It’s Time for Student Agency to Take Center Stage

by Marie Bjerede, November 10, 2017

This article was first published on Getting Smart on 9/22/17

Tony Wagner’s The Global Achievement Gap defines the modern workplace as an environment that no longer calls for compliant workers who wait to be told what to do, who believe that collaborating is cheating or who hoard information believing it to be power.

Instead he describes the need for creative critical thinkers who solve problems and share information with others. These sentiments are not new but seem to have become imperative to the future of our country. If our future is dependent on effective, self-directed employees, then we need to develop a high level of agency in students before they are assimilated into the workforce.

It may be helpful to start with an illustration of a student who demonstrates agency rather than compliance.

Jason never thought of himself as a very good student. He struggled in some of his classes in his last school. He tried to pay attention, but he just didn’t seem to be able to keep focused for a full class period, and he never managed to get down all of the notes. It all just seemed so boring and irrelevant, and he often thought to himself, “When am I ever going to use this in my real life.”

Jason’s new school was different. In his science class, for example, the teacher asked all of the students to come up with things about the natural world that they found curious but didn’t understand. The students came back with all sorts of ideas, some of which seemed pretty absurd to Jason. Jason thought his question was much more realistic and relevant. The house that his family had moved into was in a brand new subdivision. He noticed that he often saw “roadkill” in the area and wondered the effect that building the subdivision had on the animals that lived in the woods that was cut down. The teacher told him that it was a very interesting question and that he would be able to investigate it in this class.

Jason left school feeling really good that day. He couldn’t remember feeling like this since he was in elementary school. As soon as he got home he took a walk around the neighborhood. He was wondering if some of the animals who used to live in the woods were still living in the shrubs around the houses, or maybe in the trees in backyards. He noticed for the first time that there were three different kinds of squirrels in his neighborhood, and there were lots of them. 

At the corner, he ran into a retired neighbor who was hammering something into the grass. The sledgehammer he was using seemed heavy for him and Jason asked if he could help. The man explained that he had moles that keep digging up his lawn and pointed out several piles of dirt on the lawn where they had burrowed in our or out. He was pounding in poison stakes that would kill the moles, or at least help chase them off.

On his way home he began noticing that a few of the lawns had similar dirt piles. He also noticed that there were still woods across the street from his subdivision, and that most of the roadkill he saw was along the length of the woods. When he found his way back to his house his mom said it was time for dinner and that they were having his favorite. He walked right by her and said, “I don’t have time right now, I have to make some notes for my homework.” His mom was shocked since getting Jason to do homework was like pulling teeth.

Jason took ownership of his class project, exhibiting agency. Students who take ownership go beyond mere responsibility and conscientiously completing assignments. These students are focused on their learning, rather than their grade. They are genuinely interested in their work and are as likely as not to get up and work on a project on a Saturday morning, even though they don’t have to (and without considerations of extra credit.)

They complete their homework on time and may well go above and beyond, and they have interesting thoughts to add to classroom dialog. For many teachers, they are a joy to teach, but they are also the ones who may ask the hard questions and they may be quick to point out what they see as hypocrisy in the authority figures.

“Responsible” students, on the other hand, are compliant. Most teachers think they are a joy to teach. They complete their homework without fail, and pay attention and participate in class. These are the kids typically considered “good” students. They usually win most of the academic awards because they are thought of as the “best and brightest.”

Responsible students are concerned about their grades, and can be identified when they ask questions like::

  • “Will that be on the test?”
  • “How many words do I have to write?”
  • “What does it take to get an A?”

Students who take ownership, on the other hand ask questions like:

  • “There are several different viewpoints on this subject so why is that, and what does it mean?
  • “Is what you are teaching, or what is in my textbook, consistent with my research?”
  • “Why is this important?”

Compliance or agency? We need to decide. If we believe that agency is imperative to a student’s future success there are already many well-developed strategies that can be deployed. Project and Problem Based Learning, Inquiry, Game-based Learning, Design Thinking and others become the tools of an agentic classroom, but are often implemented in isolated and dogmatic ways.

These strategies develop student agency while also supporting deeper learning and the development of employability skills such as the 4 C’s (critical thinking, creativity, communication, collaboration). Agency lies at the heart of all of these approaches, but they remain just the tools and processes. The fundamental change that needs to happen to make them effective lies within ourselves.

The past decades have been the age of the responsible, compliant student. Students who used to be able to get into college and then immediately secure a good job. But the world and the workforce have changed. Now it is time for the age of agentic teaching and learning.

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