How to build student agency in your classroom

It was my first trip after a year and a half of isolation, and my first time flying in the post-2020 era. I braved the tension at the airport and had an uneventful flight. I jumped in my rental car and was all set to trek to where I was staying, a rural address about two hours outside of the city. As I pulled away from the airport, I realized I had just one problem: I wasn’t getting a cell signal, so GPS wasn’t going to be any help.

Determined, I followed the big green road signs and made my way through traffic on a Sunday night. There were 14 lanes of cars and trucks, an ocean of tail lights with each pair going their unique way. Admittedly, it had been a while since I’d been on a trip like this without GPS. As I continued on, I was pretty sure I was heading to the right place, but not entirely certain. I had to trust myself, even as I got more and more frustrated by the gridlock around me. The route wasn’t working for me, and I wanted options, but I chose to stay in the traffic jam—feeling powerless—because I wasn’t sure if there were any alternate routes.

For too many students, this is what learning is like: a tedious slog on an unfamiliar path toward an unclear destination. Too often, we create situations where they don’t have enough options or choice in how their own educational journeys go, leaving them in learning traffic that doesn’t let them move as fast.

Agency is partially about having choice, and partially about knowing what to do with that choice. It’s about developing and holding onto the sense that one can set achievable goals, persevere, solve problems, overcome obstacles, and find success. When we don’t have agency, it leads to a lack of purpose, confusion, indecision, or feeling like there aren’t any choices. On that Sunday night stuck in traffic in an unfamiliar city, I didn’t have my phone to offer up options, or to lead me back if I went too far astray.

Agency is partially about having choice, and partially about knowing what to do with that choice.

When we shepherd students through curriculum without involving them—that is, when we act as learner managers instead of learner empowerers—we miss the opportunity to let them find their own way. When we act as road signs, we miss the chance to be their GPS. Student agency is critical to effective learning and one of the most important skills we can offer them on the road to adulthood.

What we get right

The good news is that teachers today are already doing a tremendous amount of work to support student agency and give their learners opportunities to “take an active role in shaping their future,” as Larry Ferlazzo noted in a 2019 opinion piece in EdWeek. Consider how much has improved since we were in school! Teachers are now creating learning systems that are increasingly personalized for each student. They’re leveraging rigorous content standards, adopting research-informed practices, and considering their students’ social and emotional learning needs.

We see teachers having powerful goal-setting conversations with their students and using data to identify next steps together. We see them giving effective feedback to their learners that helps them better understand their own needs. We’re shifting from thinking of learning as a thing that happens through statements to instead understanding it as a process that happens better through questions. Even in the pandemic era, we see teachers working within distance limitations to put their students in the driver’s seat. Still: more must be done.

What do we mean by “student agency”?

If we’re going to have a systemic effect on building and improving student agency, it’s important to pause to define what we mean.

When we shepherd students through curriculum without involving them—that is, when we act as learner managers instead of learner empowerers—we miss the opportunity to let them find their own way.

Let’s start with the idea that student agency is “giving children the power to act in their own learning.” That means that we need to give students both the option to make choices to direct their own learning and the information they need to make strong choices. (The term “voice and choice” comes up a lot around student agency, and I’d update that to “voice and informed choice.”)

The term “student agency” often overlaps with language around assessments because many of us use assessment data as a foundation to help build student voice and choice. John Hattie’s work shows us that when students have agency and efficacy within their learning and understand their growth and mastery of academic content, they are assessment-capable learners. My colleague Erin Beard has written extensively about how we can leverage student agency to promote assessment empowerment here in Teach. Learn. Grow.

These are fantastic entry points to understanding student agency, and we must also position student agency as an idea that permeates all student learning interactions.

Getting started: 5 quick tips for building student agency

Creating student agency doesn’t happen overnight, but there are simple practices you can adopt to refine your approach.

  1. Set clear expectations for autonomy and how you’ll check in with students. Teacher clarity is key, and it’s easier for students to engage when they know what is and isn’t going to work. For example, if you’ve got a reading program where students can pick their own books, let them know what choices they’ll need to make and when you’ll connect with them to be sure the book aligns with their needs.
  2. Make sure students understand why they’re learning what they’re learning. “Because it’s going to be on the test” is the wrong answer here! Consider how you’re presenting big ideas in your lesson planning. Do your students know how it will connect to their daily lives? Are they clear on where the learning path is going?
  3. Build community through culturally responsive practices. Consider your current learning unit. How are you connecting it to your students’ cultures? By adapting culturally responsive teaching practices, you create an inclusive environment for learners that helps them connect with the material. One easy way to get started: bring a story problem from a school text to your students, and ask them which parts they relate to the most. Then, ask them: How can we rewrite this question so it makes more sense in our current context?
  4. Use formative conversation starters to build student agency within content areas. Too often in mathematics classrooms, ELA classrooms, and other disciplines where the amount of content to cover and master is steep, we just push students to plow through the content. When we do this, we miss critical opportunities to engage and ignite a sense of open-ended possibility that is at the heart of the important content we teach. For example, developing a question-and-answer strategy in your classroom that is primarily used to reveal students’ thinking about a topic or concept, with the purpose of guiding your next instructional moves, will help you and your students move agency and understanding forward dramatically.
  5. Share what works for you with your colleagues. I can’t stress this enough, and Hattie’s meta-analyses couldn’t be more clear: collective teacher efficacy is a game changer in learning. Said plainly, when we share our practice with our colleagues, when we calibrate and plan intentionally to maximize the impact of our lessons, units, and daily teaching practices, student growth and mastery move in big ways. This is even more critical when it comes to developing student agency; when we align—when we, as teachers, lean in together to set the conditions, practices, and protocols for student agency—students have a more coherent learning experience that reinforces the types of agency, efficacy, and empowerment that every student needs and deserves.

Where do we go from here?

Building student agency will be a lifelong endeavor for all of us, and the results are crucial and worthwhile. When we empower students to drive their own learning—when we show them the destinations, let them chart their own courses, and help them reroute on the way—they build their sense of self-efficacy. They develop not only the skills and knowledge required, but also the confidence from knowing they found success themselves.

If you’re interested in learning more, I invite you to listen to the latest season of our podcast, The Continuing Educator. In each hour-long episode, we talk with teachers, school leaders, researchers, and other experts on the most pressing issues facing them today and how they’re making powerful ideas like student agency real.

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