Student Agency – What is it and why should teachers/parents care?

What Is It?

In the social sciences, agency is defined as ‘the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices’ or ‘an individual’s will and capacity to act’. Therefore, student agency can be most simply defined as “learners having the power to learn independently and make their own free choices about their learning”.

Core education suggests that there are three features to understanding learner agency. I think that the three features that Core education outline are useful to consider and reflect upon. The three features are as follows:

Agency involves the initiative or self-regulation of the learner. The notion of agency isn’t simply about handing control over to the learner – a sort of abdication model – it involves a far greater tapestry of intentionality on the part of schools and teachers to create that context and environment where the learners are actively involved in the learning.  Second, agency is interdependent. It’s not just about a learner in isolation doing their own thing and what suits them. Learners must develop an awareness that there are consequences for the decisions they make and actions they take. And thirdly, agency includes an awareness of the responsibility of ones own actions on the environment and on others. Every decision a learner makes, and action she or he takes, will impact on the thinking, behaviour or decisions of others – and vice versa. You can’t just act selfishly and call that acting with agency.

Agency fits naturally with school specific curricula. One way schools can encourage learners to exercise agency is by focusing learning on local environmental and community-based problems. For example, Schools located near farm land learning about the nitrogen cycle and its impact on plant and grass growth as part of the Science curriculum. Through school specific curricula, personalised and self directed learning can begin to truly occur. As learners see areas of interest around them, in their own world, they are naturally drawn to find out more about the particular phenomena.


 Why Should Teachers/Parents Care?

What impact does agency have on learning/learners? Why is schooling/the education system heading this way? Is it just another passing fad?

Think about when you learnt how to ride a bike. Did you learn to ride your bike because someone sat you down and told you that it was time for you to learn to ride? Or did you learn to ride your bike because you were excited and really wanted to do it yourself? What was your motivation like? I bet you tried and tried, pestering someone more experienced than you to help, until you finally left those training wheels behind and could feel the wind in your hair, well helmet depending on how old you are.

Learning is learning, it doesn’t matter if you are learning how to ride a bike or how the hydrological cycle works. If one has interest and autonomy of what and when one learns the experience is going to be more meaningful and rewarding. The implication here is that if we want students to become more engaged and excited about what they are learning they should have a part to play in the content they learn.

The Learning Pit – James Nottingham

I shared this video about the Learning Pit with my team last week as the professional development part of our meeting as I was very impressed with the positive responses from the teachers. I absolutely love the concept and want to promote it further within our team and the wider school.

The video generated a great deal of discussion and as a result, I am wanting to have a look at how we could implement this question everything type approach in to our final two ‘theme’ units.

Zone of Proximal Development and The Vygotskian Framework

I can hear my lecturer from the 300 level Human Development paper I took, from over a decade ago, rejoicing at the fact that I am about to write about Lev Vygotsky. Vygotsky was well before his time and had, in his day, unique ideas about the way individuals learn.

Vygotsky’s four principles around how individuals learn, known also as the Vygotskian Framework are as follows:

1 Individuals construct their knowledge.

2 Development can not be separated from its social context.

3 Learning can lead development.

4 Language plays a central role in mental development.

How is the Vygotskian Framework applied in classrooms today?

Lev Vygotsky believed 4 basic principles underlie learning. Principles that wouldn’t sound to out of place in a classroom today where educators encourage agency, autonomy, contextualised and authentic learning. Fortunately, Vygotsky taught in a classroom setting. (Wertsch, J.V, 1991). This expereience undoubtably gave Vygotsky an insight into how to connect his theories with practical application in the classroom. To better understand Vygotsky’s theories we must think about principles that underpin many educators philosophy towards teaching toady – agency, autonomy, contextualised and authentic learning.

Student Agency – Students live, learn and play in a media saturated world. Often students are told what to think, how to act by the media. As educators, surely we are wanting students to have the a clear understanding of what they know and how they can construct knowledge for themselves – moving themselves forward as learners (Briceño, E, 2013).

imgresLev Vygotsky (1896-1934)

Briceño, E (2013) Mindsets and Student Agency. Unboxed online. A Journey of Adult Learning in Schools.

Wertsch, J.V. (1991) Voices of the mind: A sociocultural approach to mediated action. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.



Teacher Inquiry

I find it interesting when speaking with colleagues about teacher inquiry that many remark that this is something that they have always done but now it has been given a new name and has been turned into eduspeak.  I wonder if this is really true?

Have teachers really been inquiring into their practice in a meaningful way in the past or have they been reflecting on their practice? What’s the difference?

I know that in the past, teachers have reflected at the end of units and have given a great amount of thought to what they would do differently if they taught that topic/curriculum area again. For me, here in lies the problem, they have been focused on one curriculum area or topic of work – not how they could better encourage better learning across all curriculums areas.

This is what I love about teacher inquiry, if one gives the area they are wanting to inquire into enough thought they can research into learning. The skills that teacher’s develop as they inquire into their own practice should be able to transferred across all curriculum areas and actually for the wider world!

Let me give you an example, so far this year I have been considering how I can give the students in my class greater agency in mathematics. While I have used the context of mathematics, this was only to stop my inquiry becoming all encompassing. However, once I have found successful ways to promote agency in the context of mathematics it is then relatively straightforward to help students apply these ideas/approaches/philosophies to other areas.

I don’t believe that this would have happened in the past. I feel that education, from a teachers perspective when reflecting on what worked or otherwise, was seen as quite compartmentalised.

Who are the winners as a result of a greater focus on teacher inquiry? The answer is simple, everyone!

PD on steroids

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If any educators have heard of Ewan McIntosh or notosh publishing undoubtably they will automatically think of this book. I have heard great things about this book and am keen to get into this copy that I have recently been gifted! The main idea of the book considers the following question “Can the education world innovate, share and build on new ideas, taking them out of individual classrooms?

Ewan say the following about his book, “This book will help you achieve ambitious visions for learning through swift innovation. We will borrow from the people who invent what we all end up using tomorrow, create much from very little, and refine their ideas with a swiftness few of those in larger corporations, Government or schools have seen.”

As I make my way through the book I aim to add ideas, activities and thinking below.

Encouraging growth in our learners

As I have started the school with another class of enthusiastic young students I have been thinking a lot about the ideal type of learner that I would like in my classroom. Someone recommended on Twitter that the following video is an excellent summation of fixed versus growth mindset. Having completed various activities over the last two days which required students to think about themselves as learners I thought it would a great way to start the year by discussing the fixed versus growth mindset. After all, a growth mindset would an attribute that I would have very close to the top of my ‘ideal’ learner list.

I have, what is know at school as, a ‘cluster’ class. A cluster class is simply a class of students which has a greater number of academically able students. I thoroughly enjoy working with these types of students; however, I have noticed that a number of my more academically able students tend to have a fixed mindset.These students have usually been accustomed to knowledge coming easily to them and if they don’t understand/can’t do an activity or task on the first couple of attempts they tend to give up.

Think about the massive potential that these students have to truly excel if they began to adopt a growth mindset and, when truly challenged, instead of shying away from the problem saw the opportunity as one where they could grow and learn.

Principled principals

Today I was thinking about the various principals I have worked with over the years and the diverse range of principles or philosophies that they hold about school leadership. A couple of questions  struck me. Hopefully all the principals I have worked with want their students to achieve and be as successful as possible, but how can the approaches to leadership vary so greatly? Which leadership style is most conducive to student progress?

I guess the principals I have worked with in the past fall roughly in to one of two categories: Transformational Leaders and Instructional Leaders. As I pondered on the different approaches to leadership I received an email from Educational Leadership. See here if you would like to subscribe to the magazine (it is really worthwhile!). The article entitled Impact Leadership makes for very interesting reading. If you are too busy to read the whole article I will give you a brief synopsis of the article which I hope will entice you to read the entire article.

Impact Leadership is written by John Hattie and discusses the findings of a study carried out by Robinson, Lloyd, Rowe (2008). In the research Robinson et al. (2008) define the two types of leadership, Transformational and Instructional. They found transformational leaders set a vision, create common goals for a school, inspire and set direction, buffer staff from external demands, ensure fair and equitable staffing and give teachers a high degree of autonomy.  Basically, these leaders focus more on teachers.

In contrast, instructional leaders focus more on students. They are concerned with the teachers’ and school’s impact on student learning and instructional issues, conducting classroom observations, ensuring professional development that enhances student learning, communicating high academic standards and ensuring that all school environments are conducive to learning.

Interestingly enough, more than 80% of leaders claim to be transformational leaders (Marks, 2013). Here’s the crunch, Robinson et al. (2008) discovered that the overall effect from transformational leaders was .11 compared with the overall effect from instructional leaders being .42. That is a huge difference! The key to the huge difference is leaders who see their key role as evaluating their impact and getting everyone in the school working together to know and evaluate their impact. There are a great deal of other approaches that have been proven to be highly effective. If you want to find out what these approaches are you should check out this page. 

The take away point: “Effective instructional leaders don’t just focus on student learning. They relentlessly search out and interrogate evidence of that learning” John Hattie.


Cyber safety for one and all!

Over the Christmas holidays I spent some time looking at the Cyber Safety Agreement that each family and student sign upon their arrival at school.  By signing the agreement they signal their acceptance to abide by the school’s rules and procedures around using devices. After rewriting parts of the agreement I began to think about students and the world we live in. A couple of questions struck me: Do students truly understand the dangers of using devices, especially the Internet and social media? Do teachers appreciate the dangers and pit falls of using social media?

As I thought about the first of these two questions I began to search the Internet for resources that could help. Obviously, netsafe is an excellent resource but I wanted to see what else was ‘out there’. I found an excellent resource called Common Sense Education. They offer a range of excellent free curricula for schools to teach cyber safety.

As the saturation of technology only increases, I believe schools need to make their cyber safety teaching as effective as possible by involving the whole community. Inform parents and caregivers about what is being taught at school and advise on ways that they can help their children be safe online at home. Invite parents or caregivers from the community into school to hold workshops for other parents and students.

As I began to write a staff agreement for school I found to be extremely helpful. Social media can be such a powerful tool for teachers when used correctly. I wouldn’t want to discourage any teachers from engaging in social media in a positive and professional manner; however, teachers have a professional obligation to develop and maintain professional relationships.

I feel that the ‘grey area’ surrounds personal social media use. The greater majority of teachers are capable of maintaining professionalism when they are commenting on a social media site in the capacity as a teacher. What teachers must also be aware of is how they portray their ‘private’ lives on social media sites. It is important for teachers to think about how their post, image or video might reflect on themselves and their school. A golden rule that I think all teachers should live by when posting to social media sites is ‘Would I be happy for my principal or the chairperson of the board of trustees to see my post?’ If the answer is no then it is probably best that teachers think twice before posting. An excellent ‘Before you share – Guidelines’ can be found here. Very useful if you are wanting to consider writing guidelines around using social media for staff.

Who’s in the driving seat?

During our second Teacher Only Day, Anna Stephenson who was our facilitator gave out a reading by Watkins (2009) entitled ‘Learners in the Driving Seat’. The reading looks at who is responsible for students’ learning and how young students can take the lead in their own learning. You can view the article here: Learners in the driving seat – Watkins (2009). I am looking forward to trialling an idea with my class on day one – Ask the students to point at the ceiling with their index finger and then ask them to point at who is responsible for their learning. I am looking forward to taking pictures of this that we can, as a class, reflect back on later in the year. It is my hope that some of the students that I had last year point at themselves, but time will tell:-)

Watkins’ reading was a confirmation of sorts that the professional development/leadership that I had been planning for my team was heading in the correct direction. Last year, after reading about student agency, visiting various schools that promote student autonomy and attending educamp2014 I decided that I wanted to give students greater control over what they learnt in my classroom.

During Term 4 I trialled running small groups where students could opt into what was being taught. If the students decided to attend the small group and realised that they new the content they were free to leave. Of course, there were varying degrees of autonomy depending on the student; however, I felt that this approach worked very well. It was interesting to anecdotally note that motivation of the class improved as a result of being able to choose when and what they studied within the context of a wider topic.

Following on from this, I decided that I would like to try this approach on a wider scale. As part of our team teacher inquiry, which each teaching team has control over, I decided I would like to look at creating greater student agency/autonomy in 2015.

Aa part of the session with Anna, we were asked to think about what our team inquiry would look like. I was conscious of wanting to develop interest and motivation for the topic with the rest of my team members rather than telling the team what we would be inquiring about. I think that team ‘by in’ is massively important when looking at new initiatives/ideas.

After some explanation of my thinking and showing the rest of the team The Learning Pyramid they were excited about the idea of creating greater student agency across the team.Learning-Pyramid

Realising that this could be a massive inquiry for a team which has a third year teacher and a PRT 1 we decided to narrow our approach to the maths curriculum. Hopefully this would be beneficial from two aspects, firstly it will give us a more focussed approach and secondly it will give us concrete data to use and compare when studying the effectiveness of our inquiry.

I am thoroughly looking forward to implementing some of the ideas, readings and thinking that I have done over the Christmas holidays within my class and team.

PS: I tried the activity today from Learners in the driving seat (Watkins, 2009) with the students in my class and interestingly there was a correlation between the contributing schools my Year 7 had attended previously and who/where they ended up pointing. I was pleased that about 80% of my Year 8 students pointed at themselves. When asked to discuss who they pointed at and why, one of my Year 8 girl’s said that she pointed at herself because “You can take a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink” which I thought was very insightful comment/reflection.

MLEs – A change in mindset, not necessarily buildings

As Modern Learning Environments (MLEs) are reasonably recent, it is difficult to find quantifiable research that suggests MLEs lead to raised student achievement. Mark Osborne from CORE Education suggests that “this is one of the drawbacks of working in a relatively recent area of education.” So, although robust research isn’t readily available into the effects of MLE’s it is easier to identify what won’t change student achievement.

Changing classroom environments – knocking down walls, creating ‘break out’ spaces, adding bean bags and funky furniture and introducing devices is all relatively straightforward. However, MLEs are pointless if the teacher still leads from the front of classroom and doesn’t change his or her practice. The challenge will be to explore how MLEs can be used to genuinely change how and what we have been doing. In this respect, there is plenty of research available. The following is taking from the Virtual Learning Network and sums up the type of change and pedagogy we should be aiming to implement.

“When looking at how a learning environment might be used well, we should look to the research around pedagogy. Attention should be paid to work such as the Best Evidence Synthesis on pedagogy (Quality Teaching for Diverse Learners), Te Kotahitanga and John Hattie’s Visible Learning to identify teaching strategies that are most likely to make a difference for our learners. Providing an environment that offers as many learning settings as possible to promote these kinds of powerful pedagogies (peer tutoring, reciprocal teaching, mastery learning, student agency over learning etc.) is crucial and for many schools this variety is offered through modern learning environments. To summarise the thinking in this area: MLEs make a difference because they give teachers more opportunities to use pedagogies that make a difference.”

Mark Osborne, CORE Education.