How do learning environments embrace student agency in a way that allows students to create their own pathways and be engaged allowing the deepest learning and involvement possible?
The irony of school life is that the students at the center of the educational enterprise are the least empowered members of the community. Without opportunities for students to create their own voice and influence what learning could look like in their communities, students will have an educational experience that lacks substance, purpose and relevance. In order to better serve students, schools must create a set of conditions in which students are empowered to become key partners in the decision-making process about issues that affect their daily experiences in school.
In the ideal student-centered environment, student input is sought, listened to and addressed authentically. Programs, organizations and structures in the school share the vision that all students deserve the opportunity to have voice and choice, and recognize that young people are capable of participating, leading and taking action in the school community. Students can become the chief architects of their learning, and contributing citizens to the school community. Schools that embrace student agency drastically improve learning environments where teachers are facilitators of knowledge and all students are prepared for life after high school.
Student agency is based on the idea that every student can uniquely contribute to the successful transformation of the learning community if given the right opportunities. The following conditions promote the development of student agency in the classroom.1
- Opportunities to develop and express a personal voice. Students must have the chance to express their ideas as they gradually form and engage in dialogue that can connect different perspectives and facilitate new solutions to challenges in the learning environment.
- Chance to belong to a working group. Students are empowered when working with other individuals – teachers and students – to effect positive change in the learning environment.
- Adult advocates. A productive relationship with a trusted adult is critical for students to feel known and valued in their school.
- Learning choice. Students increase their sense of personal competence through a variety of experiences both in and out of the classroom. Students have the opportunity to decide what they learn, and how they learn it. Connecting these varied learning experiences helps students build value and direction for their personal paths.
By promoting student agency in the i3 New England Network, schools affected all other redesign efforts. Rooted in CSSR’s Skills and Professional Development Framework, school-change coaches helped sites initiate the development of student agency by asking student participants at the 2011 Summer Institute one simple question: When you graduate high school, you want to know what?2 Students overwhelmingly cited the development of critical skills necessary to be well-rounded members of the 21st century global society. In doing so the students set the expectations for the entire i3 New England Network project, and made their desire for increased agency well known. Once students became involved, the change process tended to gain traction and accelerate. Schools discovered that student and adult partnerships, in particular, shifted the climate and culture of the school.
Student agency begins with adult/student relationship-building, which thus was a critical focus of the school change coaching in years one - three of the project. The 2014 Summer Institute, following year three of the project, hosted a turning-point session on student voice where students assessed their schools using a rubric developed by the Student Voice Collaborative in New York City. This rubric became a tool for highlighting the standards and components of student voice at all thirteen schools in the i3 New England Network. The use of this tool in the final two years of the project systematized a purposeful approach to authentic student agency and culture change initiatives. By the end of the five-year project, students in all thirteen schools had become major contributors to their own learning, as well as to the learning process for the entire school community.
All thirteen schools embraced the philosophy of student agency, but differed in their implementation based on unique school, community and student needs. Changes were gradual and individual sites were guided through a process that started with understanding their current capacity for student agency, then exploring what was possible through school visits and student shadowing, and ended with student agency taking on a different look and definition in each learning environment. Schools in the i3 New England Network largely advanced the development of student agency through the following four practices: 1) Site Council; 2) Leadership and Advocacy; 3) Purposeful Advisory Programs; and 4) Student- Driven Learning Opportunities. These practices, described in detail below, are overlapping and interrelated; it is useful to consider them separately—understanding that each contributes to a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts3.