I’ve noticed something different about my students. What used to go something like this:
Student – I’m done.
Me – I see some opportunity here…and here…to make this even better.
Student – Nah, I’m good.
Now goes something like this:
Student – I’m ready to grab my lab materials and I’m going to sit closer to the sink to work.
Me – Would you like me to walk you through any part of the procedure?
Student – No thanks, I looked up titration and made myself a diagram, then Rosanna said she would check my math before I meet with you.
In full disclosure, not every conversation is this Pinterest-worthy, yet the culture of student energy in my classroom is shifting strongly toward the independent. By spring of last year, my students approached science standards as problems to solve, choosing practice activities, projects, the timing of assessments, and otherwise exerting well-earned control over their learning. In short, they became agents of their own learning.
This fall, I’m working to turn the proverbial keys over to students earlier, revealing their abilities to run the show. I spend most of class time in one-on-one or small groups. In conferencing, I hone in on when each student is ready for the next step in learning, strategizing when to share resources, and then getting out of the way. Like a member-owned co-op, my classroom is becoming something beyond my control, and this is a good thing.
According to Drs. Clay Cook and Kevin Haggerty, students achieve agency when they are given the chance to develop academically, socially, and emotionally in a supportive environment with educators who engage their students in the process of learning. Far from a secret, it stands to reason when students seize these opportunities to demonstrate skills and receive specific praise from educators and mentors for their demonstration of effort and growth, the resulting ownership sets the stage for future successes. Looking to uncover and increase student – and possibly, adult – agency in your school? Here are a few tried and tested practices to consider:
Create a questioning culture. According to Warren Berger, questioning skills take a cliff dive when children begin formal education and this has a significant effect on innovative thinking. Teaching strong questioning skills is essential in students gaining confidence in assessing learning needs, finding resources, and collaborating with their peers and teachers. For a starting point, to jumpstart your next unit, give the Question Formulation Technique a try.
Aim for Alfred. “Make feedback normal. Not a performance review,” shares Ed Batista, an executive coach focused on professional development. We expect students to care about their grades, yet often our delivery method and timing is such that the benefit is lost. While some may consider the punitive moves of Florida State and Columbia a little extreme, the underlying point is valid. If you expect your students to maintain forward momentum, be the Alfred to their Batman, providing guidance and tools right when they need it.
Take a hike. Seek out classrooms of other rockstar teachers and take note of the times students are in the driver’s set. Collect evidence of what students are doing and saying in environments where they exert some control over the what, how, and when of learning. Which get students buzzing and off down rabbit holes of their own design?
Buy what you are selling. There are all manner of stories about famous chefs who refuse to eat in their own cooking and tales of financiers whose personal portfolios raise an eyebrow when compared to those of their clients. Reflect on how you want to be treated as a professional and your values regarding agency in your own work. What freedoms do you enjoy from your school leadership? How can you offer a similar positive experience for students?
Be your own toughest critic. My top suggestion for every time you plan a directive in a lesson is to ask yourself, “Do I really need to control this? Truly?” Gradually releasing responsibility is lovely jargon, yet I’ll challenge that most of us are more hesitant to hand over the reins than we’d like to admit. Worse, many of us convince ourselves that a menu of voice or choice checks that box. Take a risk and let go.
Our national standards are all about what students can do with their learning, and teachers serve as their informants. How are you guiding students to the role of operative?