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.
Student agency can’t be taught, but it can be fostered in the right environment. Student agency comes from volition, supported by autonomy, competence, and relatedness, and from positive action, supported by metacognitive skills.
There are many pedagogical approaches that are agentic, that is, they foster student agency. They include active learning student-centered approaches such as Project Based Learning, Inquiry, Design Thinking, Game Based Learning, Mastery Based Learning and more. When these are implemented authentically, not only do they support student agency, but they also support academic achievement through deeper learning and the development of workforce skills such as creativity, communication, critical thinking, and collaboration.
Too often, though, these approaches are not implemented authentically but are co-opted by traditional teaching methods that squeeze out student agency. One example is when instead of letting students struggle with an authentic problem in Project Based Learning, a teacher gives the students prescriptive directions for completing the project. Red flags that this is happening is if all the students come to essentially the same conclusions, if all the project work products look very similar, or if student agency is missing.
In order for teachers to implement agentic approaches authentically, they need to know what it is like to experience agency for themselves. They need to work in a district that embraces distributed leadership and that has a work environment that fosters intrinsic motivation for teachers by offering them autonomy, mastery, and meaning.
Most districts still maintain elements of traditional command-and-control cultures. These districts can create a force multiplier for employee satisfaction and performance by moving from an extrinsically motivated workplace to an intrinsically motivated one.
At Agentic Learning we provide teachers with the tools to foster agency in the classroom and district leaders the tools to foster agency in the workplace.
We begin by offering assessments of the current levels of intrinsic motivation among teachers and students.
Next we work with district leadership to implement distributed leadership. This begins by setting a vision and clear goals then continues by helping district leaders offer principals and teachers more autonomy in, and mastery through, achieving the goals and vision.
To help teachers master fostering student agency, we offer the REFLECT app which allows teachers to collect data on their practice on their way to mastering Agentic Learning. It supports a Formal Improvement Process that gives teachers control over when and how they implement agentic pedagogies, supporting their autonomy and fostering their intrinsic motivation.