Developing Student Agency: A Journey, Not a Destination
Alexandra McMullen, Director of the Middle School
In seventh grade Social Studies, students recently gave presentations on citizens from a myriad of African countries, such as Cameroon and Nigeria. These citizens came from diverse academic backgrounds that included politics, literature, science, and culture. Despite this diversity in experience, their positive actions united them as a group, in addition to setting them apart as agents of change. This was the culminating project after an in-depth semester of study on Africa during which students were required to explain the impact of their selected “African hero” on the lives of others, what made this hero an agent of change, and what helped to set them apart from others in their communities. Although there were parameters set to this assignment, it was intentionally open ended in order to encourage a personalized learning experience.
For many students, “aha” moments ensued during the research process. They connected the lives of their African heroes to ways in which they could also be agents of change in their own communities through small acts of service. In addition, it gave students the freedom to individually interpret their hero’s actions and thus present the information to their audience in a way that was unique and creative, empowering them to take an active role in their own learning. Afterward, many of them remarked that this was one of their favorite projects this year because they felt like they had a sense of ownership over the final product and that their hero’s actions encouraged them to think about the impact that they could have on the world around them.
As noted above, powerful learning experiences come from moments in which a person feels intentionally connected to and passionate about what they are learning; they need to see themselves somewhere in that experience. Categorically, these experiences typically share the characteristics of risk taking, critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration, patience and creativity. According to Dan French, “the lens of student as shaper of their learning engaged in the process of uncovering and constructing” is key to providing students with opportunities to see themselves in their own learning, as well as a chance to make connections to the outside world.
In order for agency to begin to take root, students must regard themselves as the drivers of their own learning. Often, this can be a complicated and uncomfortable process for educators as it requires a mind shift around how experiences are designed in the classroom. This also challenges them to think differently about instruction and traditional classroom roles; teachers begin to realize that it might be more valuable for them to serve as a “guide on the side” as opposed to “sage on the stage” when designing experiences that are meaningful and inspire students to make connections. Gradually, this becomes more of a give and take, as collaboration is a key element in helping students to begin their journey toward developing agency.
According to Andrew Rikard, “‘agency’ is a capacity that you never stop developing. You can’t obtain it and you can’t take it away.” In other words, developing agency should be viewed as a journey, not a destination. This is a crucial point for both educators and students to consider. It is the job of the educator, functioning as a guide, mentor and coach, to inspire his/her students to view themselves as the driver of their own learning by providing opportunities for students to make connections between what they are learning and how they might have a positive impact on the world around them. However, it is the job of the student to seize those opportunities and grapple with the challenges that often come with being pushed outside of one’s comfort zone. They will need to dig deep in order to find the courage, persistence, and drive to set and exceed goals, and, perhaps most importantly, learn to view failure as an opportunity to find future success.
As the educational landscape continues to shift and evolve at a breakneck pace, so do the needs of our students. Educators have the responsibility and privilege of preparing their students for an unpredictable world that will rise to greet them as adults, and with that responsibility comes the necessity of reimagining approaches in the classroom that encourage students to access and use information in ways that will best prepare them for their future. Developing student agency is an ongoing partnership that requires thoughtfulness, individualization, collaboration, and consistency on the part of both teachers and students. Creating learning environments that empower students to develop and hone the active learning skills that they will need in order to be successful as adults, as opposed to those that teach compliance and prioritize getting that “one right answer,” will inspire students to take an active role in their educational experience, which will ultimately help them to go forth into the world as agents of change.
 French, Dan. "Student Agency and Personalized Learning." Blog post. Center for Collaborative Education. N.p., May-June 2016. Web. May-June 2017