

Question: What is the role of the teacher in the classroom?

“With this type of structure in place, the role of the teacher is that of lead learner. We challenge students in ways that also encourage teachers to grow and learn. We can demonstrate what we know, but we can also take on the task of showing students how to learn more, how to research, and take chances. The classes are designed to be open ended. If the teacher can provide guidance, ask questions, and help push students to push themselves, then the teachers and students are often finding high levels of success in developing new skills and gaining new knowledge.”

Question:  How all standards are addressed?

“Our classes tend to cross many curriculum areas, but the key focus depends on the class. In most cases we are covering appropriate Science, Technology and Engineering standards. This is done through a series of project based, or challenge based assignments. We do not rely on lecture alone, if at all. Instead, we expect students to experience the content. Based on “Activities before Content, Concept before Vocab”. Following up key lessons by discussing and highlighting what students just experienced and learned, they will then better grasp the concepts we are trying to drive home from the standards. We also cover the newly for Digital Literacy and Computer Science standards in the appropriate courses. These new standards lay a strong foundation for all students to walk out of high school with a basic experience and framework for technology use and computer science.”

Question:  How does student voice increase engagement and achievement?

“Students are the centerpiece of these courses. They are often the ones asking questions, designing experiments and pushing into new knowledge. Not every course in the space is the same though, and each course brings a different challenge for teachers and students. Therefore, it is critical that the teachers take the enthusiasm and voice of the student and help shape their questions and insights towards the goals of each course. STAT and our future course MAKE are examples of courses where student voice is not only important, it is vital to the design of the course and experience for the students. In this model, students determine their own trajectory, and find their learning takes shape organically. From each prior day experience, students shape new experiences that may or may not match their classmates. They learn by asking new questions each day. The teacher helps shape their learning by asking key questions along the way, and helping the students develop honing skills as they focus in on one task at a time toward building the bigger picture.”

Question:  Why do students love it?

“I always ask students what they think of this class and classroom. The number one thing they love is having agency over their learning. Even our most reticent students want to learn. They just don’t always want to learn what we want to teach them. Given the opportunity to work in a space like the Ashland Innovation Center, students are more empowered to make those decisions and then put their hands and minds to use making it happen.”


Genius Hour/20% Time: Creating Time for Agency

In addition to having a Makerspace and instituting district maker challenges, another approach to increasing student agency that the Mendon-Upton Regional School District (MURSD) has taken has been to provide students time to pursue their own learning interests through instituting a genius hour or 20% time into courses.  Genius Hour originated with Google, who allows its employees to spend 20% of their time on projects they are interested in.  As their employees work creatively on their own passion projects, many outcomes such as Gmail or Google News resulted from the 20-time projects.  These principles have transferred to the classroom when teachers set aside an amount of time for students to take on passion projects.  

Some examples of this in the Mendon-Upton Regional School District include a third-grade teacher who begins each Monday with Genius Hour time for students when they return from the weekend.  In the 8th grade history classes, they are taking every class on Mondays for the next three months for students to work on Genius Hour projects.  At the high school, one teacher took it one step further and created a course called Generation Think where students are able to pursue their passions for the entire course.  

pasted image 0

How Will You Answer the Call?

The chart above is one of many examples of how school leaders and educators can begin to move practice for our students.  This chart displays a continuum of choice from compliant participants to bold entrepreneurial students.  Where would you like your students to be on that continuum?

One approach to look for making change is through the question posed by A.J. Juliani and John Spencer in their book Empower,  “What decisions am I making for students that they could make for themselves?  In their book, they described that all of the learning decisions were made by the teachers:  “I chose the resources.  I chose the content. I asked the questions. I wrote the instructions. I managed the project progress.  I chose the tasks. I wrote the objectives.  I picked the standards.  I decided on the format. I determined whether or not the work was any good.”  

Think about the power of switching that role.  What if we switched all of those tasks to students?  What if students determined the questions being answered, the resources gathered, or what mastery would look like?  What if students were the agents of their own learning?

We leave you with this one question, if as educators we want to feel empowered in our classrooms, why shouldn’t we want the same for our kids? We hope you empower your students, give them voice, and take that risk.



2 thoughts on “Student Agency: How Will You Answer the Call for Change?

  1. Pingback: Check out our latest collaborative blog | APScurriculum

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s