Student agency is the difference between an old, factory-model classroom and a modern, student-centered one. Agency is like engagement on steroids – when students have agency, they take ownership of their learning, are internally motivated, and learn more deeply.
With agency, students are more likely to find themselves intrinsically motivated.
Students that are motivated by rewards and punishments or who are driven to get top grades so as not to disappoint their families, on the other hand are merely responsible students who take ownership of getting good grades. Responsible students ask questions like “Will that be on the test,” “What do I have to do to get an A,” or, “What will you give me if I finish my homework?” Students who have ownership ask questions like, “How does this relate to what we learned last week,” “How does that really work,” or, “What would happen if we thought about this a different way?”
Why does that matter? First of all, rewards and punishments are damaging in situations that require critical thinking or creativity – they reduce performance, they reduce effort to the minimum required, and they eliminate the love of learning that is intrinsic to humans. Second, the modern world of work calls for employees that have agency – that can, of their own volition, understand the goals of the organization and forward those goals without waiting to be explicitly told what to do. Finally, people who work or learn with agency tend to enjoy the process and experience much higher satisfaction than those who don’t – for them it is can be an adventure rather than just an endless grind.